Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Qiu Ju da guan si (The Story of Qiu Zhu)

Professor Frank Upham has this to say:

"The Story of Qiu Zhu is about the normative confusion caused when state law penetrates customary society, and specifically how a young wife, Qiu Zhu, tries to use law to get justice. Instead, she gets law and the movie is about the difference. It is set in a remote agricultural village in China at the time (1992) of the passage of the Administrative Litigation Law, which allowed citizens to sue officials for malfeasance. The village secretary and Qiu Zhu's husband have a fight, and the former injures the latter in a sensitive area of his body that affects him not only physically but as a matter of honor. Qiu Zhu takes it upon herself to get justice for her husband, first trying informal means, but eventually turning to the formal legal system. It is a great movie for those interested in law and development, law and culture, and modernization in general. It is also a very good movie - perhaps Zhang Yimo's best."

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Dormant, not Dead! And some movies

We will be back. Soon.

Meanwhile, some films currently playing in theatres:

Egyptian man, suspected of terrorism, disappears on his way to Washington DC. A CIA agent is tasked with conducting an 'unorthodox interrogation' in a secret detention facility...

The Kingdom
A terrorist bomb detonates inside a western housing compound in Saudi Arabia igniting an international incident. While diplomats slowly debate equations of territorialism, a Special Agent from FBI negotiates a secret five-day trip to locate the culprit. While Saudi authorities in general are not pleased with the 'interference', a like-minded Saudi colonel helps them find their way to an extremist cell bent on further destruction...

Total Denial
Tells the story of a pipeline built by two oil companies, Total and Unocal in Burma, that formed the basis for the historic Doe v. Unocal lawsuit in which fifteen indigenous people successfully sued two corporate giants in the U.S. courts for complicity in forced labor, assaults, rape and other human rights abuses.

O Jerusalem
Based on the book of the same name by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins which seeks to capture the events surrounding the creation of the modern state of Israel.

Terror's Advocate (L'Avocat de la terreur)
The story of Jacques Vergès, the lawyer who has defended some of the most controversial figures of the 20th century - from anti-colonial bombers in Algeria, to left-wing extremists like Carlos the Jackal, to right-wing dictators like Slobodan Milošević. One of his his most infamous clients the Nazi, was Klaus Barbie. Vergès also defended Djamila Bouhired, the woman who planted the bomb at the Milk Bar, an incident famously dramatized in the The Battle of Algiers. See here for more details...

Meeting Resistance
A documentary on the Iraq War from the perspective of Iraqis resisting military occupation of their country. For more see here.
The documentary revisits three of the communities that forcibly expelled their entire African American populations in the period between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression. See here for more.

Please note, this post does not touch upon the quality f any of these films, although some of them are extremely interesting.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Hotel Rwanda

Hotel Rwanda tells the story of Paul Rusesabagina, who played an instrumental role in saving the lives of more than a thousand Tutsis during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Rusesabagina, a Hutu, was an Assistant Manager at des Mille Collines, a luxury 4-star hotel. He was married to a Tutsi woman, Tatiana and lived in a predominantly Tutsi colony. With the death of Habariyama, the Hutus led by the Interahamwe commenced attack upon the Tutsis, and Rusesabagina, who had initially been concerned only with the safety of his own family, found himself sheltering his friends and neighbors as well. He decided to move them into the hotel, which housed many foreigners including humanitarian personnel and journalists, played host to important Rwandan officials, and was under the protection of the UNAMIR peacekeepers.

The Hotel became a place of refuge for other Tutsis as well, despite the shattering of the initial expectation that it would be further secured by armed personnel sent by the United Nations. Troops arrived only to escort the foreigners out of the country, leaving the Rwandan refugees behind. The UN and the international community, with the exception of the UNAMIR peacekeepers just turned a blind eye on the genocide.

It thus fell to the few UNAMIR personnel– who as peace-keepers, were not allowed to use force except in self-defense; and to Rusesabagina whose Hutu identity provided little protection as he was branded a traitor to the Hutu community for sheltering Tutsis, and indeed on one occasion his wife was severely beaten “for his crimes” and would have been killed had the UN peacekeepers not intervened.

Rusesabagina staved off the many Hutu attacks upon his person, his family and friends and the hotel premises with an arsenal composed of diplomatic skills, contacts among influential Rwandans and a stock of fine scotch whisky to use as bribes. Finally the UNAMIR was able to arrange for a deal whereby the Hutus would exchange their prisoners for those held by the Tutsis and Rusesabagina was able to retreat behind the lines of the Tutsi army, the Rwanda Protection Force, with his family, friends, hotel staff and others.

Rusesabagina was honoured for his courage and heroism with the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.

The film captures this tale very effectively, and succeeds in providing an emphatic, though understated window into the horrors of the genocide. In its two hours playing time it sketches the movement from apprehension to despair as the characters move from bewilderment at the reports of Habariyama’s killing, to hope that they will be saved by timely foreign assistance to the growing certainty of their own death. Indeed this translation is most poignant in the scene where the refugees discover that the armed UN troops have come to evacuate only the foreign guests.

Furthermore it avoids portraying the Tutis as objects of pity – indeed what comes out most clearly is their resourcefulness in face of imminent death and their contempt for the West which has failed to assist them. In one marvelous scene Rusesabagina suggests that they call up their connections in Western countries and bid them good bye in an effort to shame them into acting – the image you are thus left with is thus of ordinary people reaching out to other ordinary people, not piteous victims looking towards resplendent saviors of the world.

The film also attempts to place provide the context for the violence, it lays out the background for the ethnic divisions between the Hutus and Tutsis. While the period of focus does not extend to the aftermath of this genocide – the coming into power of the Tutsi government and the Tutsi reprisals against Hutu refugees in Congo are not touched upon, it does address the foregoing period where Hutu citizens are exhorted by the government to make common cause against Tutsis who are characterized as rebels and rogues. The incendiary speeches made through the Radio Liberty, the Interhamwe rallies etc are showcased.

The film speaks for itself and it makes its points very effectively. Amnesty International has endorsed the movie, in the hope that it troubles its audience out of indifference towards other such situations and has designed a specific model for a Hotel Rwanda Houseparty to ensure wider viewer-ship of the film and the issues it raises in the hope that this will draw attention to the genocide in Darfur.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Few Good Men

Adapted from a play of the same name by Alan Sorkin, A Few Good Men follows the efforts of a team of lawyers defending two Marines accused of murdering a colleague at a US military base. The defense discovers that the death was the result of a ‘Code Red’ – illegal corporal punishment meted out to a soldier in need of discipline – administered upon the order of a senior officer.

