Australia

I’ve really been slacking on the documentaries lately.  I blame school, work, sports, and the Investigation Discovery channel….buuuutttt I finally got around to finishing the documentary on Australia that I started last weekend.  It’s called “Welcome to Australia” and was made in 1999, when Sydney was preparing for the 2000 Olympics.  It focused on the horrible treatment of Aborigines by Australia.  Aborigines who were forbidden from participating in the Games…..

It was only a couple years before this docu that Aborigines were officially recognized as people by the government.  Aborigines make up about 2% of the population and are treated much like Native Americans were treated here in the US in the 17 and 1800s.  Most of them are kept on reservation compounds where there are no jobs, little education, no clean water, and no reliable food source.  Segregation is officially over, but a lot of the people who were interviewed were in their 30s and 40s, and they remembered how they weren’t allowed inside buildings in the cities, and how if they didn’t have their passbook signed by a priest stating that they were “a good person,” they would be arrested.  They still have the highest imprisonment rate of any minority in the world.

Life expectancy for Aborigines is worse than in many places in Africa.  They die in their 30s and 40s, more than 25 years before white Australians.  They suffer from a suicide epidemic and imprisoned Aborigines die at twice the rate of other prisoners.  When asked about it, government leaders always seem to point out the decline in the infant mortality rate among the natives.  See, now Aboriginal children “only” die 3 times more often than white children…..

Australia is the only developed nation on the World Health Org’s “list of shame,” which lists the countries where huge numbers of children die of easily preventable diseases, such as trachoma (a blinding disease) and rheumatic fever.

The government is really in denial of the problem.  The PM at the time of this film had recently vetoed a measure to add black (aboriginal) names to war memorials, stating that no blacks had ever died fighting for Australia.  One of PM Howard’s first acts was to cut $400 million from programs designed to help Aborigines.  He acknowledges that the treatment of the native population has put “a blemish” on the reputation of the country, but never apologized.

And it’s not just the government.  Australians themselves are very racist, as demonstrated when the white-supremacist party One Nation received 1 million votes in the last election.  That’s 10% of the electorate…….  There is a grass roots movement of white Australians who support the rights of the Aborigines, but nothing really seems to be happening with it.  It seems like the only real hope for these people is that their story will be spread throughout the world, drawing enough criticism and outrage to force Australia to change.  But given the PC nature of the world today, that doesn’t seem too likely…..

Armenia

The next country on the list was Armenia, which was fitting, since the Armenian genocide of the 1915 has been in the news recently.  And the only documentary I could find was about the genocide.  It’s called “Betrayed” and was filmed in 2003 by the BBC, almost 90 years after the fact, but the Armenians who appeared in it said that thoughts of that horrible time are part of their daily lives.

The genocide of the Armenian people by the Ottoman Turks started in 1915–though the Turks will tell you there was no genocide at all.  The Ottoman Empire was invaded by the Russians, and a small number of Armenians (a Christian ethnic minority in the Empire) joined them, so the government of the Empire branded all Armenians traitors and issued orders for them to be deported from the cooler mountainous regions of the country towards the deserts which are now part of Syria.  Many Armenians were killed when being rounded up (forcing people into buildings then setting them on fire was a favorite tactic) but in order to avoid responsibility, the government used other methods for most of the hundreds of thousands of murders.

While marching on the Trail of Desolation, as it was called, the Armenians were given little water, little food, and no shelter.  They were attacked often by disgruntled tribes or “deserting” Turkish soldiers, who are widely believed to have been paid off by the government to carry out the attacks.  Doctors systematically overdosed children with morphine, suffocated newborns, and issued death certificates citing “natural causes” for nearly every death.  Along the way, many women and children were placed into boats which were then “accidentally” capsized in the Black Sea.

Turks today vehemently deny that it was a genocide, saying that it’s “pathetic” that government officials “who clearly have no passports and know nothing about anything” would vote on such matters.  Well, I think it’s pathetic that they can’t accept it as what it is.

Well, I shouldn’t say all Turks deny it….because most don’t know anything about it.  They’re taught in school that the Turks and Armenians were always allies, and then one day the Armenians just left.  That’s all.  No deportation, no genocide, nothing but a friendly neighbor randomly deciding to move on……

The government says that there are “no records” of an intention to exterminate the Armenians in Turkish archives, which proves it wasn’t genocide.  Please.  Just because you destroy the evidence doesn’t mean it never happened.  If you go to the archives of many other nations–including Russia and Germany, who were traditionally Turkish allies–you will find a lot of photographic and journalistic evidence, as well as a general feeling of disgust that their allies would do such a thing.  There’s also evidence here in America. The US Ambassador to Turkey at the time, Henry Morgantile, received reports from missionaries all around the nation, as well as from independent sources, that all signs pointed to a controlled, knowledgeable push towards complete extermination of the Armenians.

