Indigenous Australians: A Portrait of Modern Day Oppression

Utopia

John Pilger (2013)

Film Review

This documentary examines the extreme poverty and apartheid-like living conditions of  Aboriginal peoples in Australia’s Northern Territories. The film’s title refers to the town of Utopia, identified as the most disadvantaged community in one of the world’s richest countries. Pilger tours homes one of the local doctors. Most have no kitchen, electricity, or indoor plumbing. Utopia’s many homeless live in tents or in the open air.

The extreme poverty is responsible for health problems more typical of Dickensian England. Examples include trachoma (an eminently treatable Third World eye disease leading to blindness); rheumatic fever; “glue ear” (chronic otitis media), leading to hearing impairment in 70% of the town’s primary students; cockroach infestation of the ears; malnutrition; and epidemic levels of diabetes and heart and renal disease.

One-third of Australia’s aboriginal people die before age 43.

According to Pilger, Australia’s First Nations people (who first settled Australia 65,000 years ago) have a proud history of resistance against British colonization. However owing to their lack of modern weapons, British troops massacred, imprisoned and tortured tens of thousands.

One of the cruelest government colonization strategies involved the systematic kidnapping of Aboriginal children to be raised in residential schools. As in other British colonies, the goal was to hasten assimilation by eradicating first nations customs and culture.

Although the program allegedly ended in the 1960s, in 2007 the conservative Howard government concocted a (later discredited) pedophile ring scare to justify the invasion and occupation of Northern Territories communities by Australian troops. Residents were given a choice between handing over leases to their homes or losing their government benefits. Over the next several years, the government removed dozens of children from indigenous home, with no legal justification, no appeal rights, and no option to regain parental rights.

A few months after the Norther Territory National Emergency was declared, an Australian mining company coincidentally announced the discovery of large uranium deposits in the targeted communities.

A subsequent Australian Crime Commission Report revealed the Northern Territories had the lowest incidence of child abuse in Australia.

Boot Camp: Italy’s Far Right Solution to the Refugee Crisis

Italy’s Immigration Boot Camps for Migrants

Al Jazeera (2020)

Film Review

This documentary is about and appallingly racist boot camp for African migrants in Bergomo Italy. At the so-called Academy for Integration, inmates study Italian five mornings a week and perform unpaid community service four afternoons weekly. They are required to wear uniforms (which they iron themselves), make their beds with army-style corners, follow a rigid time table and stand when the white boot camp director enters the room. They are forbidden to complain about racial or anti-immigrant injustices.

Although the camp director supports Italy’s center left coalition, the Academy is located in the heartland of Italy’s far right Tricolour Flame Party. As chief of staff for Bergomo’s mayor, the influence he carries with local businesses means he’s in a good position to place Academy graduates in permanent jobs.

Hidden History: The 2014 Revolution in Burkina Faso

Burkinabé Rising: The Art of Resistance in Bukina Faso

Directed by Lara Lee (2017)

Film Review

Burkinabé Rising is about the 2014 revolution in Burkina Faso which overthrew dictator Blaise Compaoré after 27 years in power. To the best of my knowledge the event received no coverage whatsoever in the Western media. The vast majority of Americans have never even heard of Burkina Faso. I confess I first discovered the west African country when I  heard their music performed at Womad* in 2000.

Burkina Faso is bordered by Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Ivory Coast. It has a population of 20 million (four times the size of New Zealand). They received their independence from France in 1960.

The primary focus of the film is the historical use of art (music, modern dance, hip hop, visual arts, slam poetry, drama, and traditional masks and mud hut architecture) to raise revolutionary consciousness among young Bukinabé.

Music and dance have been especially successful in evading censorship while  preserving the memory of revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara and investigative journalist Norbert Zonga. Both were assassinated by Compaoré  and his family (Sankara in 1987 and Zonga in 1998).

The use of art in preparing the Bukinabé for full self-government has continued since Compaoré’s ouster in 2014. The role of women, the breadwinners of two-thirds of the country’s households, is of prime importance. At present several grassroots campaigns focus on women’s literacy and the education of girls, as well as the participation of women in civic organization.

There’s also a major emphasis on reviving indigenous languages and reducing food imports by banning GMOs and returning to traditional organic agriculture.


*Womad (World of Music, Arts and Dance) is an international arts festival celebrating the world’s many forms of music, arts and dance. My local city New Plymouth hosts Womad every March.

