Category Archives: Flicks, Vids & Telly

The ol’ moving images an ting

Really good documentary films online for free

Recently I had a Twitter exchange with Dorian Cope on the topic of documentaries on YouTube.

She recommended some really good ones (listed below), including The Leonard Peltier Story, which I knew as Incident At Oglala.

By Michael Apted (he of The World Is Not Enough Bond fame, as well as the Up series of documentaries), Incident At Oglala is a righteous retelling of the story of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the fight for indigenous people’s rights in the United States, the siege at Pine Ridge and the case of Leonard Peltier – still banged up in Federal chokey today. Apted subsequently made a thinly-veiled fictional version of the attempts by the FBI and others to quash AIM, Thunderheart, which was in part based on an earlier standoff at Wounded Knee.

I first came across the story of AIM and Pine Ridge through the writings of Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall – Agents Of Repression, and The COINTELPRO Papers. Together the two books utilise the then-relatively novel application of Freedom of Information Act rights, and cover in depth the FBI’s decades-long (though the Bureau clings to the orthodoxy that COINTELPROs only existed from 1956-1971) ‘counter intelligence programs’ directed at civil society, involving agents provocateurs, informers, fabricated documents, planted evidence, smears and even what could be considered assassination. AIM was just one of a long list of targeted groups and individuals, the vast majority from the left of the political spectrum – others included the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, Students for a Democratic Society, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Socialist Workers’ Party USA.

The formal COINTELPRO project was brought to an abrupt end in 1971, when a small group of activists, the Citizens’ Committee to Investigate the FBI, broke into a Bureau field office in Pennsylvania and stole reams of documents which exposed the existence of a massive, nationwide conspiracy to defame, disrupt and destroy political campaigners. However, empirical evidence supports the assertion that COINTELPRO in spirit if not in name continued for many years to come. Certainly there were COINTELPRO fingerprints all over the bombing of Earth First! activists Judy Bari and Darryl Cherney in 1990 (see, for example, ‘The Judi Bari Bombing: How the FBI targeted Earth First!’ by Ward Churchill in Open Eye #3, 1995).

The more recent use of agents provocateurs, informants and undercover officers in cases including but not limited to the supposed Nimbus Dam sabotage plot (with FBI plant Zoe Elizabeth Voss, AKA ‘Anna’ – see here, here and here), Brandon Darby’s entrapment of protesters at the 2008 RNC (see here, here and here), and the various stings by Saeed Torres AKA ‘Shariff’ on behalf of the FBI (see here, here and here) suggest that the principles of COINTELPRO linger long in the Bureau’s institutional memory.

Anyhow, here’s some of my free-to-view documentary selections – and I have put Dorian Cope’s at the bottom.

80 Blocks From Tiffany’s
Superb stuff from 1979, with Gary Weis interviewing members of two gangs – the Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads – in the South Bronx.

NY77: The Coolest Year In Hell
A nearly bankrupted city, disco, punk rock, hip hop, brown outs and black outs, arson and riots, music and love.

Planet Rock The Story Of Hip Hop And The Crack Generation
Exploring the interconnectedness of two eighties phenomena.

Style Wars
Classic hip hop ‘five elements’ documentary, whose influence via its focus on grafitti and breakdancing was global – inspiring the likes of Goldie and 3D in Britain.

Bombin’
The UK Style Wars

Proper Bristol Hip Hop (part one)
Superb cultural artefact from Matt ‘Mr Monk’ Orren, with many of the original Bristol hip hop heads simply telling how it all started for them, how it developed, and how it got to here.

The Way Of The Crowd
Looking back on Northern Soul at the Wigan Casino, with stacks of people who were there, including Paul Sadot (Tuff in Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes).

The Jeffrey Johns Story
If you’ve ever been to a gig in Bristol, you’ve been stood behind Big Jeff. HERE IS HIS STORY!

1971
Story of the activists who exposed COINTELPRO by burgling the FBI’s Media, PA office.

Reclaim The Streets – The Film (1999) (as broadcast on Channel 4, January 2000)
A from-the-movement documentary on RTS by Agustín de Quijano, from the beginning through to J18 – lots of great footage.