This brings up a question of great relevance to international criminal law – what weight to attach to a defense of “superior orders” when these are claimed as the basis for action by a soldier. On the one hand a soldier’s duty to the military is considered paramount – the code for Marines is “Unit, Corps, God, Country”; at the same time, as a human being, he cannot be exempt from the moral duty to differentiate between right and wrong.

How to decide which of these duties must take precedence, has never been easy. Lhasa Oppenheim’s work is illustrative of this dilemma. In the first edition (1906) of his treatise on international law, he wrote “If members of the armed forces commit violations by order of their Government, they are no war criminals and cannot be punished by the enemy….”. In the sixth edition (1935) however, having witnessed the horrors of the first World War, he stated “The fact that a rule of warfare has been violated in pursuance of an order of the belligerent Government or of an individual belligerent commander does not deprive the act in question of its character as a war crime…[M]embers of the armed forces are bound to obey lawful orders only….”[1]

Indeed the film chooses to set this question against a more complicated backdrop than a situation of outright war would provide. The US military base is located in Guantanamo Bay, the situation with Cuba is tense, and the marines are on the alert throughout. Just a few days before these developments, there was unauthorized firing between a Cuban and an American soldier. Thus without being ‘at war’, the Base is always in readiness for an attack and a cadet lacking discipline is unacceptable. It is to the credit of the film makers and Sorkin that they bring out all these nuances, but do not refrain from choosing one course of action as the correct one, with some excellent dialogue explaining why.

The various sub-plots of the film provide several other interesting points to ponder over:
  • The ethics of plea-bargaining – as Sgt Galloway ridicules Lt Kaffee for his conclusion of 44 cases in nine months through this device, and is herself dismissed as a spurious trial lawyer because of ‘too much passion and no street-smarts’;
  • The conflicts of jurisdiction between different departments of the same organization reflected through the initial tussle between Sgt Galloway, Office of Internal Affairs and Lt Kaffee (JAG Corps.) for control over the case;
  • The status of women in the military – indeed A Few Good Men has too few women of any significance, and the only one - Galloway - finds herself dismissed or ridiculed throughout. In fact, the script assigns most major faux pas to her character; and
  • The problems of hierarchy that may interfere with a military court martial – as a Lieutenant, it is a major step for Kaffee to build up a case against seniors in the army.
An issue which resonates throughout the film is that of the power of the phrase “national security”. In this film, made just after the end of the cold war, “national security” has an emotional pull and the military is not just a profession, but endowed with a special sanctity. This is articulated at different points in the movie by various characters. It is most poignant in the bewilderment of a senior marine who truly believes that the nature of the service he performs puts him above the rules in his execution of it, and who upon interrogation can only respond: ‘I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it. I'd prefer you just said thank you and went on your way.’

Despite the fact that the Code Red was administered to a marine, not a terrorist, the parallels with the post 9/11 America and the debate over the legality of the manner in which the war on terror is being conducted are evident.

[1] Christopher Henson, Superior Orders and Duress as Defenses in International Law and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia,
Now, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court provides a test: “The fact that a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court has been committed by a person pursuant to an order of a Government or of a superior, whether military or civilian, shall not relieve that person of criminal responsibility unless: (a) The person was under a legal obligation to obey orders of the Government or the superior in question; (b) The person did not know that the order was unlawful; and (c) The order was not manifestly unlawful.”

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Signs of Crisis: Religious Conflict, Human Rights, and the new Documentary Film in Southern Asia

The NYU Law School and the Department for Anthropology together hosted Signs of Crises, a conference on religious conflict, human rights & documentary films in Southern Asia. Eight documentary filmmakers from India and Indonesia were invited to screen their films, and each session was enriched by the participation of academic scholars, human rights lawyers and activists and the filmmakers.

Tilottama Karlekar, PhD candidate in the Dept. of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, provides this insightful report on the films, and their role in times of crises.


In Central Java, Indonesia, relatives grieve as a mass grave reveals the remains of loved ones lost in decades past. In Kashmir, a woman looks straight into the camera as she recounts, matter-of-fact, her rape by Kashmiri militants and Indian officials. And in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, a Dalit poet sings of centuries of caste oppression and alienation. These were just some of the compelling, often searing images from the human rights documentaries screened at the “Signs of Crisis” conference held at New York University’s School of Law this past May. Centered on the work of eight documentary filmmakers from India and Indonesia, the conference brought together human rights activists, scholars and filmmakers for an intensive three days of film screenings, panels, and discussions.

For people who have suffered extreme violence and injustice, legal redress can seem distant, even impossible. In an age of digital technology, however, cameras are easily available and can be everywhere. But what role can documentary films play in times of conflict and crisis? “We have to watch more films,” said Human Rights Watch Asia director Joseph Saunders as he talked of the unique ability of films to grab and hold people’s attention. But how can films best be used in an international struggle for human rights? And how do forms of media representation relate to legal representation in a court of law? As powerful images of human suffering—and strength and resilience—saturated the screen, viewers, scholars, and filmmakers attempted to come to grips with these questions.

Advocate and Witness

When faced with incomprehensible acts of violence, should the filmmaker be, asked Benedict Kingsbury, “an advocate like a lawyer, or a judge where there are no judges…for the responsibilities in each case are different.” Most filmmakers at the conference seemed to see themselves more often as witnesses, witnesses to history. Said acclaimed Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho, “Sometimes I feel like a small child waving a white flag because these trains are about to crash—but I’m too small and no-one can see me.” Indian documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan admitted to much the same feeling. Outraged by what he sees, the filmmaker tries to communicate this outrage to a larger public, hoping to show them “what really happened.” But most often, the crisis happens anyway.

