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In the Fog (V Tumane)

In the Fog (original title V Tumane) is a German/Dutch/Belarussian/Russia/Latvian Film, directed by Sergei Loznitsa. It is set in Belorussia, as Belarus was known when it was part of the USSR, in 1942, during the German occupation. It is in English with Russian subtitles. Click here for cast and other details from the IMDB.

The central character is Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy), a railway worker who is married with a son. It starts with the execution of three suspected saboteurs by the Germans and their local collaborators.

Sushenya was arrested with the three executed men, but then released. This leads the local partisans to assume that he betrayed them. Two men, Burov (Vladislav Abashin) and Voitik (Sergei Kolesov) are sent to execute Sushenya as a collaborator.

The enemy appear just as Burov is about to shoot Sushenya. He escapes, but returns to rescue the wounded Burov. The partisans decide to keep Sushenya alive, as he can carry Burov and knows his way round the local forests.

The back stories of all three men are told in flashbacks. Sushenya is trapped between an occupier who kills anybody who resists and carries out reprisal killings of innocent victims, and a resistance that kills collaborators. While he is a prisoner of the Germans, they give him a choice that is really only a choice of which side will kill him.

The film is very well acted, especially by Svirskiy, whose haunted expression conveys the impossible dilemmas faced by Sushenya far better than any dialogue could. It is slow-moving, but thoughtfully directed and well filmed. It lasts 127 minutes, but I was very surprised when it ended, as I thought that at least 15 minutes less had passed.

The final scenes are shot in fog, but the title probably refers to the fog (or uncertainty) of war.

Although a war film, there is not much violence; one shot of the three hanged men and three brief shoot-outs. There is no nudity or swearing. The UK certificate was 12A, which means that anybody can see it, but those under 12 must be accompanied by somebody over 18.

A bleak but thoughtful film about the dilemmas faced by somebody living in a country under a brutal occupation. Unfortunately, it has not been widely distributed in the English-speaking world. It was released in the UK on 26 April 2013, but did not reach the Edinburgh Filmhouse, where I saw it, until 10 May and finishes on 15 May. According to the IMDB, it has been shown only at film festivals in the USA, and has no release date for any other English-speaking country.

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The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers is a documentary film about Shin Bet, the Israeli internal security service, made by Dror Moreh. It consisted of interviews with the six living former heads of Shin Bet, interspersed with archive film and some CGI graphics, and told the organisation’s story since 1967. Until then the main threats to Israel were external, so Mossad, the foreign intelligence service was more important than Shin Bet.

Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after the 6 Day War in 1967 meant that it faced a security threat from territory that it controlled, so Shin Bet became the more important of the two intelligence services.

The film is divided into seven segments, which give it a roughly chronological order, but also discuss various themes and moral issues that have arisen since 1967, including political direction, torture, targeted assassinations and collateral damage.

The six participants are Ami Ayalon, Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Avi Dichter and  Yuval Diskin.

The seven segments are:

No Strategy, Just Tactics:

This covers the initial stages of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel had no strategy for the future of the occupied territories; everything revolved round short-term tactics aimed at reducing terrorism.

These succeeded in cutting the number of attacks hugely, but did nothing to produce a long-term solution, although some Israelis, including Avraham Shalom, wanted a Palestinian state even then.

In order to carry out a census of the occupied territories, Israeli soldiers were taught a small number of relevant Arabic phrases, including ‘We want to count you.’ Unfortunately, a pronunciation error mean that many Israelis actually said that ‘We want to castrate you.’ Shin Bet subsequently set up a very rigorous programme of Arabic lessons for its personnel.

Forget About Morality:

This deals with the hijacking of the 300 bus in 1984. The four hijackers were killed, but it subsequently emerged that two had been captured alive, badly beaten and then killed. The film attributed this to the Israeli Army, but the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has published documents that blame Shalom and Shin Bet.

One Man’s Terrorist is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter:

This covers the peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO that culminated in the 1993 Oslo Accords. Opposition to them in both Palestine and Israel resulted in the growth of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and terrorist acts by Israelis.

Our Own Flesh and Blood:

This dealt with terrorism by Israelis who opposed the Oslo Accords. Shin Bet investigations resulted in the arrest and conviction of many of them, but most were released after serving only part of their sentences. On 4 November 1995  Israeli Prime Minister Yithak Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, an Israeli.

Victory is to See You Suffer:

The title of this segment comes from a comment made by a Palestinian to Ami Ayalon during Israeli-Palestinian talks during the Second Intifada. It means that the Palestinians would regard it as a victory if they could make life for the Israelis as bad as it was for themselves.

