(A review of Mediastan, A Wikileaks Road Movie. The film was screened for the first time in London Raindance Film Festival October 1, 2013, and in a Moscow Festival a week later.)
A diverse gang of five journalists in their early thirties ride a car through deserts and high mountains of Central Asia. Amidst breathtaking scenery, they cross impassable tunnels, negotiate steep curves and flocks of sheep on country roads, visit the capitals of new republics that came into being since the fall of the USSR, meet interesting people and discuss freedom of speech and its limits. A road movie par excellence, it’s Easy Rider by Wim Wenders, but in a better setting.
Soon we learn that theirs is not a joyride. These young people had been sent on a quest to far-away lands by the maverick genius of Julian Assange, captive of Ellingham Hall in East Anglia. (The events unfold two years ago, before Julian’s escape to the Ecuador Embassy) He has his adventure by proxy, unable to leave the walls of the manor. Assange makes a few appearances in the film, and one of the scenes, a fast night walk in the woods, is an artistic gem, as the director Johannes Wahlstrom (the Swede in the gang) conveys dramatic urgency and Julian’s acute personal involvement by cinematic means. Assange speaks to editors via Skype, and argues with his co-workers about the purpose of the whole exercise. Thus we learn that the young party’s goal is to deliver the State Department cables deftly lifted by Sergeant Manning to remote lands, so the peoples of these countries will know the truth, namely how they are perceived by the imperial power. This truth is to liberate them, but they need a mediator: the media.
Somebody has to select, translate, explain and publish the cables so they will reach the target audience. Assange’s missionaries meet with editors of newspapers, news agencies and radio stations, and offer them their tempting and dangerous load, for free. The majority refuse the offer. They are too tightly connected with the American power structure, with the all-embracing tentacles of the Empire. Some take it, but we do not learn whether they actually use it. (I personally had better luck disseminating these cables in Russia, with its vibrant media and anti=American sentiment). Our travellers easily accept that Central Asian media is far from free, but in a subtly presented turn of events they will later discover that the mighty Western mainstream media is equally suborned.
The area they travel is comprised of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and they deal with local media as they go: hence the title, Mediastan. Our travellers learn that the US habitually pays these local media to publish articles favourable to the US; some of those articles are published first in Russia, and afterwards reprinted in local publications, so that they appear to carry more authority. Some chief editors actually reside in the US and control their publications remotely. In timid Turkmenistan they visit a central newspaper office; every issue of the newspaper carries a photo of their president in full colour on the front page, and the editor tells his visitors that he is not looking for trouble. Leaving his office, they drive through a rebuilt-from-scratch Ashgabat, an architectural wonder of marble houses and clean broad avenues. Apparently not all the natural gas revenue has been siphoned abroad, and this seems a positive development. However, our visitors end up being expelled from the republic, just in case.
In Kazakhstan, they encounter the oil workers of Zhanaozen, who have carried a long hunger strike: no media reported on this development, until a month later, after they had been dispersed by bullets. A dozen strikers were killed, many wounded and even more imprisoned. This film footage is remarkable for preserving the sorrows and complaints of the oil workers before the violent repression. Even afterwards, the drama of the oil workers received very little exposure, for they were working for Western oil companies, and the President, Mr Nazarbayev, is considered West-friendly. For the mainstream media, gay pride parades have greater news value than a workers’ hunger strike.
The travellers also meet up with a character from another Wikileaks exploit, a released Guantanamo prisoner. Wikileaks had published his secret CIA file (among others). This big, grim, handsome and bearded man spent five years in that hellish camp; he tells our gang of his life in limbo, and they reveal to him why he was imprisoned – like Edmond Dantes of The Count of Monte Cristo, Gitmo prisoners are never told of the accusations against them. When he learns that he had been locked up for so long simply because American interrogators wanted to learn from him the mood among Tajik refugees in Afghanistan, he became furious: “Couldn’t they just ask me, and let me go?” he exclaims.
The Afghan episode stands apart from the rest, but that is the attraction of a road movie: it allows the film-maker to piece together quite disparate items. In semi-occupied Northern Afghanistan our gang visits a Swedish camp, where the Swedish press officer admits that they have no clue why they are there in the first place. The Afghans want them to leave, because the Swedes do not give bribes. We learn that under American pressure, the Swedes do something similar to bribing, in order to stay. Why are they there at all? The US wants to impress the natives with Swedish good will, at no expense for itself.
