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Laughing at Stalin

My esteemed friend Bill Niven posted this insightful review on FB of the Armando Iannucci film about the death of Stalin. He asks an important question. Would anyone make a comedy about the demise of Hitler and the grotesques of the Nazi regime? Arguably Brecht tried to do that – but who laughs now? There is a knotty issue here, as Bill points out – do we not know enough about the Stalin period, the mass starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, to say nothing of the terrible human cost of the purges? Perhaps the same knowledge gap applies to China under Mao, though as far as I know there’s no Maoist comedy in the pipeline. Right wing historians worsen this ‘Uncle Jo’ paradox: they are forever proposing history as a kind of competition to determine who was ‘most evil’. Just as totalitarian history may not be funny, neither is it a kind of theological game show. Here’s Bill’s post: Did I enjoy the “Death of Stalin”. It was certainly funny, witty lines, gags, sharp and feisty dialogues. And it was well-acted, the whole acting team blended and contrasted well, growing into their roles perceptibly as the film wore […]
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Story telling

In the media business we think about ‘Story’ all the time – with a capital S. It’s also the title of a massive tome by Robert McKee who is one of the gurus of Story World. They gabble away in a kind of vernacular – ‘beats’ and ‘acts’ and what not. Did the writers of ‘Casablanca’ really ever think in these terms? The BBC once sent myself and a few colleagues to attend a Robert McKee Weekend – a gruelling experience that culminated in a stop/start screening of ‘Casablanca’. McKee never stops talking. No one can ask a question. It is a paradox that McKee is one of the gods of the Story teaching circuit and yet when was the last time you caught a great movie movie with his name in the writer’s slot? There is a mass of material online offering both advice about how to write a screenplay and tickings off for not knowing the rules. Beats, acts, protagonists… and so it goes on. Anyone could write one of these essays. This barrage of dogma is a powerful sign that it’s  all wrong. I think it is. There isn’t one ‘perfect’ way to construct a narrative – […]
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Podcast on The Aidan Project…

Aidan Coughlan has created a very strong podcast site – and asked me some very good questions about empire and Southeast Asia – you can listen to the results here here and here… We also talked about the myth of ‘Atlantis’. This podcast will be available soon. I enjoyed the experience and Aidan’s questions were sharp and well informed. As usual with any interview, I had a sense of making a few mistakes as we went along as well as fumbling a few arguments. My premise is that Europeans don’t think enough about the impact of colonialism – and in Britain surveys consistently reveal positive/approving views of empire. Most European nations conquered overseas empires – are surveys like this also carried out in France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and Spain? We British an honest accounting with the past – and a national museum of Colonialism and Slavery would be a good start.  
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Atlantis Returns

Some time ago, a few colleagues and I made two films for the BBC’s Horizon strand about the myth of Atlantis. The idea was inspired by a two part Horizon made a quarter of a century earlier about Erich von Däniken. We focused on a British writer called Graham Hancock. His best selling writings had many ingredients in common with von Däniken and, as we discovered,  the 19th Century re-invention of Plato’s Atlantis by an American politician and populist writer Ignatius Donnelly. It was Donnelly, rather than Plato, who fixed on a simple idea: an ancient culture – terrestrial or not – had been destroyed in a cataclysm of some kind and that its survivors had wandered the earth or arrived in spaceships to inspire the rise of civilisations in different regions of the world. We contended that this imaginary history was underpinned by 19th Century racism: civilisation was created by indigenous peoples but by superior outsiders. The second documentary, which focused on Hancock, was controversial in its day – and we were required to defend it at what was then called the ‘Broadcasting Standards Commission’. I described the sequence of events in a chapter contributed to ‘Archaeological Fantasies‘, edited by the […]
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The Malaise

I hesitated naming the current POTUS in the heading. I am sick of the continuous stream of Trump comment: Trumpiana? Sick in the most existential way. Instead of asking ‘what is to be done’, it is tempting to say ‘nothing can be done’… Sick too of the self important impotence of Corbyn’s Labour Party – and the grotesque disregard May and her people have for any decent values left in the political fabric of the United Kingdom. Sick of a British press that is failing to face up to the current government and the insane stampede for the European exit. I am reminded of Sartre’s description of ‘Nausea’ in his novel… …an insinuating, softly horrible metamorphosis of all his sensations. It is Nausea. It grabs you from behind, and then you drift in a tepid sea of time. Is it the world? Walls, gardens, cafes are abruptly overcome by nausea. Another time he wakes up to a baleful day: something is rotten in the air, the light, people’s gestures. And this ‘sickness’ and the sense that nothing can be done is precisely what these people want. You can’t get at the POTUS head on – this feeds his power base, […]
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Vertigo: seeing is not believing