Collateral Damage:

This covered the targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders, and the risk that innocent civilians would also be killed. At one point Shin Bet discovered that the senior command of Hamas would be meeting in a particular building. The Israeli Air Force could have dropped a one ton bomb on it, killing all of them, but also some innocent civilians. The politicians insisted that only a quarter ton bomb should be dropped. This reduced the risk of killing innocents, but meant that the Hamas leaders would be killed only if they were in the upper floor of the two storey building; they were not and survived.

The Old Man at the End of the Corridor:

This came from a belief held by Ami Ayalon when he was a child on a kibbutz that Israel was run by a wise man (David Ben-Gurion) who sat in an office behind at the end of a long corridor and made decisions after thinking things through carefully. When he entered the government, he found the corridor, but there was no door at the end of it.

In this segment the six men reflected on Shin Bet, its activities and the implications for Israel. They all thought that it was necessary for Israel to talk to its enemies, and did not seem to have been impressed by the politicians that they had worked for, apart from Rabin; he was described as understanding security issues so well that they did not have to be explained to him.

A fear was expressed that Israel may end up winning all the battles but losing the war because of stubbornness. The occupation has embittered the occupied and brutalised the occupiers. Avraham Shalom suggested that Israel is treating the Palestinians as the Germans treated the non-Jewish subjects of the countries that they occupied in WWII.

A very powerful film. All six men came across well, speaking openly and honestly. They were aware of the problems that Israel’s actions had created, and feared that its strategy was flawed, but had been in positions where they could only carry out the strategy laid down from above.

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Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the successful US attempt to find and kill Osama bin Laden; I am using the most common spelling of his first name, but there are different ways of transliterating Arabic names into English. The US intelligence services called him Usama bin Laden or Ladin , and he is referred to as UBL throughout the film.

The film starts with the last messages left by some of the victims of 9/11. It then shows the CIA’s attempts to track down bin Laden, culminating in his death at the hands of US Navy SEALs at Abbotabad on 2 May 2011.

The main protagonist is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst who is obsessed with the hunt for bin Laden. She is a fictional character, although it is unclear whether she is based on a single CIA agent, as The New York Review of Books states, or is a composite of several, as the makers of Manhunt, a documentary treatment of the story, claim.

Unlike many fictional characters with an obsession (eg Agent Mulder in The X-Files), Maya does not appear to have a personal stake in the case. Rather, she appears to be simply utterly absorbed in her job, which is to find bin Laden. She does not seem to have any life outside of her work. Even Carrie Mathison, the obsessive and bi-polar CIA agent from the TV series Homeland, with whom Maya has been compared,  visited her father, sister and nieces and had a sex life.

Zero Dark Thirty is an entertaining film, which deserved its five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Chastain, but it was fair that even better films and performances beat it in these categories, leaving it with only a joint win for Sound Editing.

The film has caused a number of controversies. It begins with one: the film-makers did not ask permission from the families of the dead to use the recordings of the last phone calls made by victims of 9/11 that are played over the opening credits.

Another is that shows the CIA obtaining vital information from torture. It has been claimed, most notably in a letter from Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), that this intelligence actually came from other sources. Sen. McCain, captured in the Vietnam War, can give advocates of the use of torture the unanswerable reply that it did not work on him.

Michael Morell, the Acting CIA Director, distanced his agency from claims that it had co-operated closely with the film-makers in a statement that said that:

Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts. CIA interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs but, as is true with any entertainment project with which we interact, we do not control the final product.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has just decided to drop its inquiry into how much help the CIA gave the film-makers.

The release of the film was delayed until after the US Presidential Election because it was feared that it might boost support for President Obama, since he ordered the mission that killed bin Laden. However, the film asserted that waterboarding, introduced by the Bush Administration, but banned by Obama, was a key element in finding bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Neither President nor any members of their Cabinets are portrayed by an actor in the film. The most senior officials to appear are the CIA Director (James Gandolfini) and the National Security Adviser (Stephen Dillane). Each is described by his job title rather than name in the film; the incumbents were Leon Panetta and Tom Donilon.

Overall, this is a good film, but it is marred by the rudeness shown to the families of the 9/11 victims whose last messages are broadcast without permission, and by its ambiguous attitude to torture. Not showing it would have been a whitewash, but the film shows it producing useful intelligence. The Guardian quotes Bigelow as telling the New York Film Critics Circle, who had just given her their Best Director award that:

I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no film-maker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.