IRA Leader Michael Collins: Father of Modern Urban Warfare

Michael Collins and the War of Independence

Episode 23 of the Irish Identify (2016)

Featuring Marc Conner

I also found the 23rd episode, focusing on the 1921 Irish War of Independence, really valuable. For the 120 year lead up to the war see Hidden History: The Long War for Irish Independence

In the 1918 UK election Sinn Fein, which ran on a platform of full Irish independence, won all the seats in southern Ireland. Instead of taking their seats in London, they formed their own Irish National Assembly. This Assembly, in turn, voted to declare Ireland an independent Republic with Eamon de Valera as president and Michael Collins as minister of finance. It also founded the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as well as demanding the withdrawal of all British troops.

Originally born in New York City, De Valera had been imprisoned after the 1916 Easter Rising. He now returned to the US to raise funds for the coming revolution, leaving Collins to fill his shoes as president.

The Irish War of Independence began in January 1919, when the IRA, under Collins’ leadership, attacked a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) outpost to seize their explosives and killed two RIC officers.

Collins, considered the father of modern urban warfare, conducted a mainly guerilla war aimed at assassinating both RIC* members and the large British spy network that supported them.

Focused on keeping order in the cities, by 1920 the RIC had totally lost control over rural Ireland. The British responded by recruiting Irish criminals as mercenaries. Referred to as the “Black and Tans” for their irregular uniforms, they became notorious for their lawless brutality against unarmed civilians.

By 1921, it became clear that the IRA lacked the numbers and weaponry to defeat the British military. De Valera, who had returned from the US, sent Collins and Arthur Griffith (founder of Sinn Fein) to negotiate a truce with British Prime Minister Lloyd George.

The best deal they could achieve was a December 1921 treat that created and Irish Free State (consisting of all but six countries in Northern Ireland**) which remained a member of the British Commonwealth and required all public servants to swear a fidelity oath to the British monarch. The treaty stipulated the withdrawal of all British troops except for designated bases.

Ireland would remain a Commonwealth member until 1936, when a new constitution transformed it into a full republic.


*The RIC was an internal police force made up primarily of Irish Catholics. Many who weren’t killed resigned in preference to attacking fellow countrymen.

**Britain had long encouraged the settlement of Northern Ireland by Scottish Protestants who they rewarded with large land estates. The 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty redrew the boundaries for the six counties to guarantee the region a 2/3 Protestant majority. The resulting political system denied Catholics access to land, adequate housing, and government positions – resulting in a virtual system of apartheid.

People who belong to a public library can view the entire course “Irish Identity” free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine.

Environmental Justice: Houston’s Cancer Cluster

Houston’s Cancer Cluster

Al Jazeera (2020)

Film Review

This is a documentary about the Houston group Impact, formed in 2016 to pressure the Texas Department of Health to investigate the large number of cancer deaths occurring in the majority African American Fifth Ward and Kashmere Garden neighborhoods.

In response to grassroots lobbying, the Department of Health performed an epidemiological study, which they released in September 2019. It revealed cancer rates in both neighborhoods were significantly higher than the state average.

Local families and health professionals blame the high cancer rate on creosote contamination of soil and groundwater from a nearby Union Pacific rail yard. Between 1911 and 1984, Union Pacific treated wooden railway ties with the preservative creosote (a toxic mixture of cancer causing chemicals). In January 2020, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee helped Impact organize a public meeting featuring nationally renowned anti-toxics activist Erin Brokovitch.

Impact demands that the state of Texas force Union Pacific (which made a profit of $6 billion in 2019) to address the creosote contamination, either by removing toxic chemicals from the soil and groundwater or paying for affect residents to move elsewhere.

In speaking with filmmakers, local activists reveal that regulators first learned about the contaminated groundwater in the 1980s but never informed residents.

In the US, communities of color are more likely to live near toxic and polluting industries because of the relatively low value of nearby land.

 

Edward Said: The Origin of Islamophobia

Edward Said on Orientalism

Directed by Jeremy Smith, Sanjay Tairej, and Sut Jhally

Film Review

This documentary, produced and narrated by University of Massachusetts (Amherst) professor of communication Sut Jhally, is based on a 1998 interview with late Palestinian-American Dr Edward Said. Prior to his death from leukemia in 2003, Said was a professor of literature at Columbia University. The interview primarily concerns his 1978 book Orientalism.