Reclaim The Streets – Reloaded (2012 re-edit)
As above, expanded to include references to Andrew James Boyling, the undercover Special Branch officer who posed as RTS activist ‘Jim Sutton’ for half a decade.

McLibel
Franny Armstrong’s on-a-shoestring classic about Helen Steel and Dave Morris, the two London Greenpeace anarchists who refused to be bullied by a corporation, defended themselves in court, and to all intents and purposes defeated McDonald’s after it accused them of making untrue statements in a campaign leaflet (which, lest we forget, was co-authored by a long-term police infiltrator).

Big Rattle In Seattle /Capital’s Ill Crowd Bites Wolf (all three by Si Mitchell)
Not just three of the best but also the funniest summit-hopping gonzo activist-journalist documentaries of the dawn of the 21st century, capturing not just the excitement and action on the streets, but also breaking down the issues into easily understandable chunks – which with dull stuff like the IMF is not easy.

The Coconut Revolution
Behind the lines with the low-tech independence fighters of Bougainville Island, who face the might of the Papua New Guinea army, backed by multinational corporations like RTZ, in a fight to protect their homeland and its resources. First saw this at a screening in Bristol’s fine microplex the Cube.

If A Tree Falls: A Story Of The Earth Liberation Front
A very human telling of how the ELF came to become America’s Public Enemy No.1 (until Al Qaeda came to be a little more prominent), with the focus on ELF activist Daniel McGowan, one of a number who went to prison after the FBI’s major Operation Backfire dragnet.

The Panama Deception
I first saw this Oscar-winning doc by Barbara Trent about the post-Cold War, what-the-hell-do-we-do-now? US invasion of Panama at – no honestly – a Revolutionary Communist Party conference. It was the most interesting thing there.

BBS: The Documentary (in 8 parts)
Thoroughly absorbing, detailed look at the early communities which grew up around the original bulletin board systems, and how they developed as the forums themselves developed. Made in 2005, it is interesting to consider how we got from there to here, with #anonymous and /pol/ and GamerGate and manosphere idiots and whatnot.


Touching The Void
Best fell-off-a-mountain documentary ever; best use of Boney M in hallucination scene ever.

Room 237
Dissection of the meaning – hidden or otherwise – of Stanley Kubrick’s fast-and-loose adaptation of Stephen King’s novel. Beautiful (though unfortunately picture and sound quality here are deliberately degraded, presumably to get round copyright detection tools) and thought provoking.

Staircases To Nowhere: Making Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining
Folk history of how The Shining got made, by the crew who made it.

Hells Angels
Hilarious early 1970s BBC documentary following the hapless London chapter of the global outlaw motorcycle club as they mooch about doing very little. The decision to go on holiday is one of history’s most fateful. Played absolutely straight in both script and voiceover.

American Movie (trailer only)
One of the loveliest docs in the world, I can’t find it free online anywhere, but this trailer gives a flavour of it.

Dorian Cope’s documentary selection:

Taiga, taiga, burning bright: the Lykovs of Siberia

After reading about the Know Nothings on the Smithsonian Magazine website (note: it seems that the bare existence of history offends some Trump supporters), I then saw one about the Lykov family.

The Lykovs were a family of Old Believers – proper old skool Orthodox types – who in the late 1930s fled east into the Siberian wilderness or ‘taiga’ in fear of Soviet purges and suppression of their religion. They forged a life for themselves, just about, living off the bounty of the land (which sometimes isn’t that bountiful, especially when it’s minus forty degrees; the mother, Akulina, died of starvation in 1961).

They completely avoided contact with the outside world, with any strangers from outside their small family group, for forty years, until 1978 when a party of passing geologists spotted them and dropped by to totally freak them out with tales of men on the moon and television and flared trousers. It was enough to kill off the three oldest offspring in 1981, leaving just the ageing patriarch Karp and his youngest daughter Agafia (born 1944). Then old Karp popped his clogs in 1988, on the anniversary of Akulina’s own passing.