Patwardhan’s now classic 1992 documentary, In the Name Of Ram, is a case in point. Shot in the months preceding the demolition of the Babri mosque in the city of Ayodhya, the film follows the buildup to this climactic event. As they march towards Ayodhya, Hindu militants contend that the mosque was built on the site where Lord Ram was born, and therefore has no right to be there. In the Name of Ram, which screened at the conference, follows the campaign to demolish a sixteenth century mosque at Ayodhya. Hindu militants contended that the mosque was built on the birthplace of Lord Ram, and so had no right to be there. Patwardhan encounters a range of people—from militant right-wing cadres to “ordinary” people who are trying to make sense of the events, to the Ayodhya temple priest, whose inclusive, tolerant Hinduism provides a sharp point of contrast with the fundamentalism of the cadres. He asks a group of Hindu activists, “When was Lord Ram born?” “Hundreds of thousands ago…no one can really tell,” a priest answers. But the irony of building a movement on the certitude of knowing where Ram was born, when nobody knows when he lives, seems to escape everyone Patwardhan talks to.

Years after the film was made, the eventual demolition of the mosque and the carnage that followed in its wake may seem inevitable. But at the time, Hindu fundamentalists were just transitioning from a radical fringe to a mainstream political force. The demolition seemed by no means a foregone conclusion. Patwardhan knew how perilously close a crisis was—he was there, but he could not get the film out to a larger public. The film was finally shown on television four years later, after Patwardhan won a court case against the government. To this day, Patwardhan remains convinced that the film could have made a difference.

Considered a pioneering figure in Indian documentary, Patwardhan has been often locked in battle with the state over censorship of his films. War and Peace (2002), which also screened at the conference, faced a similar story of censorship. Made in the wake of the Indian Government’s nuclear tests in Pokhran in 1998, and the militaristic fervor that followed it, War and Peace is an expansive, ambitious examination on what this turn to militarism means in the context of Gandhi’s legacy. It is also global in scope, examining the international causes and consequences of war and nuclearization, venturing into the “enemy” territory of Pakistan to talk to a range of people there. Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution (2004), about the 2002 massacre of Muslims in the western-Indian state of Gujarat, also faced an extended battle with the censors before it could finally be shown in India.

Embodied Memory

Being a witness is also about remembering. And what seemed to be striking in many of the films at the conference was the acutely embodied, physical nature of memory and the importance of place, in the stories people were able to tell. Garin Nugroho’s The Poet (Unconcealed Poetry) (2001), is shot entirely inside two prison cells, capturing the reality of prisoners trapped in a narrow, claustrophobic space. Nugroho’s film was the first Indonesian film to deal with the events of 1965-66, in which millions of members of the Indonesian Communist party were massacred in Acey by the Suharto regime. After decades of silence, the end of the Suharto regime opened up the possibility of coming to terms with a long-suppressed trauma. In the film, the “poet” of the title is Abraham Kadir, who plays himself. Kadir was an eye witness to the massacre, responsible for blindfolding prisoners before they were executed.

Now, decades later, he reconstructs those events with the help of other, local untrained actors. Kadir uses the medium of poetry, the traditional Acehnese “didong” poetic form, which blends music, dance, and song. While the confined space of the film recaptures the terror and sheer physical terror of those times, the use of didong seems to offer hope, pointing to the resilience of the Acehnese people, and the healing power that poetry, film, and other cultural forms can have. The film reflects Nugroho’s belief that film “must reveal the beauty and sensitivity of humanity—this is the basic idea of human rights.”

Lexy Junior Rambadeta’s Mass Grave (2001) is another attempt to come to terms with the violent legacy of the Suharto regime. In November 2000, human rights groups and the families of those killed in 1965-66 exhumed a mass grave in Wosonobo, Central Java. As family members finally found the remains of their loved ones, there was an outpouring of grief. The bodies seemed to provide direct evidence that the killings happened, because the actual extent of the massacre still remains disputed, half-hidden. The recovery of the physical remains also seems to enable the beginning of a process of mourning. Healing cannot happen unless there is acknowledgement—and it is now, with these films, that there has been some degree of acknowledgment.

In other films, victims of torture and abuse painfully visit, physically or mentally, the actual place and scene where they suffered. In Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution, a mother visits the field in which she had to hide behind bushes and watch her young daughters being raped and mutilated. In Aryo Danusiri’s A Village Goat Takes a Beating, (2000), a film that documents the torture of Acehnese villagers by the military, victims go back to the place where they had been tortured, physically reenacting the details of their torture. These moments seem to point to the power that film can have as evidence, as an advocacy tool for human rights work—watching people reenact the trauma they have been through has a visceral impact that is hard to turn away from.

In Sonia Jabbar’s Autumn’s Final Country (2003), four women from the conflict-ridden region of Kashmir tell stories of displacement and loss. In form, the film is structured as a series of fairly straight-forward interviews: the women talk directly to the camera about their lives and experiences. Indu, a middle-class Kashmiri Pandit was forced to flee her home in Srinagar along with many other Pandits, but can never forget her “homeland.” Zarina, a day laborer, has been trafficked all the way from Bangladesh to Kashmir. Shahnaz has been raped and used for their ends by Kashmiri militants and by the Indian army and police force. And Anju’s father has been left to die in a village that is supposed to be under the protection of the Indian army. While the women represent varied social, economic, and religious backgrounds, the stories they tell all attain a quality of astonishing intensity, gaining force because the trauma they have been threw requires such great courage in retelling. As a deliberate strategy, the filmmaker excluded images of violence from the film. Instead, she intersperses the interviews with scenes of Kashmir’s natural beauty. After all, before it became better known as a war zone, Kashmir was fabled for its physical beauty and serenity. The immediacy of the human body, the specific textures, sounds, and moods of places is a large part of what makes these films so powerful and so evocative of what has been lost.

Form and Narrative

Autumn’s Final Country was produced as evidence to be used in a court of law: the South Asia Court of Women in Dhaka. The fact that it was ultimately never shown in court because of complicated political reasons is another story. Aryo Danusiri’s Village Goat, which was commissioned by an NGO, may soon be used in court as evidence. And, Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution as well as Anand Patwardhan’s In the Name of Ram have been viewed by court commissions. Films, then, can certainly be used as a direct form of evidence in a court of law.

At the same time, the evocative power and complex richness of the filmed narrative continually exceeds the limits and boundaries that official and legal discourses may need to place on it. Filmmakers like Amar Kanwar, who often eschews more conventional form to experiment with different modes of story-telling, display a distinct sense of discomfort with any strictly instrumental understanding of film as evidence or testimony. Memory is always fragmented, narratives change. Assuming that film can have any direct access to “truth” can be naïve to say the least. Sometimes, telling the truth about a situation is about finding new ways of telling it, pushing the boundaries of what is accepted as testimony in a court of law. “Is there one way of rendering and presenting testimony, for instance, that is more accepted than others?” Kanwar asked. “If so, we have to contest that, we have to find newer forms of rendering testimony…and push for these forms to be accepted.”