Said, who was born in Palestine, became homeless and stateless in 1948 when his family home was seized by Jewish terrorists. He grew up in the US.

His book Orientalism would give birth to a new field of study called post-colonial theory, as well as having a a profound effect on the academic study of English, history, anthropology, and political science. The filmmakers embellish the interview with numerous works of art and film clips illustrating important concepts Said introduces.

The basic premise of Orientalism is that the West, dating back to Napoloean’s 1798 conquest of Egypt, operates under a preconceived image of Middle Eastern peoples. This image, which permeates nearly all pertinent Western art, history, literature, and film, portrays them as mysterious, backwards, barbaric, fanatical, and threatening.

In France and the UK, who were the main colonizers of the Middle East and North Africa, this distorted perception grew out of the conventional tendency to de-humanize the colonized.

In contrast, American-style orientalism derives mainly from the special relationship the US enjoys with Israel. The latter aggressively promotes the ideology that all Arabs are natural enemies.

Said traces strong anti-Islamic sentiment in the US to the 1978 Islamic revolution in Iran, which, in removing the pro-US totalitarian government, cost Wall Street oil interests substantially.

The most interesting part of the interview concerns the 1997 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City – which both the FBI and US media blamed on Middle East terrorists in the immediate aftermath.

 

Hidden History: Frantz Fanon and the Algerian War of Independence

Frantz Fanon: His Life, His Struggle, His Work

Directed by Cheikh Djemai (2001)

Film Review

In the US, Frantz Fanon is best known for his influence on the Black Power movement of the sixties and seventies. The author of two major books on Black identity,* Fanon died at age 37 (in 1961).

Prior to watching this film, I was unaware that Fanon left Martinique in 1941 to fight in De Gaulle’s Free French Army. According to family members and friends, it was largely racist abuse he experience in this setting that led him to become a revolutionary.

At the end of the war, he studied philosophy briefly before transferring to medicine. Black Face White Masks, which he wrote as a dissertation for his doctorate in medicine, was rejected by his dissertation committee.

Following graduation he worked at the Blida mental hospital in Algeria, where he became convinced that the “mental illness” he observed in his patients largely stemmed from the system of racist apartheid the French imposed on Algerian Arabs. He was in continuous strife with hospital authorities for his “radical” reforms, including removing the barbed wire fence surrounding the hospital and allowing patients picks and shovels to create a soccer field on hospital grounds.

Resigning in frustration, he moved to Tunis to join the Algerian revolution after the French government expelled him from Algeria.

While there he also played a major role in the All African Congress started by Ghanaian Revolutionary Kwame Nkrumah.


*Black Skin White Mask and Wretched of the Earth

Public library members can view the film free on Kanopy. Just type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into the search engine.

 

 

Sarah Roberts: Taranaki’s Tireless Anti-Fracking Campaigner

 

A Broken Earth

Directed by James Muir (2020)

Film Review

This is a beautifully made film about Taranaki fellow activists Sarah Roberts and David Morrison and their tireless efforts to hold Taranaki’s (mostly foreign-owned) fracking industry to account.

The film begins when the couple literally woke up one morning and discovered their dairy farm was surround by fracking wells and production stations that were discharging fracking wastes into a stream they used to water their herd. Around this time, Sarah began experiencing many of the same health complaints (headaches, nosebleeds, rashes, etc)  as many of her neighbors.

On investigation, they discovered 14 fracking wells to the front of their property, 16 to the rear, and 12 at the side. Although four wells were directly adjacent to their property line, they were never consulted, or even notified, about the well construction. After examining oil industry and Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) records, Sarah also discovered that the casings (linings) of some of the wells had been leaking for two years – without TRC carrying out any required ground water testing.

Most of the film concerns the history of the farm, which David’s father bought after returning from World War II, and the decision by both men to preserve the land surrounding the farm as a conservation estate. Until Sarah and David made the gradual  discovery that unregulated oil and gas drilling had systematically transformed one the most pristine natural landscapes on Earth into an industrial zone. The film also shows the the difficult heartbreaking decision the couple made to sell the farm David had managed for 20 years.

The film also also details the extensive research Sarah did into a failed regulatory process (by TRC, Stratford District Council, New Plymouth District Council, and South Taranaki District Council) that essentially allows oil and gas companies to regulate themselves.

