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Claus Mueller


Claus Mueller is a Film Festival Ambassador to filmfestivals.com

He is based in New York where he covers the festival scene.


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New York DOC NYC 2020

The 11th edition of the DOC NYC, the largest North American documentary film festival was held online from November 11-19 with productions available throughout the United State. The festival included more than 200 films and events this year, featuring 23 world premieres, 12 productions opening for the first time in North America and 7 new to the US. For the US audience, the festival was extended by a 10-day Encore through November 29 featuring more than 70 production. Below please find a review of some outstanding documentaries.  A more detailed DOC NYC 2020 report will follow.

THE MEANING OF HITLER,  Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, USA, 2020; world premiere; selected as a film with a distinct directorial vision

Guided by the idea that fascist ideology persists today as reflected in the contemporary  growth of xenophobia, rejection of immigrants, racism, antisemitism, and the spread of supportive ideas in social media, the film makers explore Hitler’s past and the evil created by him and his followers. Epperlein and Tucker like, many other observers, are amazed that the fascination with the mythology surrounding Hitler is  appealing to some groups and try to understand this phenomenon through an elucidation of Hitler’s life before he was elected to power, the factors providing context for the Nazi war crimes, the murder of millions of Jews and minority groups, and the mass killing of civilians by the Nazi armed forces. The investigative documentary follows the best-selling 1978   German book The Meaning of Hitler by Sebastian Haffner. He tried to account for the attraction Hitler exerted during his rule which was willingly accepted by most Germans. This approval by the population was facilitated during the Nazi period by the synchronization (Gleichschaltung) of all media which limited cognitive dissonance, the delivery of promises made, suppression of political opposition, corporate support and early war victories.  But the intentions of the regime were also publicized by the press like the Nuernberg Race Laws codifying in 1933 the prosecution of Jewish people with the help of Hans Globke. Globke became Konrad Adenauer’s Chief of Staff after the war and was instrumental in his negotiations with Israel to restrict the  Eichmann Trial to Eichmann thus curtailin investigation and possible prosecution of other senior Nazi officials.. The film makers offer fascinating material including illuminating comments by Saul Friedlander, Yehuda Bauer, and the Nazi Hunters Beate and Serge Klarsfeld. They also cover in brief segments the Holocaust denier David Irving now working as a tourist guide. But despite the large amount of visual material and knowledge covered, the directors are not able to clearly connect current manifestations of evil with Hitler’s heritage. Our visual media present endless documentation of violence and slaughter  from civil wars to environmental disasters on a global scale. Most programmers will however agree that the depiction of death and crimes attracts a larger audience than the representation of nature. Programmers will also maintain that the visual exposure to violence is not enough to change attitudes unless there are other factors reinforcing the visual message. The visual images of Hitler and the evil he stands for do not induce change. If David Irving guides tourists to places Hitler used, he meets their interest. In our period of global tourism, one niche sector is becoming more prominent. Thanatourism also known as Death or Dark Tourism is a legitimate academic field of studies and tourist guides are published for it. Among the top destinations are the Genocide Museum and the Killing Fields in Cambodia, Chernobyl in the Ukraine, and the Auschwitz  Concentration Camp in Poland. My informal interviews with young  visitors in Poland and Cambodia in the late seventies revealed that some were more interested in the machinery of killing than in the socio-cultural and political causes for the mass murder.

INFLUENCE, Richard Poplack and Diana Neille, 2020, Canada; selected as winner of major awards at international film festivals