Kanwar’s own films represented distinct engagements with suffering and testimony. To Remember, (2003) is an eight-minute meditation on the meaning of Gandhi’s legacy in the aftermath of the Gujarat carnage. Made without sound (because “too much had been said and argued at that time, and there were no words left), it focuses on images of people visiting Birla House, Gandhi’s memorial, and ends with a sudden, pointed curse at those who would unleash such violence. A Night of Prophecy (2003) traverses the margins, literal and metaphorical, of the modern Indian nation, from Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Nagaland, and Kashmir. In each region, the film focuses on music and poetry as expressions of the sorrow and anger of people who have long been marginalized and excluded from the Indian mainstream. The result is a rich evocation of time and history through medium and poetry, as well as an exploration of the role of cultural forms in sustaining protest, resistance, and a sense of community. The film itself exemplifies the cultural work that films can do, along with Garin Nugroho’s epic Opera Jawa, which screened later at the Asia Society.


The question of an audience (or lack of it) for documentary films was an important theme at the conference. Documentary filmmakers experience various forms of censorship: direct censorship by the state or other political forces, censorship by a market that deems documentaries as “unpopular,” and perhaps, to an extent, self-censorship. Filmmaker Sonia Jabbar said at one point, “I feel depressed when the films we make seem to have no impact—crises keep happening and no one gets punished. Nothing changes. It’s almost like we’re preaching to the converted.” And Anand Patwardhan warned, “I’m a little worried… (that) we get comfortable sometimes with the niche that we’re reduced to. But if we’re talking about the connection between documentary and human rights work, we don’t have the luxury of being comfortable in the niche. We can be quite satisfied with our own work and that is genuine and legitimate…but we have to push so that our films are actually able to change the political landscape.”

Yet, filmmakers also talked about pushing for new audiences: through the circulation of pirated copies, or by making creative use of new modes of online distribution. As Faye Ginsburg pointed out, the documentary has always had unpredictable and uncertain circulations; even if they circulate among niche audiences, the impact of these films is hard to circumscribe or determine. And in the end, there is no denying the power these films hold for the communities they belong to: as archive, as memory, as alternative history. While documentary filmmakers and human rights activists should certainly push for better means of distribution and circulation, the films will stand as powerful and compelling human documents.

And while documentary filmmakers and human rights activists certainly need to push for a better strategy and more means of distribution and circulation, the films themselves will stand as powerful and compelling human documents.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Munich, A Steven Spielberg film on the events following the massacre of Israeli athletes during the 1971 Munich Olympics, by gunmen from a Palestinian group, Black September.

Partly for vengeance and partly as deterrence against future attacks, Israel decided to launch Operation Wrath of God – whose mission was to identify and assassinate those who had been part of the Black September campaign. Mossad, the intelligence and special operations agency took the lead, putting together a special team (some claim, several special teams) for this purpose and a series of attacks were made upon key Palestinians. The Operation was subjected to a great deal of criticism especially in the aftermath of the "Lillehammer affair" in which a team of Mossad Agents mistakenly killed a Moroccan waiter in the town of Lillehammer, Norway – mistaking him for Ali Hassan Salameh, believed to be the mastermind behind the Munich Killings. International outrage over this incident led to a temporary suspension of this operation, but it was revived under after change of Israeli leadership – from Golda Meir to Menachem Begin – and Salameh was eventually found and assassinated.

Munich is described by Spielberg as “historical fiction” that builds upon these events. The story revolves around an assassination squad of five people led by a junior Mossad agent who are entrusted with the job of tracking down and killing 11 Black September terrorists. The plot develops with some deviations from the actual sequence of events - the Lillehammer affair does not find a mention - however the Beirut affair ("Operation Spring of Youth") is included as is the long hunt for Salameh. An addition to the plot is a confrontation scene with some PLO operatives, where the parties launch into a discussion of middle-east politics. Towards the end of movie, the growing insecurity – as they are subjected to counter attacks - and disillusionment of the 5-man squad as they grapple with questions of morality and value of the task undertaken by them, begin to take the fore ground.

The film – which was not a box office success, though it was nominated for the Academy Awards – received a mixed response. Indeed, many people who claimed to have enjoyed the movie per se, did not see it as a representative account of the Operation Wrath of God. Some took issue with the projection of the Mossad squad as a disillusioned bunch; some also protested against the fact that Spielberg told the story from a neutral point of view. Many of the others felt that Munich was not sufficiently rigorous intellectually and its attempt to examine issues of self determination, competing nationalisms, international crimes, counterterrorism, use of force etc was rather superficial.

In one review carried by the Chicago Tribune, Alisson Benedikt states that Munich is “a competent thriller, but as an intellectual pursuit, it is little more than a pretty prism through which superficial Jewish guilt and generalized Palestinian nationalism look like the product of serious soul-searching.” She goes on to ask “Do we need another handsome, well-assembled, entertaining movie to prove that we all bleed red?”. Adds Blogcritics’ Alan Dale, suggesting the Spielberg has reduced the film to a good action flick but not much else “the brow-scrunching and ethical debates don't grow out of the assassinations, they merely follow them, and are not only inadequate but irrelevant.” Quite to the contrary, Kirk Honeycutt of the Hollywood Reporter claims Munich is “a thought-provoking, highly charged inquiry into the political, moral and historical ramifications of terrorism and the effort to combat this scourge. While “Munich” does not lack for action and intrigue -- indeed it brims with it -- Spielberg deliberately mutes the tone of these events so the film can address the ethics of counterterrorism, in this case assassinations.” Mick LeSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle adds “Munich” will be looked to as a popular document from early in America's terrorism struggle… [It] captures the bewilderment of its historical moment. It's an emotional film disguised as a thoughtful film, an artfully executed wail of frustration. As such, it's the most complete post-Sept. 11 time capsule since Spike Lee's “25th Hour.”

Nationalism; guilt; counterterrorism; ethics; political, moral and historical ramifications of terrorism; post September 11 time capsule - the movie is meant as a journey from the immediate aftermath of a terrorist strike – when the adrenalin is flowing and one wants instant and bloody vengeance, to the gradual ebbing away of the certainty in your cause, in the face of its violent ghastliness. It is well worth a watch just to answer whether it is an adequate rendition of the same.