I watched Vertigo again recently – perhaps for the third or fourth time. It reminded me of being puzzled by the film when I first saw it years ago – it is, on the surface, a trashy movie adapted from a trashy French thriller called ‘Between Two Deaths’ – a barely credible shaggy dog story that is saturated with cod psychology about agoraphobia. Nowadays James Stewart’s Scotty would probably have been diagnosed with PTSD given his unfortunate association with violent deaths. I probably first watched a mediocre, dilapidated print that would have inevitably blurred the astonishing visual genius of Hitchcock’s work which is exhibited in this film more than any other in his very uneven catalogue – and the work of the picture and sound restorers has to be recognized as truly remarkable. But it is paradoxical. The impact of the clean up is to expose Hitchcock’s remarkably stylised and anti naturalist design that makes full use of resplendent colour symbolism and recurrent visual leitmotifs that are deepened and echoed with thrilling brilliance in Bernard Hermann’s score. Hermann, who wrote the score of ‘Citizen Kane’, perfectly understood I suspect the intention of the film, which I believe is to dramatize […]
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Shocking

It’s regrettable that the UK Supreme Court cannot go further. After all, its distinguished members concluded: One of the majority Justices, Lord Kerr, described the case as “shocking” adding that the “overwhelming preponderance of currently available evidence” showed: “wholly innocent men were mercilessly murdered and the failure of the authorities of this state to conduct an effective inquiry into their deaths” (para 204). Another, Lord Neuberger, commented “the evidence which first came to light in late 1969 and early 1970 plainly suggested that the Killings were unlawful” (para 75) and “a war crime may have been committed” (para 136). Lord Kerr’s judgment concluded by expressing regret at the majority’s decision. He added (para 285): “the law has proved itself unable to respond positively to the demand that there be redress for the historical wrong that the appellants so passionately believe has been perpetrated on them and their relatives. That may reflect a deficiency in our system of law. It certainly does not represent any discredit on the honourable crusade that the appellants have pursued.”
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UK Supreme Court delivers judgement on the Batang Kali killings

Supreme Court verdict on the Batang Kali massacre: “honourable crusade” exposes evidence that “wholly innocent men were mercilessly murdered” and the UK remains responsible, but no remedy for victims’ families The UK Supreme Court delivered a judgment today holding that the British Government remains legally responsible for a controversial series of events in December 1948 when Scots Guards killed 24 unarmed civilians in Batang Kali, Selangor, but need not hold a public inquiry to establish the truth. Selangor was then part of colonial Malaya and the troops had been deployed to assist the local administration tackle insurgent activity. The killings were described as a military victory at the time and the official account that they were necessary and lawful has been maintained for decades, despite six of the soldiers involved confessing to murder in 1970. One of the five judges, Lady Hale, dissented. She concluded that refusal of an inquiry was a decision no “reasonable public authority could reach” (para 313). One of the majority Justices, Lord Kerr, described the case as “shocking” adding that the “overwhelming preponderance of currently available evidence” showed: “wholly innocent men were mercilessly murdered and the failure of the authorities of this state to conduct […]
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Thinking history

This blog was launched alongside the book ‘Massacre in Malaya’… and I have continued to comment on the legal proceedings to do with the Batang Kali case. We are all waiting for word from the UK Supreme Court. But other issues have caught my attention in the meantime and so here are some rumination on those. Reading Max Hastings’ review about German citizens during the Second World War a few comments struck me forcibly. The first was the oft repeated trope that the Holocaust – and for that matter German plans to eradicate millions of Slavs also considered ‘life not worthy of life’ – somehow contradicts the fact that modern Germany, founded in 1871 was Europe’s preeminent civilisation – the land of Bach, Goethe and Thomas Mann, although only the last named was a ‘German’ in the modern sense. The implication is that it is less surprising that, say, Rwandans or Cambodians, or Turks for that matter, perpetrate genocide than that some Germans did between 1941 and 1945. It is a puzzle that the civilised descended to barbarism but not that other peoples did. The puzzle is a false one. Putting it in these terms exposes the innately racist assumption […]
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Latest from the Malaysian legal team on Supreme Court

Written by Caroline Goh Seow Siang By The 24 victims’ families of the Batang Kali massacre are hopeful and somehow optimistic that the UK Supreme Court would rule in their favour and that British Government be ordered to open inquiries into contentious killings by British soldiers in Batang Kali, Selangor, on 11 and 12 December 1948.  The families’ application for judicial review after the UK Government’s refusal to hold the inquiry was dismissed by the Divisional Court in 2012 and also lost their appeal to the UK Court of Appeal in 2014 but was invited to appeal to the Supreme Court. Human Rights Duty It was argued by the families that both Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and Section 6 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) imposes a duty on the UK to commission an independent inquiry despite the killings occurring before the ECHR was drafted and signed and by virtue of Janowiec, such investigative duty arose because there was a connection between the killings, the original inadequate investigation, the UK’s signature and ratification of the ECHR and the subsequent failure to undertake an inquiry when the new evidence came to light, particularly in the 1970s […]
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