MONTENEGRO – Video Report

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What’s the key to ‘scorpion journalism’?

“The media in Mexico is tremendously sick but will not die”

The words of YouTuber Chumel Torres, who joined Honduran journalist Graco Pérez for this event at London’s Canning House, the UK-Iberia & UK-Latin America foundation.

Mr Pérez opened in a determined fashion: “a more informed press leads to a more informed population”. He acknowledged that Honduras was a developing country and admitted obstacles to progress.

He said that many reporters practise self-censorship over fears from organised crime, government interference and societal corruption.

He went into detail over the more serious issues facing journalists in Honduras as well, including an “alarming level of violence and lack of protective mechanisms”.

In spite of this, Mr Pérez insisted that press freedom as a whole has been managing to grow through social networks and the space they provide.

Chumel Torres declared early on that he had no journalism background but rather came circuitously into presenting what is his wildly successful online political and cultural satire show, ‘El Pulso de la Republica’.

Alongside what is rapidly becoming regularised violence against reporters, he laid out what he sees as the problems facing the media in Mexico.

Torres noted that “the public sees the press as government puppets” and that the media have “lost their strength”.

His prescribed medicine for the press was the need to “try to be reborn”.

During the question-and-answer session with the audience that followed, Torres touched on the role of the media in the run-up to next year’s general election in Mexico, lamenting threats made against radio, print and TV journalists but finding gold in the dust with a message of hope: “[there’s] a bright path just behind the curtain”.

Graco Pérez said that the media can build up wider networks of trust and influence but must do so whilst understanding the need for meticulous research and extreme caution. He admitted that the environment online, on mobile and in print is still volatile in many parts of Honduras when it comes to threats to reporters.

This blog pondered the rise of citizen journalism and the immediate coverage of breaking news offered by the public through their phones.

The room agreed with the notion that the “internet never forgets” and both speakers agreed that millennials are pushing the pace and breadth of news and the different platforms for consumption.

The two speakers didn’t think that traditional media should worry too much about the explosion in citizen journalism and that there would still be the need for questions, analysis and follow-up enquiries by ‘traditional’ journalists.

Chumel Torres had the last word, calling for a return to what he called “scorpion journalism” – achieved through: regaining trust; rethinking how you are working and what you are working on; and challenging yourself as well as challenging power.

Moscow on manoeuvres

While playing openly on the world stage, Russia holds onto a more subtle influence in Europe

Vladimir Putin has been holding court on the international scene in recent months.

Laughing off US investigations into election meddling, championing the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s civil war efforts, and reining in Western powers’ determined punishment of North Korea.

It waves its veto whenever a Syria resolution is brought before the United Nations, and only gives the green light to sanctions on North Korea that ensure the secretive state does hold onto some wriggle room.

But as all this global drama plays out, Russia also has ongoing geopolitical interests in hidden corners of Europe.

Moldova sits on the shoulder of Romania, jutting into Ukraine. It is an often-overlooked nation – except, perhaps, by European football fans on unique away-days.

It is the poorest country in the region. Economic output last year was $6.8bn, according to the World Bank. Comparable in population size, income status and geography, Albania saw GDP of $11bn, with a much higher life expectancy.

Moldova also has a breakaway, Russian-leaning region.

Transnistria comprises a sliver of land to the east of the River Dniper up to the nearby border with Ukraine.

It has declared independence but is only recognised by other breakaway, Russophile regions, namely Abkhazia and South Ossetia (both parts of Georgia now controlled by Moscow).

Russian is the local lingo, the hammer and sickle is on the flag and citizens buy their shopping with a version of the ruble.

So could Transnistria rejoin the Moscow motherland?

It is not without precedent.

The Russian state of Tuva, now an integral part of the country, is a southern province off the south-east border with Mongolia. And in 1944 it requested incorporation into the Soviet Union. Tuvans enjoyed a 23-year-long independence before calling off their self-governing statehood.

But if Transnistria were to re-incorporate into Russia, then it would be cut off from the mainland. It would be stranded in Europe, surrounded by independent countries wary of Russia.

That, too, would not be anything new.

Nestled between Poland and Lithuania, Kaliningrad is a constituent part of Russia, but an exclave with no direct land connection to the mainland.

Annexed by the Soviet Union after World War Two, when the USSR broke up in 1989, the former Communist Poland and the former Soviet Lithuania declared independence, encircling Kaliningrad, which remained part of Russia.

It may have lost a number of its territories when the Soviet Union collapsed, but there remain several pockets of peoples across Europe who want to break free of their European Union-leaning governments and look to Moscow for their futures.

And if we are looking for a sad illustration of when these disputes turn to war, then there is also an example for this: the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, where Russophile rebels are fighting the government in the east of the country.

 

Nina Miranda – Interview

She first came to prominence in 1997, as her band Smoke City’s ‘Underwater Love’ reached #4 in the UK charts. Now, 20 years on, Nina Miranda is finally releasing her first solo album.