The Turks in power today claim that deaths from starvation should not be attributed to the government, because such events were just “the unfortunate result of a mass relocation for the safety of Turkish soldiers.”  Right….and I’m sure withholding food didn’t have anything to do with it……..

Diplomats also claim that the killings didn’t fit the legal definition of genocide–a word whose creator only defined it after witnessing the atrocities committed by the Turks!  See, they claim that it’s all about intention, so even if the government had killed all those Armenians, if they didn’t have the direct intent of destroying a culture, it didn’t count.  They also claim that ethnic cleansing in and of itself doesn’t meet the legal requirements.

Twenty nations officially recognize what happened to the Armenians as genocide.  The US is not one of those nations (neither are the UK or Australia, for that matter).  A bill has come before the Congress three times in the past three administrations.  Bill Clinton and George Bush both pressured the Speakers of the House to remove the bill from the table before the vote, which they did.  Now the bill has passed the House committee and is on its way to the floor again….and the Obama administration is doing what the other two did.

I understand the political implications.  We need Turkey’s help in the Middle East at the moment.  We use their country as a stopover point between us and our wars.  The country also lies on top of a key route for oil and natural gas as it moves from the Middle East to the West.  Each time this bill comes up, Turkey makes veiled threats against the lives of American soldiers and tourists that ultimately scare the White House into submission.

I’m divided on this issue.  I mean, clearly the genocide took place, and to allow a country to deny it is to allow it to happen again in the future, but at the moment there are clear security and economic concessions that I’m not sure we as a country can make right now.  Should we let the issue rest forever?  No, but I think we should wait until angering the Turkish government is not going to cause the needless deaths of Americans.  But just because it’s not officially recognized doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and I hope Turkey knows that most of the world knows the truth, whether politics allow their governments to admit it or not.

Argentina

Now that busy season is (almost) officially over, I have the time to start watching documentaries again.  I couldn’t find anything on Antigua and Barbuda, so the next country on the list was Argentina. Honestly, I didn’t know much about Argentina before–I had no idea they had such an economic meltdown in late 2001.  I suppose the fact that I was only 12, and the fact that I was more concerned with my own country immediately post 9/11 played a role in that.

Anyway, here’s a very brief summary of what happened courtesy of Wikipedia (I could rewrite it in my own words, but why bother when they state it so nicely?): “Record foreign debt interest payments, tax evasion and capital flight resulted in a balance of payments crisis that plagued Argentina with serious stagflation from 1975 to 1990. Attempting to remedy this, economist Domingo Cavallo pegged the peso to the U.S. dollar in 1991 and limited the growth in the money supply. His team then embarked on a path of trade liberalization, deregulation and privatization. Inflation dropped and GDP grew by one third in four years; but external economic shocks and failures of the system diluted benefits, causing the economy to crumble slowly from 1995 until the collapse in 2001. That year and the next, the economy suffered its sharpest decline since 1930; by 2002, Argentina had defaulted on its debt, its GDP had shrunk, unemployment reached 25% and the peso had depreciated 70% after being devalued and floated.

The repercussions of the rapid economic decline were still felt years later.  The documentary I watched, called Insight Argentina, which was filmed in 2005 started by stating that 50 years ago, Argentina was one of the wealthiest nations on the planet.  Now 50% of the adult population and 70% of the youth population live in poverty. The people don’t trust the government–who would?–or banks, since Citibank, Bank of America, and countless other huge companies literally froze the accounts of all Argentinian clients in December of 2001, the height of the crisis.

The documentary was a fairly short one, and it followed two volunteer groups in Argentina–Insight and ph15.  The Insight group were in a small village in northern Argentina helping to raise money to buy a stove for the soup kitchen, school materials for the kids, and costumes for the murga carnival.  A murga is basically a community group used to keep youths off the streets and away from drugs.  Once a year all the murgas from nearby villages get together and have a carnival with a dancing competition.

The second group, ph15, works in the slums of Buenos Aires, teaching underprivileged youths about photography.  It’s a three year program designed to 1) keep kids off the streets and away from gangs; 2) give them a chance to interact with other children in a safe environment; and 3) give them an opportunity for a better life.