In a somewhat comic episode, Johannes tries to push his leaked cables to the head of local Radio Liberty, the US-owned and financed propaganda network. He is solemnly informed that Radio Liberty enjoys full freedom of expression, can discuss any subject, and knows no censorship. Johannes might as well have offered the cables to the US embassy!
The realm of Mediastan is not enclosed by the high mountains; it stretches all the way to Hudson River and the Thames, for there Wahlstrom meets two people thriving at the top of the media food chain: in London, chief editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger and in New York, the then executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller. The two are smooth, glib and polished, suave and botoxed, they have their answers at the ready, but they are as subservient to power as a lowly editor of Stan-News.
The Guardian played a tricky part in the Wikileaks story, a part they are likely to repeat now with Snowden. In the case of Snowden, they published his materials, previously vetting them with the NBA, induced him to reveal his identity, beefed up their ‘’progressive’’ reputation, and at the end, commissioned their own hatchet-man, Luke Harding, to write a book, presumably trashing him. They gained a feather in their cap with the intelligence services, with the trusting readers, and are likely to end up destroying the man.
They did the same with Julian: they used his stuff, vetted it, censored it to fit their masters’ agenda, and afterwards published all the dirt on him they could find, bringing him as much disrepute as they could. The NY Times was even worse, as they collaborated with the CIA and Pentagon all the way, and fully supported the Assange witch-hunt.
The CP readers were able to follow this unique saga in real time, from its very inception, probably better than anybody in mainstream or blogs. They could learn how cables were published, and how the Guardian maligned Assange (they received confidential Swedish police records and distorted its contents). When, some months later, the records were made public, a Swedish site wrote: “The sleaze printed …above all [by] the toxic Nick Davies of The Guardian, can stand no more… Nick Davies’ account of the protocols was maliciously skewed”. The Guardian tendentiously headlined the cables obtained by Manning and delivered by Assange. Ordinary people rarely read beyond headlines. So the Guardian habitually ascribed to Wikileaks certain remarks of the US officials, as you can see here, most often in order to undermine Russia and delegitimise its president. Only now can we understand the reason for these relentless attacks on Putin – only he was strong-willed enough to bridle the impending US attack on Syria, and thus signal the end of American hegemony.
The Central Asian cables were more interesting, than somewhat, for the US ambassadors in the region were incautious, even brutally frank, in their communications with the State Department. “The Guardian has deliberately excised portions of published cables to hide evidence of corruption [by Western companies in Central Asia]”, as CP readers were told in this piece, which is difficult to locate via Google (surprise, surprise!). Wahlstrom asks Alan Rusbridger why he excised the names of the grafters and receives a true-to-(Mediastan)form response: these are very rich people and they could take us to court.
The film appears just in time to coincide with first screening of The Fifth Estate, the Hollywood film on the same subject. It’s not a coincidence: Assange was very unhappy with the Hollywood project and he said so openly to its producer, its director and to the actor who played his part. He wisely decided to keep his hands off Mediastan: he refused to get involved so the film maker would be independent. This is definitely not a groupie movie about their guru: the central figure is not Julian, but media.
The films are vastly different. The Fifth Estate is based on a story by Assange’s co-worker turned enemy and wannabe rival, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, and was produced on an above-the-average budget of $40 million, while Mediastan was done by the young director Johannes Wahlstrom, a friend of Assange, on a shoestring budget out of his own slim pocket; the DP (Director of Photography) and other dedicated, but lacking in resources, crew members worked for free. Despite all odds, they succeeded in producing a powerful and haunting thriller for the thinking man – an epic quest to deliver vital truth to the unwilling.
The film occupies a very special niche of a documentary that uses all the tools of a feature film: it’s dynamic, tightly wound, rich with nuances,a pleasure for the eyes and food for thought, beautifully photographed by Russian virtuoso of the camera, Feodor (Theo to his friends) Lyass, the DP for the recent top success of Russian cinema, Dukhless. Director Johannes Wahlstrom – (I do not dare to say how wonderful he is, because, after all, he is my son) – was brought up in Israel, and moved to Sweden with his Swedish mother when he was 12. This is his first full feature film; he previously worked in Swedish TV and edited a magazine. He is one of these brave young men who want to fix the world instead of giving it a fix.
I suggest you see this film, for the sheer pleasure of watching these keen young faces, wild landscapes and far-away lands, if not also to learn more about how Wikileaks has changed the world.
[Language editing by Ken Freeland]
Israel Shamir lives in Moscow.