Note: The picture is a photo of the Israeli Olympic team to the 1971 Munich Olympics, taken from Wikipedia.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Anti-globalization across the Globe

The recent controversy over Paul Wolfowitz's alleged favoritism towards his companion and bank employee Shaha Riza, has prompted the Board of Directors to ‘broaden and lengthen its investigation’ into Mr Wolfowitz's conduct to cover other issues, such as his alleged attempt to curb the Bank's support of contraception in Africa.

Many believe that the World Bank's problems and the problems of the IMF
run deeper. While the lapse in internal governance that has been brought to light in this affair is worrying, the undemocratic process by which these administrative position s are allocated in even more worrying.

Perhaps the greatest cause for concern is that the two institutions are just not representative of the world. The two documentaries suggested by Professor
Ngaire Woods show that the policies adopted by the World Bank and the IMF towards developing countries, which have translated into the conditions imposed on them in return for development assistance, have done very little good to the economies of these countries. The focus has been more on securing access to their markets for western products, and access to valuable natural resources, than on helping them towards development.

Bamako, by Mauritanian-Malian director Abderrahmane Sissako, is described as "a film about the devastating effects of World Bank and IMF policies imposed on African countries." One strand of the film follows the story of a couple, the wife a bar singer, the husband out of work, whose marriage is heading for the rocks; the other strand involves a mock trial in the shared courtyard where African civil society has put the World Bank and the IMF in the dock for having reduced African countries to extreme penury. A short analysis of various other issues addressed by the film can be found

Bamako, which won critical acclaim in the Cannes Film Festival in May 2006, and has received fairly extensive
coverage at the London Film Festival, is a film with a specific purpose viz. to make these two institutions and the western governments take notice of the plight African countries have been reduced to in their scramble to fulfil the conditions attached to development assistance and to repay the loans owed to these institutions. The film's website hosts the Bamako petition, which directs specific pleas to the UK government officials.

Life and Debt, directed by Stephanie Black, is also about the impact of World Bank and IMF policies, but in another geographical location - Jamaica. Based on the award winning text,

A Small Place, by Jamaica Kincaid, the film, its website indicates, "is a woven tapestry of sequences focusing on the stories of individual Jamaicans whose strategies for survival and parameters of day-to-day existence are determined by the USand other foreign economic agendas. (A full synoposis is available here)

Through these snapshots it builds up a picture of the irony of Jamaica’s turn to the IMF – former Prime Minister Michael Manley, who for want of an alternative, signed Jamaica’s first loan agreement with the IMF in 1977 one year after he was elected on a non IMF platform; and the impact of this upon its economy. The
film's website reports:

“At present Jamaica owes over $4.5 billion to the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) among other international lending agencies yet the meaningful development that these loans have "promised" has yet to manifest. In actuality the amount of foreign exchange that must be generated to meet interest payments and the structural adjustment policies which have been imposed with the loans have had a negative impact on the lives of the vast majority. The country is paying out increasingly more than it receives in total financial resources, and if benchmark conditionalities are not met, the structural adjustment program is made more stringent with each re-negotiation. To improve balance of payments, devaluation (which raises the cost of foreign exchange), high interest rates (which raise the cost of credit), and wage guidelines (which effectively reduce the price of local labor) are prescribed. The IMF assumes that the combination of increased interest rates and cutbacks in government spending will shift resources from domestic consumption to private investment. It is further assumed that keeping the price of labor down will be an incentive for increasing employment and production. Increased unemployment, sweeping corruption, higher illiteracy, increased violence, prohibitive food costs, dilapidated hospitals, increased disparity between rich and poor characterize only part of the present day economic crisis.”

Jamaica appears to be only different in its details from that of the other countries of the developing world.

It is only fair to mention many of its viewers (
1, 2) feel Life and Debt is more appropriately characterized at an excellent polemic rather than a documentary. This is not a criticism of the film, Life and Debt is unapologetically, a tale told from a particular point of view. Its strength in is the evidence it provides to back up its claims, and in its capacity to disturb its intended audience – the First World.

Another documentary, Dolls and Dust, examines the impact of industrial restructuring, globalisation and "mal(e)-development" on women workers in three Asian countries – Sri Lanka, Thailand and Korea. The documentary is a record of testimonies taken from working women over a two-year period, in which they speak about the effect that World Bank and the IMF policies have had on their lives, their communities and the environment.

In a review of films dealing with feminism, women workers and globalization
’, Professor Jean Grossholtz states:

“Dolls and Dust is a detailed description of the effects of globalization on women in Sri Lanka,Thailand and Korea. The different experiences of women in these cultures and countries are made clear while we are shown in intimate detail the painful similarities of their plight under the neoliberal trade system….The film shows women workers and union organizers… struggling against the effects of neoliberal economics, debt, and structural adjustment. … driven off the land and out of their villages by World Bank and corporate economic development projects … Mobilized into a new work force employed by companies that make export goods for transnational corporations, … the world's cheapest labor force. …
This film presents a firsthand look at the period of the "Asian miracle" and how it went bust from the point of view of the neglected community -- women. It is a remarkable document, accessible and useful both to those who have knowledge of the World Bank and to those ignorant of its work. … Anyone who does not understand the fuss in Seattle, Prague, Quebec, Genoa, and Qatar could do well to look at this film.”

The 60 minute documentary was produced by regional NGO,
Committee for Asian Women, and researched and directed by alternative communication group, Wayang. It was selected as an award-winning entry from Asia during the 4th International VideOlympiade held in Cape Town, South Africa (September 18-21, 1998).

for the third global institution, the World trade Organization, an excellent insight into its lop-sided operation is provided by Dr Woods herself, in a radio documentary composed for BBC Chanel 4. Titled ‘War by Other Means’ the documentary was broadcast in two parts. In the first, ‘ A tour into the secretive world of trade negotiations’, current and former negotiators provide a window into what really goes on behind the closed doors at WTO meetings – complete with frank details about the arm twisting and pressure tactics levied on the smaller players by the big powers. To quote from the BBC excerpt:

“They're bullies, (one former Brazilian official says of trade negotiators from the big economies). They say you might as well sign here. Or this is good for you and you don't know anything. Sign here and keep your mouth shut.”