This documentary was really more about the efforts of these groups than the lives of the people they were helping, but it was good nonetheless, especially since it was one of the only free ones I could find.  There was another called Argentina’s Economic Collapse on youtube, but I found it to be a little too boring for me.  Hey, even if this wasn’t National Geographic quality, at least I learned something, which is the entire point of this exercise.  Next up: Armenia.

The Devil’s Footpath

I couldn’t find anything on the tiny country of Andorra, which is nestled inbetween France and Spain, so I decided to move on to the next country on the list: Angola.  Unfortunately, this didn’t have much either.  I did manage to find a good documentary from 2004 called The Devil’s Footpath, in which a 22 year old Kenyan law student travels through six countries in Africa, Angola being one of them.  The student, named June, is trying to decide whether to become one of the many educated Africans who leave their continent for better opportunities abroad, or whether to stay and see what she can do at home.

Her first stop is Cairo, Egypt.  Here, she goes to a travel agent to book her flights for the rest of her trip, only to discover that there are very few commercial flights between African countries, and none to the dangerous regions she’s interested in.  She’ll have to travel by hitching a ride with aid agencies.  While out and about in Cairo, she is assigned a government ‘minder,’ who follows her around everywhere, telling her where she can and can’t go, and who she can and can’t talk to.  She wanted to speak to some students at the University of Cairo, to get their take on life in Egypt, but is told that she can only speak to the wealthy students at the American University.  Yet even these rich, well-connected kids are afraid to speak their minds or show any opposition to the government, for fear of being jailed or killed.  June managed to ditch her minder to meet up with a young woman who attended a peaceful anti-government demonstration and was arrested.  The woman was beaten by the soldiers, and threatened with rape and torture.  All because she attended a peaceful protest.

June’s next stop is southern Sudan, which she reaches by flying in with UNICEF.  Sudan has been ravaged by a 30+ year war between the Islamic government in the north and the Christian tribes of the south.  However, locals say that it’s oil, not religion, which is fueling the conflict.  All the oil fields are in the south, you see, but it’s the north which receives all the revenue.  The government doesn’t differentiate between rebels and civilians; if you live in the south, you’re considered a rebel and will be killed at the first opportunity.  The only medical aid received in the south comes from UNICEF, and only when the area is deemed “stable.”  These people have no schools, unsurprisingly.  The children meet under a tree, learning how to read from small booklets and using a crude blackboard.  All of them want to be either pilots, doctors, or teachers, because these are the only people outside of their community who they interact with.  However, the future doesn’t look very bright for them, because as intelligent as they are, their government will do all it can to suppress them.

Her third stop is the Congo, which she reaches with the aid of UN peacekeepers.  The peacekeepers arrived in June 2003, officially stopping the violence which had killed over 4.5 million civilians in the previous 5 years.  However, conflict still exists in some parts of the country.  June goes to the Internally Displaced People’s camp, where over 13,000 war refugees live.  Within the first five minutes, a man threatens to slit her throat and eat her flesh, but then she finds more friendly people.  They live like animals, with dirty water, an inconsistent food supply, and ragged tents which barely pass for shelter and provide no protection from the cold night air.  All while the government officials who caused this ride about in limousines and are treated like celebrities when they visit other countries.  June then goes to see a gold mine.  She has to wear a helmet and bullet proof vest during the drive because of the lawless gangs roaming the countryside.  While at the mine, she meets a young boy who saw his parents killed by the militia and survived a machete attack himself.  The scars are clearly visible and the trauma has rendered him mute.  The only thing that makes him smile is seeing birds fly.

June’s fourth stop is Angola.  Angola is the 2nd largest oil exporter in Africa, with much of the oil coming from the region of Cabinda.  Cabinda–which is geographically separated from the rest of Angola–was a “gift” from the Portuguese when Angola won it’s independence in 1975.  June flies in to Cabinda with Chevron-Texaco and visits one of their oil rigs.  She learns that the Cabindans want independence, and the Angolan government responded by inundating the area with soldiers, many of whom are enlisted by force.  June meets a woman who was captured by a group of these soldiers as she was walking home one night.  Her companion refused to cooperate and was killed, while she was gang-raped repeatedly.  Yet should she have reported it to the police, they would have taken the soldiers’ side.