The Nazi ideology was devoid of a code of ethics and civility in the actions it justified.  INFLUENCE presents an outstanding documentation of the pragmatic application of public relations for achieving e political goals not bound by ethical conisderation as long as a well-funded customer can pay for . The center of the story is Timothy Bell who for a long time handled the Margret Thatcher account at Saatchi & Saatchi and takes responsibility for three election campaigns he ran for her, claiming that she made no utterance without his prior approval. For the first campaign he came up with the winning slogan “Labor is not Working” to which the Labor party had no response. Bell established a smooth cooperative relation with the tabloids which started supporting the Tories. As reported by his associates and friends, Bell had no scruples about his actions. Bell declared that the difference between true and false news did not matter and was thus close to the Brexiteers and a precursor to Trump supporters and he favored search engine manipulations. He had the view that politics should be privatized, and that democracy was for sale.  His contracts’ funding originated in the same group of wealthy families who also financed the conservative party. When questioned about ethics he responded that he may be involved in amoral but not immoral actions. In his words “morality is  a job for priests” but not for those shaping public opinion. His approach to win by any means for his wealthy clients went global after he co-founded the London based  Bell and Pottinger (BP) company. Among the BP clients were despots, dictators, and governments. Sometimes they approached Bell directly, in other cases  Bell or BP executives solicited potential clients. BP would design the public relations strategy  needed to change perceptions and impact public opinion. Bell transformed BP into the biggest global public relations company. BP worked for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and dictators like Alexander Lukashenko from Belarus and Chile’s Agusto Pinochet. Pinochet was placed into house arrest in England in 1998 for two years before Bell and his associates succeeded in getting his release and the UK allowed him to return to Chile rather than honoring the official request for extradition to Spain for the crimes Pinochet instigated in Chile. He also be benefited from Bell’s advice about how to select his successor. Bell was a superb huckster selling solutions. South Africa’s president William de Klerk  contracted  Bell in 1994 to  design an electoral  strategy for his National Party in the first democratic election.  De Klerk needed at least one third of the vote to prevent the African National Congress from modifying South Africa’s constitution. BP succeeded and the National Party scored 33.3 percent. One of the biggest deals was a $540 million  contract from the Pentagon in 2003 to enhance support in Iraq for the United States and for the political groups favored by the US. The results were audiovisual productions including three brief soap operas shown on local TV.  Whether this geo-political spin doctoring operation was a success is dubious. Congress terminated the project. In the following years BP returned to  South Africa. Three brothers from the wealthy Indian Gupta family settled in South Arica and engaged with official assistance and support from their friend, South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma, in the systematic corruption of the political and economic system. Prevailing poverty, political actions, and growing public objections to corruption and the Guptas as well as Zuma resulted in BP receiving lucrative consulting contracts from the Guptas to change their negative image and refocus public attention. Thus, the blame for South Africa’s problems and widespread poverty was placed by BP workers on the white minority through a widespread public relations campaign with the slogan “white  monopoly capital” as the anchor, accompanied by the promise of helping impoverished  blacks. However, this slogan and its campaign backfired, and social tensions and public manifestations magnified. Due to the turmoil, leaks of many documents revealing the role of the Guptas and BP’s machinations, loss of clients, and internal struggles, BP went insolvent and dissolved. Bell and Pottinger’s mastermind Timothy Bell had resigned in 2016.

KINGS OF CAPITOL HILL, Mor Loushy, Israel, 2020

Loushy provides a stimulating investigation of Israel’s rise to power, dominating Washington relevant federal policies thus far. In his detailed case study of the most important pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) the attentive audience gets a clear understanding about the Washington DC lobbying process and how AIPAC had been instrumental in shaping US policies.  AIPAC was established in 1951 to generate a better understanding of Israel, provide support for the peace process and receive backing because the six-day war including funds from federal agencies. AIPAC was financed by contributions from wealthy American liberal democratic Jews who shared the vision of the founding members and the mission they articulated. The documentary is based on archival material but at its core are the interviews carried out by Loushy with former executives and supporters of the lobby. AIPAC has never granted any interviews during the 70 years of its existence, keeping its mode of operation and pressure politics off limits. Thus, for outsiders and many Israelis, before Loushy’s outstanding investigative documentary, AIPAC remained a fairly obscure organization. Loushy shows how AIPAC morphed from a liberal democratic lobby articulating or backing possible solutions to the Palestine Israel problem and securing financial support for Israel into a conservative organization firmly behind the current Israeli government and its policies of expanding  control over Palestinians lands and restricting civil liberties for Palestinian.  Whereas there was no fissure during the early decades of AIPAC between the positions it held and the the views of the Jewish American population, today there is a large discrepancy between AIPAC’s complete solidarity with Netanyahu and the socio-political perspectives of the Jewish community in the UJS. The gap is illustrated by the recent presidential elections. About 80% of  Jewish voters opted for Biden and the percentage of Jews selecting the Republican party reached the lowest level ever since 2008.