Part 2, the ‘
Inside story of the uprising at Cancun 2003’, explores the change in manner in which negotiations were conducted. Effectively for the first time, the developing countries were collectively holding out for a fair deal, and were willing to walk out without striking any deal at all, if they they could not get a fair one. This despite open threats such as that from US Senator Grassley who said he would use his position to “carefully scrutinize” how countries behaved in Cancún. The US evaluates potential partners for free trade agreements on an ongoing basis,” he said. “I'll take note of those nations that played a constructive role in Cancún, and those nations that didn't.”

Thus in a sense the failure of the Cancun round was due to an apparent shift in the bargaining positions between the developed and developing countries, unaccompanied by a corresponding shift in the willingness of the developed quad (US, EU, Canada, Japan) to compromise. However, the documentary also cautions that the clear divide between the developed west and the developing rest is a myth. Countries like Brazil and India, have a foot in either camp, and China, the ‘sleeping giant’ is poised to become the largest economy in the world. Third world countries acknowledge that the interests of these players are not perfectly aligned with their own – at present it is pragmatism that keeps these countries bound together, but different incentives could well lead to different alliances.

The documentary explores these issues and more in its total run time of 45 minutes. It expressly asks, and leaves you wondering, whether the failure at Cancun is just evidence of the increasing moribundity of the WTO, which like its other sisters, the World Bank and the IMF, is based on power equations that appear outdated.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Armin, Shame

Humanitarian actors and the media reporting from zones of crises, conflict and post-conflict rebuilding, have to walk the narrow line between creating awareness of the conflict (and evoking the will to respond among distant communities) and ensuring that affected populations are not portrayed as helpless, pitiable, without dignity. The Sphere Project Handbook notes:

"...disaster-affected populations must not be seen as helpless victims, and this includes members of vulnerable groups. They possess, and acquire, skills and capacities and have structures to cope with and respond to a disaster situation that need to be recognized and supported. Individuals, families and communities can be remarkably resourceful and resilient in the face of disaster, and initial assessments should take account of the capacities and skills as much as of the needs and deficiencies of the affected population. Irrespective of whether a disaster is of sudden onset or develops gradually, individuals and communities will be actively coping and recovering from its effects, according to their own priorities."

This difficulty is further exacerbated by the fact that interest is more likely to be generated when the audience can 'connect' with the victims than when they are fed facts and figures detailing the enormity of a crises. Stories are thus built on the 'power of one': they center around particular individuals, in the hope that their suffering will strike a chord with members of the audience, for the emotions that these stories narrate - hope, despair, success and failure are universal. There is always a risk that in showcasing these individual victims, humanitarian actors and the media - no matter how good their intentions - will focus more on the awful ordeals the victims have undergone and the period of greatest suffering, than on any other aspect, whether it be their ability to cope with the crises and move on with their lives, or their pursuit of other ambitions. Indeed, the rather cynical and regressive belief that if a episode does not move you to pity, it will also not lead you to loosen your purse strings, has a surprisingly strong hold.

At the recently concluded Tribeca film festival, two movies dealt with this issue very sensitively. The first, Armin [Note: the following paragraphs contain several Spoilers] by Croatian director Ognjen Sviličić, takes as its subject the story of a father and son, Ibro and Armin, who are traveling from their small town in Bosnia, to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. The purpose of the trip is to secure a role for Armin in a movie being shot by a famous German filmmaker in Zagreb. Armin is a talented actor and plays the accordion; both father and son are confident that this will be enough for him to get a role, in the film, which predictably, turns out to be, as both father and son say, "yet another film on the days of the conflict".

As it turns out, Armin is not selected after his audition. At a later point however, the filmmakers, whose interest has been somewhat piqued by Armin's odd silences, see him collapsing in the middle of a song that he is playing on his accordion and immediately assume, that he is suffering from some sort of post-conflict trauma. Ibro and Armin are then called in and offered - a starring role for Armin, in a film which explores his 'condition' as a result of the Bosnia-Serbia violence. The father and son are shocked. The son runs out of the room and the father, who had been most keen on a break for his son, rejects the offer. In one of the most poignant scenes of the film, the father embraces his son, who is weeping in the bathroom, presumably out of a sense of insult at all the gratuitous pity, and tells him the filmmakers 'don't know any thing'. The remark is telling for the film makers, without a doubt very sensitive, sympathetic people and extremely kind, have totally missed the fact that Armin , who has been through the conflict, but whose fainting fit was not the result of any post-conflict disorder, wanted the role on the basis of a belief in his talent, not on a platform of victim hood.

The film has received
several favourable reviews that characterize it as a story of a father-son relationship; this is accurate and the evolution of this relationship over this period is beautifully portrayed. However, the movie goes beyond this relationship and makes a strong point about being a part of certain chain of events and being an interested outsider; about recognizing patterns and actually understanding why they play out as they do. The film makers are as bewildered by Armin's behavior, as the father and son are by what drives the filmmakers’ interest - why Armin's 'condition' is a matter of greater interest than Armin's talent. Above all, as mentioned before, it provides a beautifully understated critique of the slippery-slope of victim representation in popular media. The director sums it up:

"This film is my way of telling a story about the war; what that situation brings and how one can deal with it. Father and son are fighting for respect. Their only problem is that they are from Bosnia, and we all know what that means. They want to escape their poverty and the only thing they have to lose is their pride. That‘s all they have. For the rest of the world, they are simply two poor people from a devasted country. This is why they have to fight."

The second film Shame, was unarguably one of the highlights of the festival. The documentary is the story of Mukhtaran Mai who was gang-raped on the order of the village council as punishment for a crime committed by her younger brother. Her village council, in Meerwala, Pakistan, like many others in the country and in other parts of the world, was blissfully following their time-honored practice of 'honor for honor' - Mukhtaran's 12 year old brother was accused of having compromised the honor of a young Mastoi girl, so the girl's brothers were given the right to extract revenge from Mukhtaran. The resultant shame that would result from this, would be the family's absolution. After the incident, Mukhtaran and her parents were expected to shut up and go on with their life, of course, with lowered heads. Mukhtaran was shunned and was even expected to commit suicide, as her natural course of action. She did not, and shocked the village by not only filing a case against tremendous odds (the nearest police-station was more than 50 kilometers away, and initally refused to register the complain) and bringing them to justice, but in also creating a media storm which brought attention - not to her sufferings, but to the state of affairs in the country that had allowed such practices to continue unquestioned, since time immemorial.