Her fifth stop is Namibia, specifically the Caprivi strip.  In 1999 in a bid for independence, the Caprivi Liberation Army attacked government soldiers.  300 leaders and members were arrested.  All were tortured. At the time of this documentary, 100 were still languishing in jail, awaiting trial.  Caprivi has the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the entire world.  50% of the population is infected, yet for mostly superstitious reasons, the people don’t use condoms.  A Red Cross volunteer tells June that 83% of people go to a witch doctor before they go to the hospital.  Imelda, the head witch doctor, admits to lying and cheating her patients.  Even if she knows that they’re infected with HIV, she’ll lie and say that they are “sick with demons,” and will charge a month’s wages to perform an exorcism.

June’s sixth, and last, stop is South Africa.  She arrives in Johannesburg.  Although Apartheid had ended 10 years before she came, the transition to democracy was still struggling and there was a strong divide between rich and poor.  Still, aside from Cairo, it was the most developed place she had seen in Africa.  They even had a shopping mall which looked like it could have been American or European.  She visits a gold mine–mining is the main reason that South Africa has managed to become one of the most developed countries in Africa.  Though natural resources are rich everywhere, not every country has the ability to take advantage of them.  June meets Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, who tells her that bright minds should go abroad.  They should learn and experience the world, but then come back and help Africa.  This is the only way Africa can continue to develop, he says.

June travels from Johannesburg to Capetown, where she decides that she, like many educated Africans, is going to leave the continent, to complete her education, if nothing else.  It is up to the governments, she says, to stop the brain drain and make Africa into a blooming economy that will afford its best and brightest the opportunities they deserve.

Algeria

As with Albania, it was hard to find documentaries on Algeria.  I managed to watch a few clips on youtube detailing the bloody civil war which dominated the country from 1992-2002.  Basically it was the government vs. radical Islamist groups.  Close to 200,000 were believe to have been murdered during those ten years, many of them civilians.  One of the reasons that the war went on so long is that the world didn’t really know much about it due to censorship.

Algeria is now officially a democratic state, but the people–not always by their choice–follow Sharia law.  A Sharia policy from 1984 called the Family Code still stands today, and was examined in the only full-length documentary I was able to find, titled: ‘Chahinaz: What Rights for Women?’  Honestly, though I am a woman and therefore completely support equality, I was hoping for something a little more all encompassing, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The docu follows Chahinaz, a 21 year old Algerian student who lives in Constantine, Algeria.  She is on a quest to understand the Family Code:  a law which limits the rights of women.  Women technically belong to the men in their lives.  They cannot do anything without a male ‘tutor,’ not even plan a wedding!  Many of Chahinaz’s friends are quite brainwashed.  Her male friends, of course, said that they see nothing wrong with the Code.  In their eyes, it’s not “unfair.”  Her female friends believe that their society has come very far, but this is how things were meant to be.  They see nothing wrong with having to be overseen, because it “is part of their religion,” and to go against it “is to go against God.”

In some ways, they’re right.  Their society has come far—at least in the big cities.  The people have food and shelter and jobs and  cars.  Women have only been allowed to go to universities for 40 years, but they make up 60% of the student population.  Technically, they can study what they want and have whatever career they want.  That sounds all well and good, but in practice it’s not really so.  Chahinaz is one of the few women who doesn’t wear the veil.  In all the scenes where she’s walking in the street, she’s getting cat-calls and hateful mocking from every man she passes, and glares from those who are veiled. She’s studying architecture, and she knows that if she and a man apply for the same job, even if she’s much more qualified, she doesn’t have a chance.

Chahinaz decided to talk to women from around the world to see how their societies work.  First there was a devout Christian (bleh) American, then the first female President of Ireland, then two elected women in India, and finally, some Algerian migrants living in France.  The American made a fool of herself–constantly talking about her religion and getting into a political discussion, about how she supported Bush (double bleh).  The Irish woman was, obviously, very smart and charismatic, and she detailed how just 20 years ago, Irish women weren’t much different from Algerian women, except that they were even forced to quit their jobs after their first child was born.  It was France that surprised me.  I mean, we all know France is fairly xenophobic and chauvenistic, but I didn’t know that 10-12 women per month (as of 2007, at least) were killed by partners or ex-partners, and that if the killer claimed it was a “crime of passion” and that “he killed her because he loved her,” the jail sentence was automatically halved….

This documentary was interesting, but not necessarily eye-opening.  I suppose it’s because the struggle for women’s rights is fairly universal, but in a country with an emerging economy, the situation is not as bad as it is in some of the poorer nations.  Of course Algerian women should have all the freedom of men, but they’re not locked inside and forbidden to go to school or anything like that.