After a period as lead singer with the groups Zeep and Shrift and numerous collaboration projects, including with Seu Jorge, Basement Jaxx and Gilles Peterson, the Anglo-Brazilian artist is striking out alone, bringing together her fusion of genres, languages and international influences. Her father is from Rio de Janeiro and her mother was born in Iran and the two met in Paris – this global background impacts positively through Miranda’s free-flowing and improvisational style.

Freedom of Movement swirls from place to place, crossing stylistic boundaries that you can be sure would leave many mainstream record companies confused (it was recorded in a studio space above her flat with deliberately open windows letting in all the hubbub of London life). That said, she has produced a work she can finally call her own, working with members of Ibibio Sound Machine and Chris Franck, who she first joined forces with all those years ago back with Smoke City.

It is an album of dizzying stimuli and a proud marker of the creative spirit that pulses through the artist. If you like bossa nova and indie, tropicália and chill pop, vapourwave and electronica, then this album, with its animals, seas and sultry moods should be for you.

I had a quick cup of coffee with the Anglo-Brazilian artist before she rushed off to Glastonbury (where she teamed up with Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Touré).

Nina, this is your first solo album – what are the main messages that you hope the listener takes away from it?

Well it’s called Freedom of Movement so I would say that is one of the main messages, along with the importance of fusion, open possibilities, and the joy of collaboration. That said, it’s good after all these years to be steering my own ship now.

Steering your own ship – does that mean that with your previous work with Smoke City in the 1990s and then Zeep and Shrift afterwards you were not totally in control? Or have as much say as you would have liked?

Smoke City worked on compromise. And we wanted to hold onto our connection to the underground. We had three members and sometimes two of them would get together and work on something and the third member would come in and hear it and choose to change parts of it. Or someone else wouldn’t like another member’s suggestions. It was the blend that was important.

Let’s look back to your Smoke City days then. How is the Nina Miranda of 2017 different from the Nina Miranda of 1997 and the “Underwater Love” era?

I hardly recognise myself in the videos from then! When I watch them it looks like a girl in some kind of dream. My work now stills holds the essence of 1997, there’s still the importance of collaboration running through it. I guess perhaps there’s more personal originality now, as an artist – not simply a singer.

And looking the other way… which direction would like to see your career take in another ten years?

I’d like to play an instrument, I reckon. Maybe write a musical and act in it, co-direct it as well. But maybe that’s just the Brazilian side of me dreaming, rather than the British reality!

That’s one part of your music that really stands out – the fusion of the genres and national themes. Which has been a greater influence on your music: the Brazilian or British side?

The Brazilian side keeps me connected with the music and feelings in Brazil. There’s a flow and improvisation that comes with working with Brazilian musicians. There’s a certain feel. You understand that you are working with humans, not musicians.

“Amazonia Amor” on your new record really takes you to Brazil. You get a sense of an electronic rainforest at times.

It’s the birds and the landscape, and there are horses too. I find the animal aspect therapeutic and mixing up the sounds of the rainforest means that you can accentuate the reality. You might also hear birdsong on other tracks – they are the actual birds singing in my garden in London because we recorded this in a studio with all the windows open! Even the pock-pock of tennis balls from a nearby court are on the album.

And the track Silken Horse..?

Exactly. I wanted the feel of nature, so the beat of the hooves and the sense of a living, breathing horse to come through on that one. Natural images and artistic licence working together.

How do you think Brazilian music and British music interact with each other? What can they learn from one another?

Brazilian music is often set around dealing with themes of love, happiness and the struggle. It has a certain exoticism for Britons: samba, bossa nova, tropicália… but that said, back in Brazil, there’s a real love for bands such as The Cure, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. I mean, for Brazilians, KISS were pretty exotic themselves, with their dress and performances. So there’s a mutual exoticism for the other.

In “Whole of London”, you sing a lot about ‘wandering’. With your dual-national heritage, how true is that of how you feel at this stage in your life?

That’s how I feel when I’m cooped up in one city for too long. So in fact, it’s the other way round. I get tired of wandering the same streets of one city, not tired of wandering the world. The same goes for if I’m confined with one particular group of people – I enjoy mixing it up.

Which festival or musical genre would you feel most at home with, if you had to stay somewhere for a while, listening to the same music?

WOMAD is for me the festival that I connect with most. My music plays with people; it tickles them, slaps them and pinches them. The fusion of different images. I like festivals because of the mix of music and people, coming together in huge numbers to listen to a particular artist. I’m quite outspoken and I have to be careful – demonstrations can have a similar vibe to festivals, the collective chanting or singing, a togetherness.

Picking up on that point, how important or not do you think the role of music is in political protest?

It’s so important. It’s easy to be seduced by the mainstream and not wanting to offend people but, as I said, I’m outspoken and I feel that as artists, we have the platform to express ourselves and we should use it.

Now let’s try some quickfire questions…

Gin & tonic or caipirinha? Gin during the day but caipirinhas at night!

Feijoada or roast beef? That’s easy – feijoada.

Nelson’s Column or Christ the Redeemer? Christ the Redeemer – when the time comes I think it would be a poignant place to have your ashes scattered, looking down on the city and out to sea.

Bossa nova or Brit pop? Can I say tropicália instead?