Under the stunned and then gradually admiring eyes of her village, the unlettered Mukhtaran used the compensation money awarded to her by the government to start a girl's school, remarking that it was the ignorance of the villagers which had led them to preserve such heinous customs. It was a blow to her, when the High Court overturned the death sentence that the lower courts had awarded to the culprits; for she could not believe that this time it was an educated, urban set of people who had failed her cause. Mukhtaran's case is now awaiting final judgment by the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Despite setbacks, like the High Court verdict and the ebb in international interest - which lead to a decline in aid, Mukhtaran continued to build up her school and various other community institutions. Her village, which previously had no roads and no electricity, now has both, as well as its own police outpost. Plans are afoot to build a community centre, and Mukhtaran now heads a full fledged development organization.

The movie also showcases the very constructive role that the media played in this case - it was through the media that Mukhtaran was able to make the inital appeal for justice; it was the media again which went back to her a year after the whole incident to discover that she had taken to selling her family's livestock in order to keep the school running, publicity of this lead to fresh aid for the development of the village; finally it was the media which took the first step in reversing the attribution of shame - Mukhtaran was not portrayed as a shrinking victim but a strong woman fighting for justice and fighting also for the emancipation of her village; it was the turn of Mukhtaran's community and members of the Pakistan government to be ashamed. The documentary includes the episode during which the Government of Pakistan put Mukhtaran under restraint to prevent her from traveling to America to speak about her case and her problems in bringing the perpetrators to justice, as well as her development efforts, in which, as she candidly put it, she seems to have taken on the duties of her state.

Above all, the film is a very sensitive exploration of Mukhtaran's journey from immediate aftermath of the crime, to the present in which she has earned the respect of international society, as also the previously unwilling admiration of her own community. it has conveys a sense of the horror she went through without dwelling on it and has gone on to present a composite picture of the manner in which the different interests and goals of the various people involved have played out. The director, Mohammed Naqvi, tracks the change in perspectives of the government, the villagers, NGOs and the international community, Mukhtaran's family and Mukhtaran herself, over the five years since the incident.

He also provides several interviews conducted with the family of the culprits, who have remained in a pall of gloom since the death sentences were awarded by the court of first instance (at present of course, their fate hangs in balance). The mother is very bitter, she cannot understand what her sons have done that has has landed them in this situation. While these days they do not admit to the crime at all, one could probably understand that her bewilderment would arise even if she knew her sons to be guilty - for in her mind, they only did what the council told them to do, in fulfillment of tradition. Her own daughter (the girl allegedly compromised by Mukhtaran's brother) who claimed that she too had been gang-raped previously, by Mukhtaran's twelve year old brother amongst others, but this family chose to let the tribal council decide for them.

It is important that the film does not swing the other way either and represent Mukhtaran's life as one without any set-backs altogether, after the one launching incident.[1] Mukhtaran's school faces many challenges, not only financial ones - as many of her pupils are taken away by their parents as soon as they hit their teens, in order to marry them off; there are members of the community, her elder brother among them, who feel she has brought more shame upon them by her actions; some others believe that the incident may now have come the basis for a money making operation; and three years after her efforts to educate her people and her numerous efforts at promoting consciousness of human rights and dignity across the country, a nine year old gets raped in her own village.

The documentary's portrayal of the affair had brought the audience to its feet every time it was shown at the festival, hopefully it also set the donations boxes overflowing at the Sakhi benefit dinner, and for once not as a matter of charity but of a genuine desire to assist in her development efforts.
Finally, a note on the use of the word Shame. Apart from this film, Shame was used as a title by Salman Rushdie in 1983, for his book set in a country ‘not quite Pakistan’ and revolves around the lives of two men, modeled on former Prime Minister Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto and General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. It is also the English title for Taslima Nasreen’s book on the anti-Hindu riots which erupted in Bangladesh, after the demolition of Babri Masjid in India, by Indian Hindu fundamentalists in December 1992. Following its publication, a death fatwa was issued against Nasreen; Rushdie is also under a death fatwa, for another book, Satanic Verses.


[1] Although, during the Q&A session after film, there was an audience member who, probably not in the best of taste, wanted to know if, after all that happened, Mukhtaran would change the fact of the rape if she could? The director, who was playing interpreter, understandably refused to put the question to Mukhtaran.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


The tagline of Syriana is “everything is connected” and this is exactly what the movie portrays. Principally a tale about the oil industry, the tale the movie tells is spun across USA, Switzerland, the middle east, south asia and the far east. A missile disappears in Iran, a Geneva-based consultant group covets the role of economic advisor to the heir of an Emirate,; the heir to the Emirate, Prince Nasir, awards an oil contract to China, the immigrant Pakistani workers of the US firm which previously held this contract lose their jobs, and are inducted into a fundamentalist group, the US firm merges with a smaller company which has landed an oil contract in Kazakhistan, the Department of Justice is worried about this merger, the companies hire a law firm to ensure the merger is pushed through, the CIA meanwhile plots to kill the heir Emir and set up his weaker pro-America brother on the throne to secure American oil interests. A CIA agent, a young economist, a laid-off worker and some lawyers are pulled into these complex webs like so many flies.

The exact plot line of the movie is difficult to describe, for it is non-linear [1] and the plot only comes together – if at all – towards the end of the film. Indeed in his review, Roger Ebert makes a valid point when he states “The more you describe it, the more you miss the point. It is not a linear progression from problem to solution. It is all problem.”

At one level the root of this problem revolves around the lengths to which the American government would go to maintain its supplies from the wells of the Middle-East. Indeed, ex-CIA Agent Robert Baer, whose book See No Evil was the inspiration for Syriana, told Washington Post that “[i]t’s a fictional place, a term used inside the Beltway, to describe redrawing the borders in the Middle East to suit our interests. It’s a made-up name. For example, Iraq is very much an artificial country and that is one reason we’re having so many problems there because the Iraqis are not a people with a common identity.” The film's website also states that ‘Syriana’ is a very real term used by Washington think-tanks to describe a hypothetical reshaping of the Middle East [to suit Western interests]. As the story indicates, the reshaping need not only be geographical – the term can also refer to political interference – such as the CIA plan to kill Prince Nasir.

At another level however the movie rises above being merely a powerful indiction of American quest for oil. Syriana spins an intricate tale of corruption and vested interests at every level as each state, each group within the states and each individual within the group tries to realize their/his desired ends. What emerges most clearly is that there is hardly anybody who is capable of grasping, let alone controlling the whole process – the American oil interests are but one variable, as are the ambitions of the heir to the Emirate and his brother, the dreams of the retrenched immigrants, the goals of the law firm, the ambition of its individual lawyers, the motives of the oil companies, etc. It offers a window into the complications which are often very simplistically subsumed within labels such as “US foreign policy”; “Islamic terrorism”; and “spreading democracy”.