I would have liked to have learned more about the other regions of Algeria–not just about a girl from a major city–but alas, we can’t always get what we want, and this will have to satisfy me for now, as Algeria still has many censoring laws which make it hard for outsiders to know what trouble lies within.

Albania

Okay, first off, just let me say how hard it was to find anything on Albania.  It’s not a favorite country apparently…..  I ended up watching a couple mini-documentaries on youtube instead of one all-encompassing thing.

The first was called “Blood-Feud: Albania.”  It was made in 2001, and started by declaring that Albania was the poorest country in Europe, so it was rare to see tourists, because the tourists go to Greece.  10 years after the fall of communism, there’s still little infrastructure, and people tend to take justice into their own hands because they don’t trust the state.  After the labor camps and terror of Enver Hoxha, they’re conditioned not to.  There are very few jobs in Albania, but image is everything, so many people who have relatives overseas receive money from them and buy cars and homes they can’t afford, all for the illusion.  There are also these nasty little things called blood feuds, where if, say, one man kills another man, the family of the man who was killed has the right to kill a member of the family of the killer….  And the “first prize” in life for an Albanian is a greencard to Europe or America.

The second was called “Sold Children-Albania,” and it deals with the high rate of child kidnapping.  About one child a week disappears: to be illegally adopted if they’re lucky, but more likely either to be sold into the sex trade or to become victims of the black market for organs. It’s easy for these kids to disappear without a trace, because there hasn’t been a census since the fall of communism, and births aren’t always recorded.

So far….not wanting to visit there.  No offense EK, but I’m not like you.  I can’t just lay on any old beach and forget I’m in an unsafe fourth-world country 😉

Afghanistan

This is the first country in Wiki’s list, and ergo the first documentary I watched.  I actually ended up watching two documentaries, because the first barely mentioned the women, and I wanted a well-rounded view.

I started with “Afghan Stories.”  In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Taran Davies, a filmmaker, and Walied Osman, an Afghan-American, set off to Afghanistan to meet the people who had lived in a constant state of warfare for over 20 years.  They started, oddly enough, in Queens, meeting with a member of the royal family who was tortured by the Taliban and escaped to the US during the 90s.  They then went to Tajikistan, where they found Afghan refugees– a doctor, a journalist, and their four children–living in a one-room apartment.  Their applications for visas to join relatives in Canada had just been rejected, and they were unable to find work due to their Afghan roots.  The duo then entered Afghanistan and met a relief worker trying to rebuild his country one road  and one village at a time, and an Islamic elder who dedicated his life to peace while his warrior son had fought alongside the Soviets.  The son had sent his wife and children to Moscow for their safety and was set to join them in a few days, but 9/11 changed everything, and now he believes he will never see them again.

The second documentary was called “Daughters of Afghanistan,” and it highlighted the oppression women are still facing today, even after the fall of the Taliban.  No woman ventures into public without a burqa, for fear of being attacked, raped, and even murdered for the “crime.”  The documentary introduced us to several women:  Dr. Sima Simar, who ignored death threats and defied edicts of the Taliban by providing healthcare and education to women, and became briefly, Deputy Prime Minister in the transitional government; Soghra, who lost everything to the Taliban and is now struggling to feed and clothe her five children; Hamida, a school principal determined to provide education to her female students; Camellah, an Afghan housewife living in a country whose laws make her a virtual sex slave to her husband.  At the time of the filming, she had just given birth to her ninth child.  She doesn’t want anymore, but her husband does, and he is the one who gets to decide; and Lima, a young orphan girl whose childhood has been lost to war.  At 13, she is the sole provider for her four siblings, aged 4 to 11.

The documentaries show the different sides of Afghan life, but one huge underlying theme is survival.  These are not people concerned with the future.  These are people who struggle daily just to survive.  Many of them know nothing but war, and barely dare to dream of the peaceful nation they had before the Soviet invasion, for they fear they will never have such peace again.  Many are too young or uneducated to know anything about the world beyond their villages, and those who do have such knowledge seem to have given up on rebuilding.  They want nothing more than to leave, and that, more than anything, more even than the Taliban, is what has the capacity to destroy their nation completely.

Note about the picture:  That is the most haunting image I have ever seen.  Ever.  This picture of the 12-year-old orphan Sharbat Gula, taken in a refugee camp in Pakistan, appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic and instantly became an icon.  You can see the intensity in her eyes.  The suffering she’s already endured, and the knowledge that much more is to come.  And she’s no quitter.  She’s ready to fight for every breath.