As a result of this “self-regulation,” fossil fuel companies are allowed to dig fracking wells adjacent (and under – via horizontal drilling) people’s homes, schools, hospitals, etc. The end of the film features one of the first public meetings Sarah organized (in 2015) to notify local residents about oil industry plans to drill adjacent to Norfolk School.

As part of her tireless campaigning, she worked with Taranaki Energy Watch to file a lawsuit in Environment Court in 2016 to require that district councils set minimum separation distances between fracking wells and homes, schools, and hospitals. You can find information about the lawsuit at  http://www.taranakienergywatchnz.org/.

You can read the Environment Court’s preliminary findings (which are favorable) below.

You can watch the film free until July 5 at https://festival.docedge.nz/film/a-broken-earth/

Click to access 2018-NZEnvC-227-Taranaki-Energy-Watch-Incorporated-v-South-Taranaki-District-Council.pdf

 

 

How the Madison Anti-Vietnam War Protests Politicized Me

The War at Home: Resistance to the Vietnam War

Directed by Barry Alexander Brown and Glenn Silber (1979)

Film Review

This documentary traces the history of the student antiwar movement at the University of Wisconsin during the sixties and seventies. In 1968, Playboy magazine described the Madison campus as the most radical university in the country. The topic holds particular interest for me as I attended medical school there between June 1969 and June 1971.

A staunch Goldwater Republican at the time, there was no question my Madison experiences politicized me. It was there I learned how Dow Chemical (which manufactured the napalm the US dropped on Vietnamese civilians) and other big corporations controlled Congress by financing their political campaigns. Although I participated in no street protests, I cut class during the National Moratorium on November 15, 1969 to join 15,000 other students at a teach-in at the UW Field House.

UW-Madison held their first antiwar protest (consisting of 200-300 students) a month before the 1963 Kennedy assassinations. As at universities across the US, the protests grew exponentially in February 1965, after Lyndon Johnson broke his campaign promise (not to expand the Vietnam War) and began bombing North Vietnam.

Protests further escalated in 1966, following a police riot during a sit-in at the UW administration building, in which brutal clubbing of nonviolent protestors resulted in 65 hospitalizations. Protests reached their peak during the summer of 1969, with the governor ordering deployment of the National Guard to assist police. There were literal riots on Mifflin Street, largely in response to police brutality, which I directly witnessed.

Rioters engaged in running battles with police, as well as throwing fire bombs, overturning vehicles, and setting up barricades. Prior to 1969, I had only read about barricades in history books.

Anyone with a public library card can view the film free at Kanopy. Type Kanopy and the name of your library into the search engine.

 

New Zealand: Highest Per Capita Homeless Rate in OECD

New Zealand: A Place to Call Home

Al Jazeera (2020)

Film Review

This is a documentary about homelessness in New Zealand, which (as of 2017) has the highest per capita homeless rate in the OECD. The film mainly focuses on Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, and the work of Auckland Action Against Poverty. AAAP has a primary focus of finding emergency housing for homeless Aucklanders. At present a minimum wage family Auckland family spends 70% of their income on rent. This usually leaves them two paychecks away from homelessness.

Although there are currently 14,000 Aucklanders on the waiting list for low income housing, our current government only plans to build 6,000 state houses over the next four years. This despite Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s campaign promise to build 100,000 state houses over 10 years.

Last year despite expert advice to increase benefit levels (for single parents, the unemployed, disabled, and retired) by 50%, our coalition government spent millions of dollars on emergency motel accommodation for homeless families.

In Auckland, filmmakers interview a number of Auckland’s “invisible” homeless residents. Rather than sleeping rough, they are camped out in cars, garages, and the living rooms of friends and extended family.

Filmmakers also visit Northland, a rural area absorbing growing numbers of Auckland’s homeless. Owing to the scarcity of rental accommodation, many of Northland’s homeless families live in buses, sheds, lean-tos, and tents.

A Northland Maori leader talks about mortgage his to purchase for abandoned state houses he has relocated from Auckland. After rehabilitating them, he charges homeless families $275 a week to buy them. He has asked the Prime Minister to declare a Northland housing emergency to help his trust qualify for $11 million in funding. This cover land and rehabilitation costs for an additional 500 abandoned state houses.

Thus far she has declined.

Prime Minister Ardern and Housing Minister Megan Woods also declined to be interviewed for this documentary.