Since then Agafia’s been the last Lykov remaining. In 1997 a retired geologist (what is it with these rock-botherers?!) decided to come and live nearby to help her out, but seeing as he was older than her, hadn’t lived his entire life in the taiga, and was, uh, a one-legged amputee, it seems she was doing most of the helping. He died in 2015. In early 2016 Agafia herself was airlifted out for medical treatment. Not sure if she’s returned.

Anyway, there’s some great documentaries about Agafia and her family out there; even the Russian language ones are worth catching for the footage.

(It reminds me a little of the story of Lieutenant Hiroo Shinoda, the ‘last of the holdouts’ (though he wasn’t), who hid out in the countryside of the Philippines for nearly twenty years after the close of the Second World War until rooted out by young hippie explorer Norio Suzuki.)

On Alan Clarke (revisited)…

Ages back I wrote about director Alan Clarke and some of his films.

Recently I found a couple of interesting videos about his work – one featuring an interview with former soldier AFN Clarke, whose military memoir Contact  became the basis for his near-namesake’s tense, almost dialogue-free, television drama about a British Army patrol in Northern Ireland; the other looking at Clarkie’s latter-day fondness for Steadicams and the walking intro. Both are worth a watch.

On Australian crime drama – from ‘Scales Of Justice’ to ‘Bikie Wars’

Been watching a few rather decent Australian crime dramas lately…

Firstly there’s Bikie Wars: Brothers In Arms, a recent based-on-true-events series revolving around the Comanchero-Bandido split that culminated in the 1984 Milperra Massacre (that’s not a spoiler, it’s presaged in an on-title screen before each episode).

Reviews I saw moaned about it being slow going, with lots of unanswered questions hanging in the air (like why did Jock Ross want to ‘expand’), but I’ve found it pretty decent viewing three episodes in. Plenty of familiar faces: Callan Mulvey (Drazic from Heartbreak High and Mark Moran in Underbelly series one), Damian Walshe-Howling (Benji Veniaman in Underbelly series one), Jeremy Lindsay Taylor (Norman Bruhn in Underbelly season four, Razors), Lauren Clair (Tracey in Underbelly series one), Richard Cawthorne, Anthony Hayes, Luke Hemsworth, Fletcher Humphrys etc. One bum note, though – what’s with ex-Australian rugby league player Matthew Nable (Gary Jubelin in Underbelly season five, Badness) and that terrible Scots accent?

Also based on real events is 2011’s Killing Time, which focuses on the events leading up to the imprisonment of Andrew Fraser, brief-of-choice for a bunch of Melbourne crims that includes the Pettingill family (subject of the film Animal Kingdom and the thinly-veiled earlier TV series Phoenix). With the notorious Walsh Street killings as its fulcrum, infamous real life grotesques such as Kath Pettingill, Dennis Allen and Victor Peirce all involved, and police incompetence/corruption endemic, it’s pretty dark stuff – and far less stylised than anything in the Underbelly franchise.

David Wenham is very strong in the lead role, and there’s beefy backup from the likes of Colin Friels as Lewis Moran (cf Underbelly series one, where he was played by Kevin Harrington), Richard Cawthorne and Fletcher Humphrys from Bikie Wars, Kris McQuade (Jacs Holt in the Prisoner reboot Wentworth), and Ian Bliss (science teacher Mr Bell in Heartbreak High, and Thomas Hentschel – originally anonymised as ‘Mr L’ – in Underbelly series one). All round, Killing Time is very strong.

Also recently I saw for the first time Joh’s Jury, a telemovie about the perjury trial of former Queensland Premier Johannes Bjelke-Petersen in the wake of an inquiry into corruption…

Good to see some familiar, solid faces in the cast: Norman Yemm (The Sullivans), an early appearance for Noah Taylor as a tetchy young juror, plus a strong performance from Malcolm Kennard (who appears a few years later in both Bikie Wars and Killing Time). In terms of staging, nothing outstanding, but a nice little mood piece that helps provide a bit of context for us non-antipodeans wading through period crime drama.

