More Netflix documentaries

I recently reviewed five Netflix documentaries in one swoop (see here) and see no reason not to repeat the process, all the better to bring you better information in a rapidly digestible format.

Cuba Libre

Cuba Libre proclaims itself to be an 8-part history of the struggle of the Cuban people for freedom from the oppression of the colonial Spanish, from the American government, from oppressive dictatorships, from the mob, and even from the most recent revolution, that of 1959.   It also ventures to speculate on what will happen next, since Raul Castro has vowed to step down in 2018 with no hint that he will either abandon the revolution, nor perpetuate the Castro family dynasty.

For the most part this is good history, taking in contemporary accounts, the analysis of a galaxy of international historians (German, French, Spanish, Russian, Cuban), eye witness accounts, contemporary footage, all with a balanced outlook and fascinating insights on the development of the Cuban mindset through its founding fathers.

Cuba Libre does not baulk at criticisms of Fidel Castro or Che Guevara (even repeating the old joke about how he ended up responsible for the economy – “I thought you said you wanted a communist!”), though it is unflinching in its damnation of the Spanish conquerers (aka conquistadors) who raped Cuba, left it with a banana republic (in this case sugar cane) and murdered natives by the thousand.

Most fascinating of all is how the under-populated, under-armed and amateurish forces led by Castro, Guevara and the soon-to-disappear Camilo Cienfuegos were able to march into Santiago and Havana almost without opposition as Batista‘s troops deserted him, and he deserted the country with $300m of mob money in cash.  How did they do it?  Mostly from growing expertise in propaganda, far more than military might.

One of the ironies of the series is noting how the leadership of Batista excluded his fellow Cubans of Spanish origin, yet the Castro revolution was led by three men of Spanish descent and an Argentinian.

The real mythology of the Cuban revolution concerns how it resisted America, forestalled the counter-revolutionary Bay of Pigs invasion (which was a battle in which there were many casualties on both sides, not a glorious victory for the Cuban forces, as Castro liked to paint it) and subsequent attempts to kill or remove from office the annoying revolutionary just 90 miles south of Florida.

America, it can be argued, forced the politically naive Castro to become a hard-line Marxist-Leninist and to enlist the help of the Soviet Union to defend Cuba, leading to the eventual stand-off and neo-nuclear confrontation in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  Since then the trading embargo of Cuba has continued, the Cuban people have suffered but the revolution remains intact, disproving the American theory that Cubans would demand an American-style democracy, liberty and wealth.  The cultures are poles apart.

A fascinating analysis, if flawed, but certainly recommended.


Last Days In Vietnam

My daughter recently returned from a trip to SE Asia, including trips to Vietnam and Cambodia, in the course of which she learned much of the horrors of how the war was conducted and how the Viet Cong used guerrilla tactics to evade American forces and, ultimately, to grind down the invaders to the point where their tenure was unsustainable.  Domestic support for the war and for more American casualties was at an all-time low, the war was clearly unwinnable, and abject humiliation was inevitable.

The Last Days In Vietnam tells the real life story of how the US came to the inevitable conclusion that withdrawal from Vietnam was the only solution, and the impact on the lives of the Americans living there, and the Vietnamese “collaborators” who had worked in a variety of positions for the invading forces, is a story filled with both tragedy and heroism.  It is told through a combination of witness interviews and presentation of the facts with maps and photos.

Like Cuba Libre it tells its narrative from different perspectives, bursts a few bubbles along the way, and, in the finest journalistic tradition, sticks to a neutral line throughout the dissemination of facts and dissection of one of the saddest episodes in American history.

Little surprise that the mood is sombre, despite the dramatic success in getting out people from the American Embassy at the point where their lives were in serious danger, putting this episode on a par with Dunkirk in its timeliness.

The writer, director and producer of TLDIV is, interestingly enough, Rory Kennedy, youngest child of the late Senator Robert Kennedy, whose father was assassinated before she was born.  Rory was 6 when the evacuation took place, though you would not guess.  The footage she has assembled  from Saigon in 1975 is truly remarkable.

This is not a laugh a minute but is warmly recommended.

**** 1/2


Icarus is a flawed, rambling but extraordinary film by American filmmaker and amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel.  Its greatest weakness is that it follows the path of gonzo journalism through Fogel’s involvement in creating the story he is documenting, though thankfully Fogel is no Hunter S Thompson.  The pace waxes and wanes, but its power is undeniable.

Fogel is an American Jewish film-maker and keen amateur cyclist, though, one keen to test the effectiveness of the steroids everyone in sport is allegedly taking, the effectiveness of drug-testing process and labs that allowed Lance Armstrong and others to get away with being tested clean for so long when they were bent as the proverbial nine bob note.

But Fogel’s film morphed into something very different to his original intentions.  Fogel stumbled into the Olympic news story of a Century entirely by accident.

How?  Because the adviser he had been recommended for his film was none other than Grigory Rodchenkov, the eccentric director of Moscow’s Anti-Doping Centre, later to be exiled to the USA and becoming a whisteblower.  Rodchenkov admitted to masterminding the steroid programme for the vast majority of Russian athletes, including a programme to swap urine samples at the Sochi Winter Olympics that would have been regarded as utterly fanciful, had it appeared in a novel.   He also claimed that knowledge of the scam went right the way up to Putin, who reacted with denials and  by having Rodchenkov’s family arrested, allegedly for for illegally selling drugs.

Rodchenkov was also diagnosed with schizoid personality disorder, exacerbated by stress.  How much of his story is true we can only hazard guesses, but what is certainly known is that the damning report by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) recommending that Russia be thrown out of the Rio games was rejected on legal advice by the IOC, who chose to ban only proven drug cheats, thus allowing others who were almost certainly

The implication of Fogel’s film is quite clear:  WADA’s resources and processes mean that they have not a hope in hell of catching all the drug cheats, and the IOC dare not admit the extent of the doping scandal for fear the entire Olympic house of cards would come tumbling down around their ears.  I suspect that the self-defence motive will always come higher than the outright determination to catch drug cheats, and that the IOC knows only too well the potential for blowing the sport of athletics wide open.

Had Fogel planned this tale in hindsight it might well have ended up a very different film to the one he actually made, but there is no denying the extraordinary spontaneity and power of discovery with each twist and turn.  This film demands and deserves to be seen, and more particularly for WADA and the IOC to cough up a meaningful response that demonstrates their clear joint intent to removing drug cheating from sport at source.

**** and could have been more!


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