The trouble is that the difference between depiction and endorsement will be lost on some, who will see torture producing the evidence that led the good guys to get the bad guy, when in reality it did not.

Incidentally, the zero dark is US military code for midnight, so zero dark thirty means 0030 am, the time at which the SEALs attacked bin Laden’s compound.

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Argo: The Truth

Argo, directed by and starring Ben Affleck, was voted best picture at this year’s Oscars. It tells the story of how Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA agent succeeded in helping six US diplomats to escape from Tehran in 1980. As a film, it is excellent, and well deserved its Oscar. However, it is a fictionalised account of real events. How accurate is it as a record of history? This is important because many more people will see the film than will read a book on the subject.

On 4 November 1979 supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic government seized the US embassy in Tehran. Most of the diplomats were taken hostage. Some African-Americans and women were soon released, but most were held captive until January 1980. Six, however, were able to escape; they worked in the consular section which had its own street entrance and exit because it dealt with members of the public. They were Robert Anders, Mark Lijek, Cora Lijek, Henry Schatz, Joseph Stafford and Kathleen Stafford.

The film shows the six taking refuge at the home of Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador. There, they were in constant danger of discovery, which would also put Taylor and his wife at risk of arrest. The Canadian embassy was to be closed in late January, with Taylor and his staff leaving Iran.

Mendez comes up with a plan to get them out of Iran by pretending that they are scouting team looking for locations for a proposed science fiction film called Argo. Parts of Star Wars were filmed in Tunisia, so it was plausible that Hollywood might want to make a science fiction film in Iran.

The six diplomats and Mendez left on a Swissair flight on 28 January 1980, the same day that the Canadian embassy closed. The actual escape was more straight forward and less tense than the film’s version.

At the time, the Canadians were given most of the credit; the CIA’s involvement was not revealed until 1997. The film suggests that the CIA was the main player in getting the diplomats out, but Ken Taylor recently told the Toronto Star, that ‘Canada was not merely standing around watching events take place. The CIA was a junior partner.’

The film omits the role of another Canadian diplomat, John Sheardown, who put up some of the Americans. It also says little about Taylor’s significant role in gathering intelligence about potential escape routes.

A radio programme in the BBC World Service’s Outlook series interviewed Mark Lijek and his wife Cora, two of the US diplomats, and Zena Sheardown, John’s widow.

A further controversy results from a line in the film about the Americans being turned away by the British and New Zealanders. In fact, five of them tried initially to go to the British embassy, but it was surrounded by demonstrators. They spent one night at the flat of the most senior of their group, Richard Anders. The sixth went to the Swedish embassy at first, but later joined the others.

According to the London Sunday Times (no link due to paywall), Bruce Laingen, the US charge d’affaires, who was at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, contacted the British embassy the next day to ask them to find and look after his colleagues. Two British diplomats, Martin Williams and Gordon Pirie, took them to a compound inhabited by British diplomats in the northern suburb of Gholhak.

Iranian militants turned at the compound, but were turned away by the chief guard, Iskander Khan, a former Pakistani soldier. He had been a chauffeur at the 1943 Tehran conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Because of this, the British moved the Americans first to the house of a US diplomat’s Thai cook , and then to Taylor and Sheardown’s houses. The New Zealanders helped to provide the Americans with food and entertainment.

The BBC interview linked above, however, does not mention this and suggests that the diplomats remained at Anders’s hounse until 8 November, when they contacted the Canadians.

The Sunday Times quoted Affleck as telling a  New Zealand magazine that:

I struggled with this long and hard, because it casts Britain and New Zealand in a way that is not totally fair…But I was setting up a situation where you needed to get a sense that these six people had nowhere else to go. It does not mean to diminish anyone.

Some plot simplification and character amalgamation is probably necessary in a film, and it is inevitable that Affleck felt it necessary to make the escape from Tehran tenser than it actually was. However, there is no excuse for the line claiming that the British and New Zealanders had turned them away, whilst the Canadians should have been shown as more active players in the story.

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Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln has been praised by the critics and nominated for 12 Oscars. Daniel Day-Lewis won the Best Actor BAFTA for his portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln.

Fans of war films should note that, although this film is set during the latter stages of the American Civil War, it is a political rather than a war drama. There is only one battle scene, a fair part of which is included in the trailer, plus one in which Lincoln rides over the Petersburg battlefield after the battle.