On the writing side, though, it packs a punch, thanks to the pen of Ian David (who would later be responsible for Killing Time). Previously he had written two other similar docu-drama style TV films about bent cops: Police Crop, about an investigation into corruption in New South Wales, and Police State – which covered the Fitzgerald Inquiry that forms the backdrop to Joh’s Jury.

Immediately after Joh’s Jury, David scripted the peerless mini-series Blue Murder, which looked at the symbiotic relationship between crooked detective Roger Rogerson, and career standover man Neddy Smith. That one covered a whole slew of grim true crimes, like the murder of Sallie-Anne Huckstepp, and includes real-life wackoes like Chris Flannery (as featured in series two of Underbelly as well as The Great Bookie Robbery and feature film Everynight … Everynight). Matching the bite of the story toothmark by toothmark, Blue Murder is directed in a gritty, almost documentary style by Michael Jenkins, who also handled Scales Of Justice in much the same way.

Meanwhile, handling direction for Joh’s Jury – as he did for Police Crop – is Ken Cameron. It’s unflashy (well, how flashy can a film largely set in a jury deliberation room be?), but gets the job done. Cameron also helmed a few other works of note, including internationally successful mini-series such as Brides Of Christ and Bangkok Hilton. Then there was The Clean Machine, a semi-fictionalised movie about a team of police ‘untouchables’ set up to get rid of corrupt cops in New South Wales, which he co-wrote alongside Terry Hayes. Hayes, who earlier had scripted also worked on Bangkok Hilton, later penned breakout Oz psychological horror film Dead Calm and then a clutch of Hollywood pictures (Payback, From Hell)…

The so far unmentioned element linking many of these dramas is the production environment. Many of them came out of Kennedy Miller Productions, the ambitious Australian company set up by George Miller and Byron Kennedy to manage the birth of Mad Max. Kennedy Miller then gave us lightning in the same place a second time with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, which announced the arrival of professional, popular Australian film making, particularly in America.

Whilst Byron Kennedy died in 1983, the company went on to produce an impeccable run of theatrical features, TV movies and mini-series, including Dismissal, about the constitutional shenanigans that led to PM Gough Whitlam being booted out, The Cowra Breakout (about a little-known mass escape of Japanese PoWs from an Australian camp), Bodyline – about the notorious 1932/3 Ashes tour – and, of course, the third installment of their post-apocalypse franchise, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985.

The magic did not stop there – next came historical mystery The Riddle Of The Stinson, then Vietnam, about the Aussie involvement in southeast Asia, Hollywood star-packed hit The Witches Of Eastwick, the more parochial The Year My Voice Broke, domestic epic The Dirtwater Dynasty and then the aforementioned The Clean Machine.

Rounding out the 1980s were Dead Calm, which gifted the world Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane (well, I take it we’re not calling Omen 3, BMX Bandits or a telemovie about the Hillside Stranglers year zero for these three actors), followed by Bangkok Hilton (another strong performance from Kidman), and then from writer-director John Duigan 1991’s Flirting, a continuation of his earlier The Year My Voice Broke. In both Duigan films young Noah Taylor was afforded the opportunity to shine – much as he would again in Joh’s Jury. John Duigan had previously notched up story credits on Vietnam, which he co-directed along with Chris Noonan, who also helmed The Cowra Breakout and The Riddle Of The Stinson for Kennedy Miller, before taking on Police State for ABC in 1989. It was back to Kennedy Miller that Noonan returned in 1995 for his biggest hit: Babe, the talking pig kids’ flick. And there we leave KMP, as we’re straying far from the crime drama path.

But the point is clear: in the 1980s-1990s there was a real concentration of creative talent in Australian television and film, which – particularly when backed by strong production support, whether from an independent like Kennedy Miller, or from a broadcast network like ABC – meant that the local industry was boxing well above its weight.