As the documentary shows, the transformation of AIPAC has been expressed in various ways. This lobby is now considered to be one of the most powerful in Washington DC. It was successful in undermining the electoral process by throwing its resources and weight behind candidates with unquestioned allegiance to Israel. It  backed directly or indirectly and provided support to any opponent to an elected member who criticized support for Israel or questioned her policies. The most prominent of the numerous victims of AIPAC was Senator Charles Percy who had served for 18 years in the Senate and frequently questioned the generous US military aid for Israel. He was replaced by the relatively unknown Paul Simon with strong backing from AIPAC. The defeat of Percy and others placed a damper on any criticism of Israel by  members of the Senate and House. Thus, a seemingly Congressional support consensus for Israel arose and the view that such support meets the national US interest. Parallel to the subversion of elections was the open and covert resistance and opposition to peace initiatives like the Oslo Accords or any financial support for Palestinians. Evidently any modification of the position of the Israeli government and Trump to the 2014 Iran agreements was vigorously opposed. During the last decades, most executives and staff members of AIPAC with democratic or liberal leanings were terminated and any critical discussion of Israel made impossible. As stated by a former  executive, “AIPAC is as interested in peace as Dracula is in a Bar Mitzva”.  But AIPAC, though married to Netanyahu for as long as he is in power, is no longer the sole voice on the hill speaking for Israel. Since 2008 the J-Street lobby has been offering  critical and liberal alternatives to the unquestioned support of Israel. Its adherents, specifically the younger generation have participated in anti-AIPAC manifestations. Also important is the fact that not a single democratic candidate running for office attended the last AIPAC convention. Nevertheless, changes of US Israel policies are difficult but not impossible to attain given the facts established by Donald Trump and Netanyahu. But Biden is still willing to discuss the 2014 Iran agreement.

THE VIEWING BOOTH, Ra’anan Alexandrovicz, Israel, 2019

Featured at the 2020 berlinale Forum section and the Sundance festival this documentary presents in a lab type experiment one individual’s interaction with visual messages and addresses the important issue of how images shape our perception of reality. The viewer  is a young Jewish American student Maia who is  living in the USA with her Israeli parents and she screens a series of short films produced in Israel by a human rights organization on Palestinian issues, and footage made for or by the Israeli army. She returns after months to view her selections again and checks the footage of her reaction to them recorded during the first session. Given her background the viewer can assume that she has pro-Israel convictions. The important and perennial questions the film maker raises are the impact of documentaries on an audience and the influence exerted if a viewer is exposed to messages which contrast or contradict prior convictions or preconceptions. This would create a dissonance in the viewers mind. As Alexandrovicz admits at the end of the second session, an apparent absence of an impact is disconcerting for him as a film maker. Maia adds at the end that for her the fusion of politics and religion creates an identity that strengthened her beliefs. As a curator for several years of "Documentaries with an Impact" programs at a Mexican film festival program I observed after previewing many American and foreign productions that there is a scarcity of documentaries which had an empirical verifiable  influence on the viewers. In most cases what they watched reinforced their prior convictions and added knowledge. In the viewing booth Maia experienced as shown in her facial and verbal reactions brief periods of being puzzled or surprised by the images. But she proceeded repairing this disharmony between image and belief by re-establishing cognitive balance with “facts” actual or invented, ex post facto,  healing the discrepancy.  As Leon Festinger suggested in the late fifties, we have an inner drive to establish cognitive harmony and suspend dissonance. For Maia the disturbing  midnight invasion of a Palestinian home with sleeping children by several heavily armed Israeli soldiers was caused by the likely search for a bomb, or that stones thrown at a Palestinian home were from Arab kids. When advised that they were Israeli children she commented that they must have had reason. Her gut responses followed her selective perception of reality. For her, lacking an account for some of scenes she screened just meant they were staged propaganda.

 

Claus Mueller

filmexchange@mail,com

New York

 

 

 

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