The film is remarkable for the fact that throughout the course of its complicated narrative, it endeavors to bring the different shades in the characters of each of its major actors, whether by exploring their backgrounds, or through clever dialogue. In addition it makes a bunch of small points which go into bolstering its overall attempt to give the viewer a sense of the complexity of such affairs. To mention a few of these:

  • The laid-off Pakistani workers feel a sense of alienation in the Emirates, for even though it is a muslim country, it is very unlike their own. Furthermore this is not because of sectarian Shia/Sunni differences, but because of ethnic and linguistic dissimilarities. This may appear to be an obvious point but is usually missed by films that lump together the entire ‘Muslim world’.

  • In one instance Prince Nasir claims his plans for rebuilding the Emirate are constantly obstructed by the American government forcing him to buy their products – like outdated aircraft – at exhorbitant prices, in order to combat the growing unemployment in the manufacturing sector.

  • There is an interesting dialogue on the nature of the Caspian sea – is it really a sea, or is it a lake and what the implications of this are, in terms of rights over its waters and its deep sea oil fields. The dialogue also explores how the countries surrounding it prefer to characterize it and why.
Lauded and criticized for its complex story; reviled by some as an anti-American film - Charles Krauthammer in an Op-Ed published in the Washington Post states “Osama bin Laden could not have scripted this film with more conviction”; praised by others because it does not descend to this level of simplification; a winner of several major awards, Syriana is a visible, moving film, well worth a watch – or as some suggest, two back to back viewings, to truly appreciate its intricacies.

[1] A good synopsis is available on the film’s official website

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Dr Strangelove

A Kubrick classic, Dr Strangelove is a black comedy that satirizes the Cold war doctrine of mutual assured destruction. The doctrine was based on the principle of deterrence, and provided in essence that a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by either super-power would effectively result in retaliation by the other and would lead to the destruction of both; and thus, knowing this, both parties should refrain from using these weapons against their opposing bloc. Dr Strangelove exposes the fragility of this principle by showcasing the ease with which a nuclear attack may be set in motion even without the intention of knowledge of the principals.

In the film, a mad US army general, hoping to force the US into war with the USSR, sends the airforce bombers to attack the Soviet Union's military bases. Without a psecial code, known only to the general these planes cannot be recalled.

The horrified US President, establishes contact with the Soviet Premier, through the Russian ambassador, only to discover that the Russians have been building a secret ‘Doomsday’ machine which will obliterate all life on Earth within a few months of an attack on USSR. Further, the Russian cannot deactivate the machine.

The President turns to Dr Strangelove, a wheelchair-bound, former Nazi, to advise him on the potential impact of the doomsday machine. Dr Strangelove is quite the mad scientist who is also suffering from the alien hand syndrome. His right hand alternates between trying to strangle his neck and performing the Nazi salute. Strangelove explains its capacity for total annihilation of human life; he also points out that when shrouded in secrecy it has no value as a deterrent – thus pointing out that even within the framework of deterrence, lack of intelligence regarding a nuclear build-up results in a situation of potentially more horrific consequences, unaccompanied by greater stability.

The President then cooperates with the Russians in shooting down the planes, but one plane succeeds in bombing a base.

In one of the most popular scenes of the film, Major TJ King Kong, commander of this plane is swept onto one of the bombs while trying to get the ejection doors open, and falls to his death, waving and whooping all the way down – in part a tribute to the single minded devotion and courage of the soldiers, and in part a reflection on their vulnerability to brainwashing and exploitation by the higher military and political echelons, a theme also seen in a Few Good Men.

The Doomsday machine is thus triggered and the Americans and Russians alike are now faced with the prospect of total annihilation. Faced with this calamity they remain united for the five minutes it takes for Strangelove to come up with a proposal for saving some lives – a deep underground bunker where about 200,000 people can be housed for a century, while the earth regenerates. The Russians decide to follow this plan and construct their own bunker. The last few scenes show senior American officers worrying that Russian bunker will be better than theirs and that Americans will thus emerge at a military disadvantage a century later. They start discussing how they must prevent a ‘mine-shaft gap’ (A reference to the Cold war preoccupation with "missile gap")

Kubrick had initially intended to make this a serious film about the instability of the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, but realized that a black comedy was a more effective way of exposing its absurdities:

"My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question."

The result is a gripping, often tongue-in-cheek film that explodes comfortable myths about the improbability of nuclear war, and the instability of deterrence. Issues it touches upon repeatedly are

  • failure of intelligence – not only did the Americans not know about the Doomsday machine, limited information resulted in troops believing they were at war;
  • the Cold war climate of deep suspicion – while this is evident in nearly every frame featuring the American war room and in Ripper’s speeches; it is also evident in the reaction of the Russian premier, who when contacted by the US president does not directly relay information about the Doomsday machine to him, he only mentions it to the Russian Ambassador who sees it fit to let the President know;
  • the power play between the Americans and the Russians – even at the end with annihilation imminent, the Americans are worrying about a mine shaft gap, and the Russian ambassador is taking surreptitious pictures of strategic maps in the war room;
  • tension between the realpolitik notion that ‘might makes right’, and rule of law, an issue which continues to be relevant today. This is reflected in the film through the contrast between the suggestions of the President’s advisors who want to follow General Ripper’s airstrikes with a full scale attack since they have the capacity to severely disable Russian capabilities, and the President’s actions in refusing to do so and instead inform the Russians of the strike.
  • repeated hailing of the President as Fuhrer by Dr Strangelove, ex-Nazi – to drive home the total irrationality which gripped the US and the USSR leading to the long drawn out Cold War. Indeed Strangelove’s suggestion for selecting people for the underground bunkers also hints at eugenics.
True, the details are different. During the Cold War, the Russians did not have a “doomsday” machine and it is not known whether the US ever embraced a plan R; and today the Soviet Union no longer exists and Russia per se is not a threat; nevertheless nuclear armament continues, several countries have acquired the bomb in the last decades, many, especially neighbors, remain in a state of deterrence with each other; and the escalation of ongoing conflicts into nuclear war, whether through government intent, or through inaccurate intelligence, remains a grim reality.