The film concentrates on January 1865, but ends in April. At the start, Lincoln has been re-elected President, and his Republican Party has done well in the elections for the House of Representatives. However, the newly elected Republicans have not yet taken up their seats, so a large number of lame duck Democrats remain in the House.

Lincoln wants to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery. It has already been passed by the Senate. It needs to be passed by a two-thirds majority in the House and then ratified by two-thirds of the states in order to be enacted.

Some of Lincoln’s advisers and government colleagues want to wait until the new Republican Congressmen have taken their seats. Lincoln, however, wants the amendment passed as soon as possible.

The war is likely to end soon, which will make it harder to pass the amendment. Some support it only because they believe that passing it will end the war, because the war will then be pointless. They will not vote for it if the war is over. It will also be harder to get if ratified by the necessary two-thirds of states once the Confederate states have re-joined the Union.

Even amongst those who want to abolish slavery, few agree with the views of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). He believes in racial equality and thinks that African-Americans should have the vote. His views are so radical for the time that they risk losing support for emancipation amongst those who oppose slavery without believing in racial equality.

Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863, freeing all the slaves in the states under rebellion, but not those in the four slave-holding states that did not rebel: Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. After the war, the proclamation may be deemed to be a war only measure. It is also uncertain if he had the right to do so. He believes that preservation of the Union requires the abolition of slavery as it is the issue that splits the states.

In one particularly impressive scene, Lincoln gives his cabinet the arguments why he may not have been entitled to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and the potential inconsistencies in his case. He fears that there is an inconsistency between his use of war powers, intended for war between the USA and another country, and his insistence that the Confederacy is not an independent country.

The argument is quite complex, and I would have listened to it at least twice and perhaps three times if I had been watching a DVD rather than being at the cinema. This is not the only scene where complex arguments are put forward; this is not the film to go to if you want to leave your brain at home and relax with a large tub of pop-corn.

Having decided that the 14th Amendment must be passed now, Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), set about obtaining the necessary votes. They are unwilling to resort to outright bribery, but do employ agents to offer soon to be unemployed Democrat Congressmen government jobs.

Lincoln must also keep Francis Prescott Blair (Hal Holbrook), the founder of the Republican Party happy. His support is required in order to be sure that the conservative Republicans from the border and western states support the amendment. Their main objective is to end the war.

The President therefore sends Blair on a peace mission to the Confederacy. This leads to a three-man delegation being sent by the Confederacy to negotiate peace terms in Washington. Lincoln does not want to end the war before the 13th Amendment has been passed by the House, but knows that support for it will be lost if it is known that the Confederates are willing to negotiate.

Lincoln solves this problem by delaying the arrival of the delegation. Thus, he can deny a rumour that there are Confederate delegates in Washington, because they are actually waiting elsewhere in the Union to be summoned to the capital.

On top of his political problems, Lincoln has to deal with family problems. His relationship with his wife Mary (Sally Field) is difficult, whilst his eldest son Robert (John Gordon-Levitt) is angry with his father’s attempts to stop him joining the army.

This is a superb film for about 145 minutes, but unfortunately it continues for another five or so minutes beyond a scene that would have made a tremendous ending.

It is difficult to forecast Oscar winners when you have not seen all the nominees, but if Daniel Day-Lewis does not win the Best Actor award, then whoever does must have produced an incredible performance. He dominates a film with a strong cast. It is a fine tribute to Lincoln’s achievement in  abolishing slavery in the USA, which is summed up in a quote from Thaddeus Stevens:

The greatest measure of the Nineteenth Century. Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.

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McCullin

McCullin is a documentary film about the British photographer Don McCullin. Most of it consists of McCullin talking to camera, interspersed with many examples of his work, all in black and white, and some archive footage. Harold Evans, who was the editor of The Sunday Times for most of the time that McCullin worked for it also commented, and extracts from an interview that McCullin gave to  Michael Parkinson of the BBC were show; this was not dated, but looked to be from the mid-70s.

Note: For copyright reasons and because some of McCullin’s pictures of the results of war and famine are very graphic, I have given links to them rather than including them in the blog.

McCullin came from an impoverished part of London. His first break came in 1959 when The Observer newspaper published pictures that he had taken of friends of his who belonged to a notorious London gang.

Two years later, whilst on honeymoon in Paris,  he saw a photograph of an East German soldier escaping to West Berlin and persuaded his wife that they should go to Berlin so that he could report on the construction of the Wall. His Berlin pictures obtained him full-time employment with The Observer. He reported on conflicts in Cyprus and The Congo; in the latter case he had to pose as a mercenary in order to get to the front line

In 1966 he joined The Sunday Times because it would allow him more scope to report from wars and famines overseas. It was then owned by Lord Roy Thomson, who did not interfere in the editorial decisions of his papers. He allowed Evans to fill The Sunday Times’ colour supplement with photos of war, famine and social deprivation, although advertisers would have preferred softer topics.