The ‘Great Communist Bank Robbery’ of 1959, the ‘Ioanid Gang’ and Jewishness in Soviet-era Romania…

Reconstruction of the 1959 'Great Communist Bank Robbery' in Bucharest

I recently caught a documentary film called Marele Jaf Comunist AKA Great Communist Bank Robbery. It was about a 1959 payroll heist in Soviet era Romania.

The gist is, a small group of armed robbers held up a van carrying wages to the Romanian National Bank – an unthinkable crime in a ‘Socialist’ state.

After a major police dragnet which saw scores of suspects arrested, interrogated and in many cases tortured, the cops drew a blank. Then eventually a lead turned them onto what became known as the ‘Ioanid Gang’ (named after two of its members) – five men and a woman. All were Jewish-Romanians, and either state functionaries or officers of the Securitate.

They were made to ‘confess’, and compelled to play themselves in a docu-drama film made to illustrate how they carried out their dastardly crime. This film, Reconstruction, was later shown to high ranking Party officials and trusted journalists. Subsequently all were found guilty at trial (their Party careers conveniently forgotten – now they were simply a ‘corrupt and rotten element’, a ‘swindler’, a ‘fake intellectual’, an ‘adventurer’, a ‘gangster’, and a ‘marginal element’…) and all but one sentenced to death.

A 2001 documentary film, also called Reconstruction (which I haven’t yet managed to watch), later covered the topic. Finally, in 2004 the aforementioned Marele Jaf Comunist was made, looking at the robbery, the police investigation, the making of the original documentary Reconstruction, and efforts by the son of one of the gang members to review the Securitate files.

One strand which could have been covered more in depth was the specific details of the suspects’ prior involvement in the Party and the apparatus of the state, and in particular the wartime resistance activities of some of them. One suggestion made during the film was that the execution of the five condemned men was a ruse so that they could be ‘disappeared’ and used as agents of espionage elsewhere. Again, this was not pursued with any real vigour.

So can anyone point me in the direction of any (English language) books which cover the story in depth? It seems entwined with the issue of Jewish emigration from Romania, anti-semitism, and purges within the Partidul Muncitoresc Român/Partidul Comunist Român as Gheorghiu-Dej steered towards an undestalinised ‘national communism’, so any suggestions on that front would also be welcome, as would pointers to good works on the Securitate.

Many thanks 🙂

Mystery Pic #100 – Centenary Post PRIZE ROUND SPECTACULAR!!!

Mystery Pic #100

Well, here we are at last – the one hundredth Mystery Pic Quiz post! Guess the film from the picture and win stuff…

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++ STOP PRESS ++

A mere 41 minutes in and first commenter James Marsh has got the right answer: Peter Weir’s The Way Back (2010).

Congratulations to James, and hard luck the rest of you.

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To spur you indolent wretches into action, for this round and this round alone I have scoured my shelves for doubles and kicked up a not inconsiderable little treasure trove of DVDs for a prize:

Mystery Pic #100 - prizes (2)

Okay, so they’re all ‘pre-owned’ and some of the keepcase hubs are a bit knackered, and the booklet is missing from the Terminator boxset – but this is free shit, dammit! Sixteen films and four TV series across twenty-five discs!!!

To win, all you need to do is identify the film from the screengrab at the top of this post. That’s it. Post your guess in the ‘Comments’ section below; the first one to the right answer wins.

And not only am I offering up a bounty to encourage you all to enter, this time I am also providing clues…

  1. It’s a film I have previously mentioned on this blog, and one I have watched in the last year (hint, hint…)
  2.  The director has made some big Hollywood pictures, but that’s not how he started out
  3. It’s based on a book about real life events
  4. It features an international cast
  5. You need a fifth clue? Lazy!

Mystery Pic #100 - prizes (1)

Mystery Pic #099

Mystery Pic #099

Right – this is the final Mystery Pic before tomorrow’s Mystery Pic Quiz Centenary Post Prize Round Spectacular!

Recognise the film? Then place your guess in the comments below! Think of it as a warm-up for tomorrow’s big one – a massive stack of DVDs is to be won!