Sunday, July 15, 2007

Spies, Crime and those evil corporations


The Listening (2006, Italy, Director Giacomo Martelli): Rating 8/10

Shhh...quiet. They are listening? Who? The government ofcourse. But how? Over the phone. But the phone is on the hook. It does not matter, they can still hear. Echelon & Tumbleweed.

Even though the movie starts inside the National Security Agency in Washington, this is an Italian production. So it is not surprizing half way through the film, the action shifts to the beautiful locales of Italy. Giacomo Martelli has created a fictional tale around real reports of Echelon, the spy network used by both UK & USA to spy on its citizens. But why would governments need to spy on their own people? For their safety ofcourse!

I enjoyed watching this film thinking how on earth such a slick production could be made independently and made to suffer trying to find a buyer for the North American market. Even though Hollywood has produced superior spy films, this film attempts to show a different side of the modern spy games that the super-powers are engaging in -- the power to use computers, networks, cell phones to listen in on people. The film stories of surveillance started as early as 1974 with Coppola's The Conversation and was beautifully revived last year with the German production The Lives of Others. Now a beautifully shot Italian production tries it hand at tackling such a topic.

The political games were complicated enough during the Cold war. But in modern times, they are further complicated with the additional layer of fake patriotism and talks of national security. As a result, honest people in the spy industry can be pushed aside lest they say something against the system. In that sense, the film shows an interesting situation where a company selling a security software can exert more power than the security agency itself. Is that unlikely? Ofcourse not! As a few more film examples will show below, modern corporations do have more power than governments in a lot of cases.

Chances are this film won't see life in a North American theater but hopefully it makes out on DVD here because it is better than majority of the commercial junk that exists out there. A worthy topic which has very good cinematography and production values, especially some of the picturesque shots of snow capped Italian mountains.


El Aura (2006, Argentina, Director Fabián Bielinsky): Rating 8.5/10

It is shame that the world lost such a talented director as Fabián Bielinsky last year. Even though he has only directed two very good films, his unexpected death will be a real loss.

Nine Queens was a personal favourite of mine so I was eager to see his second effort. The Aura starts off by introducing us to a taxidermist, Esteban (played by Ricardo Darín). So far so good. But a few minutes into the film, Esteban describes how to rob a bank. Since the same actor Ricardo Darín appeared in Nine Queens as a con artist, we get the feeling that another con job is on the cards here. But to Bielinsky's credit, this is a delicate multi-layered film with the con serving as only one element. As it turns out, Esteban only fantasies about robbing banks. In real life, he has never used a gun and suffers from epilepsy.

A hunting trip with a friend goes wrong and leads to an unexpected killing. From there, a chance to take part in the perfect robbery presents itself to Esteban. His sharp mind puts all the pieces together and he is ready. But he forgets the very first thing he read about the robbery -- "the third man". A twist. Most of the film appears in a dream like trance state. Which is explained by Esteban's condition. Just before Esteban gets his epileptic attacks, he experiences a few liberating moments of calmness. He explains such a situation is called "El Aura" by the doctors -- his mind opens up and thoughts gush in, and then he collapses. A few moments later, he wakes up, shook up and dazed. So in that sense, it is appropriate that the entire film appears to take place in a higher plane, above the ground where a sort of lightness is present. On top of that, the sharp haunting eyes of a dog watching Esteban as he tries to hid his crime only add to the film's dark atmosphere.

Vanaja (2006, India, Director Rajnesh Domalpalli): Rating 8/10

This beautifully shot South Indian film centers around a hushed up crime. 15 year old Vanaja comes from a poor family. Through her father's help, she gets a job in the town's leading dance instructor's house. Also, as an added bonusVanaja gets to pick up a few tips to improve her dance. We see this young woman grow on screen. When we first meet Vanaja, she is an innocent girl. But gradually, we see her confidence grow. But just as things are looking good for her, she is raped by the dance instructor's son. The crime is hushed up and the pregnant Vanaja disappears until she has given birth. She returns back to society but is faced with a few difficult decisions.

The film has won plenty of awards at film festival and it is easy to see why. The colorful visuals backed by a very strong performance from young Mamatha Bhukya make this film stand out.

Evil Corporations:

The last few years have seen a glut of documentaries exposing the crimes and practices of corporations. In most cases, the various films end up covering the same ground as only a few global companies are involved in carving the world up. One common theme is the privatization of natural resources in South America. Bolivia is a frequently used example where the attempted privatization of water was foiled by the protests of the citizens. But other nations are not as fortunate. No mater how much they protest, the world is not listening and their cries go unanswered. There is one interesting fact that stands out from all these films -- in modern times, people in North America are unlikely to protest about corporations running amok. And in the odd case, even if the people protest, their efforts are not covered by the media and pushed under the carpet. So the only avenue to get the message out is via films, especially documentaries.

The Big Sellout (2007, Germany, Director Florian Opitz): Rating 9/10

A very polished documentary which makes a case for the pros and cons of privatization in 4 nations -- South Africa, Bolivia, England and Philippines. We see how the privatization of electricity is creating problems in South Africa and the shambles of health care in Philippines. The Bolivian water situation is shown but the most surprizing example is that of the British Railways. A carve up of the government owned British Railways let to 150 separate (yes 150) companies owing their own chunk of the trains. So is it a surprize to find so many problems in the train systems?

Even though each story is shown to be a separate segment at the start, gradually we can start seeing similar patterns in all these nations problems. But what can be done? The Bolivian example is surely a great hope to people around the world but is it just an isolated example? Will people prevail or will everything get a bar code stuck on it in the end? The current trend suggests the latter.

The Bushmen's Secrets (2006, South Africa, Director Rehad Desai): Rating 8/10

This is a truly refreshing documentary on a topic hardly seen on screen. A long time ago man survived on herbal and natural remedies. But then the drug companies took over and produced a pill to cure every problem. After enough problems and side-affects started to appear, people yearned for simple herbal solutions. So the new money making idea was for drug companies to mass produce and sell herbal solutions. And such a scheme meant stealing generation old tribal knowledge and patenting it as their own.

Rehad Desai travels to the Kalahari desert to see how the bushmen survive the desert like conditions. He is told of a plant, Hoodia, a cactus which is eaten by the bushmen because it suppresses their appetite and gives them nourishment to help in long treks across the hot barren land. Something that suppresses the appetite? Well here is clearly a giant billion dollar plant! So what happens next? Corporations descend in, steal the plant legally or illegally and start counting the money. Desai has done a creditable job with this film in showing the various aspects of marketing such drugs and also depicting how the local governments are to blame as well.

1 comment:

Alicia said...

For those of you interested on the effects of privatization on the ordinary individual, especially when MNCs privatize essential infrastructure such as water, electricty, railways and health care, you should check out the new documentary "The Big Sell-Out."

This documentary challenges current economic orthodoxy in contending that the dogmatic claims of the international business establishment for neo-liberal development policies are not supported by modern economic science. More importantly, it dramatically demonstrates how the implementation of these policies is having disastrous consequences for millions of ordinary people around the globe.

While national and international economic discourse is fixated on increasing efficiency and economic growth, The Big Sellout reminds us that there are faces behind the statistics. It raises serious questions about the neo-liberal credo that government best serves the public interest by becoming a servant to corporate interests. But brave individuals, like those showcased in this important new film, are standing up and demanding an alternative to the prevailing neo-liberal model, a model that the film shows to be as hollow as it is unsustainable.

If you are interested in obtaining a copy of this film, it is available from CA Newsreel at