Whilst at The Sunday Times, McCullin reported on wars and famines, including the Vietnam War, most famously at Hue, the attempted secession of Biafra from Nigeria, which caused a famine, and the Lebanese Civil War. He also took pictures of social deprivation in the UK.

He was not allowed to go to the Falklands War, which bitterly disappointed him as he felt that, as a British war photographer, he was particularly suited to covering it. The official reason was that all the press slots were taken, but he suspected that the Ministry of Defence did not want him there because of the honesty of his photographs, which might have damaged public support for the war.

Throughout his career he was determined to show the truth via his pictures. He took considerable risks to take them, often being in the front line and under fire. He admitted to becoming a ‘war junkie’, saying that this cost him his marriage.

Rupert Murdoch bought The Times and The Sunday Times in 1981. He moved Evans to The Times, but the two fell out within a year, and Evans quit. McCullin left The Sunday Times in 1984. The new editor, Andrew Neil, wanted to make the colour supplement more attractive to advertisers by having more feel good stories and fewer features on war, famine and social deprivation.

Subsequently, McCullin has published a number of books and now concentrates on taking pictures of English landscapes. He commented that he liked taking photographs of the English because there were so many eccentrics in England that he could always find good subjects. However, The Observer’s review of the film comments that he has been to Syria during the current civil war.

Links to some of McCullin’s photographs:

Anguished Cypriot woman.

Shell shocked US Marine in Vietnam. This man did not blink or move a muscle as McCullin took a series of photos of him.

Starving albino boy in Biafra.

Starving 24-year-old Biafran mother, unable to breast feed her child.

Lebanese militia. He was told to clear off or be shot after taking this picture.

British homeless man.

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La Grande Illusion

La Grande Illusion, a French film directed by Jean Renoir, has recently been restored and re-released. It was made in 1937 and was banned by the Nazis. Joseph Goebbels called Renoir ‘Cinematic Public Enemy Number 1′. It is set in WWI, mostly in Prisoner of War (PoW) camps, but features little combat. The key issues of the film are class, nationality and duty.

The film starts with Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), a pilot from a humble background, preparing to fly on a reconnaissance mission with Captaine de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay), an aristocratic staff officer. The next scene takes place in a German officers’ mess. The two Frenchmen have been shot down by von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), another aristocrat. He invites them for lunch before they are sent to a PoW camp. Von Rauffenstein knows de Boeldieu’s cousin and they find that they move in similar circles.

The scenes in the PoW camp are similar to those in later American and British films about WWII PoWs; the French officers dig a tunnel with improvised tools, presenting difficulties in disposing of the soil; the guards are dim; Maréchal spends time in solitary confinement; the prisoners put on a concert party; they eat well thanks to parcels from home, especially those sent to Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), the son of a rich banker.

It must be remembered that this is a 1937 film; it is the later Anglo-American films that have followed Renoir. The French officers come from a wide range of backgrounds, but co-operate well in their attempts to escape and share their parcels from home. There is a link between the defiant singing of the Marseillaise in this film and the similar scene in Casablanca; in the later film, Madeleine Lebeau, Dalio’s then wife, appears in the Marseillaise scene, playing Yvonne, Rick’s jilted lover. Dalio played the croupier in Casablanca.

Maréchal and de Boeldieu are eventually sent to a fortress prison camp. Rosenthal is already an inmate and von Rauffenstein, unfit for combat service because of wounds, is the commandant. Von Rauffenstein offers privileges to de Boeldieu. He is prepared to take de Boeldieu’s word of honour that his quarters contain no prohibited items, but insists on searching the quarters of other French officers.

Von Rauffenstein’s motivation appears to be that he sees a bond between two aristocratic, regular officers rather than any attempt to turn the Frenchman against his colleagues and country. There is a clear link between the two aristocrats, who can switch fluently between English, French and German, have friends and acquaintances in common, and to a large extent belong to an international class. They foresee that their class and way of life is doomed, regardless of which side wins the war.

An excellent film, well acted and directed film, which is the precursor of many other PoW films. Some do not like films that are in 1.33 aspect ratio, black and white, subtitled and have only two female characters, a mother and her small daughter. If you do not have such objections, then it is well worth seeing.

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