Nina Miranda’s Freedom of Movement is released by Six Degrees Records and available from Bandcamp, Amazon UK, Amazon US and iTunes.

This article first appeared on Sounds and Colours.

No-fly zone

Are the changing fortunes of the Gulf carriers a cause for concern?

On my most recent long-haul flight, in December last year, the route took my fellow passengers and me across five countries, three continents and one ocean. Out of the European Union, through the African Union and into the Union of South American Nations. Trans-Atlantic and trans-hemisphere. North to south, winter to summer, three hours backwards in time zones.

A Qatar Airways flight takes off (QR official)

This happened smoothly and the few hundred of us on board had no reason to spend time thinking about the intricacies of international aircraft and airspace agreements. The hundreds of thousands of people up in the sky as you read this will rather be watching films, snatching a few restless hours’ kip or nibbling at a tray of in-flight food.

But when diplomatic quarrels escalate to include no-entry signs for the maligned airlines of regional foes, things come more sharply into focus.

Qatar Airways is having a bumpy old time of it at the moment. On the bright side, it has just regained its title as best airline in the world. The consumer website Skytrax also awarded it best airline in the Gulf.

On the other hand, the Saudi Arabia-led isolation of Qatar by several countries – nations from as far and wide as Mauritania, Mauritius, and the Maldives – has forced the airline to shift some of its routes. It has been banned, for the moment, from passing over certain countries – frustratingly for Doha, they include its three closest neighbours: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

An Etihad Airbus A380 plane (EY official)

This should be a red-letter day for its rival Gulf airlines, Etihad and Emirates, based out of the UAE cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively. It certainly offers some relief for the former, which has been enduring a torrid time relating to its investment in the Italian flag-carrier, Alitalia.

Last month, the struggling Rome-based airline filed for bankruptcy. Etihad pumped just shy of €2bn into Alitalia in 2014 but has seen its opportunity to make anything of the investment blow away in the wind.

Emirates is also on a bit of a come-down this year, recording profit before tax of $405m – an enormous drop from 2016’s figure of $2bn. The Dubai-based carrier explained the  challenges its margins faced as coming from “increased competition and overcapacity”.

An Emirates Boeing 777 (EK official)

It also complained that it had been hit by a drop in demand for flights to the US which it blamed on “the actions taken by the US government relating to the issuance of entry visas, heightened security vetting, and restrictions on electronic devices in aircraft cabins”.

 

So is the status of the Gulf as the world air hub in danger? It pounced on saturation in European airports such as Heathrow (UK), Schiphol (Netherlands) and Frankfurt (Germany) and promoted its geography. Racing economies in Qatar and the UAE boosted its position further, and with investment came expansion in routes, passenger numbers, aeroplane numbers and the size of their airports.

The dwindling price of oil certainly called this into question and the US ban mentioned above hit the area further. Now that the countries in the region have fallen out with each other it has derailed the upward curve the major Gulf airlines enjoyed. They are finding life a bit tougher at the top.

Their rise was cheered and this period of turbulence is useful in that it serves to remind them that it is always easier to be the challenger upstart, but pressure builds when you yourself turn into an established player in the world’s airspace.

A look at Fidel Castro’s legacy

An “astute political brain” who “inspired a generation of leaders”? Or a “figure from a different era” running a government of “sordid lawless killers”?

Heated discussions dominated the morning at this special event at Canning House, the UK-Iberia & Latin America foundation, looking backwards and forwards at the legacy of the former leader of Cuba.

Ken Livingstone paints a positive image of Castro’s global legacy

There were three sections to be debated: Castro’s domestic, regional and global legacies.

The first one saw Antoni Kapcia, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Nottingham, put forward the point of view that the Cuban revolutionary acted and made “decisions within the realm of the possible”, carefully calculating what was achievable and loth to outreach himself on domestic policy.

Helen Yaffe, author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution, described the US embargo as “devastating and suffocating”. She also looked to the island’s Soviet sponsor giant, saying that “constraints were placed on Cuba’s room for manoeuvre from the collapse of the USSR”, not just through the American trade ban.

The final speaker in this section was Cuban-born Alina Garcia-Lapuerta. She argued that there was still a “sense of uncertainty” surrounding the future after Castro’s death. Having said that, she did try to look to what might be ahead: “there could be no political change while Castro was still alive…he was too big a figure in Cuban life and Cuban history.”

In the second part of the event, for the discussion on regional legacy, Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba, called in on conference from the United States. He discussed how Latin nations’ friendships and ties with Cuba had come and gone. While at some point in recent history, most neighbour countries had “broken diplomatic relations with the US”, many states had gone on to thrive economically following different models than that espoused by Castro.

The former diplomat raised the issue of the “economic mismanagement and social turmoil” currently afflicting Venezuela, noting that Havana stands by Caracas due to their traditional links. Yet those regional links are weakening, according to Webster Hare, who said that young Latin Americans are today more distant in their political views from what is increasingly seen as the outdated outlook of Fidel Castro.

Steve Ludlam came to the regime’s defence.

The lecturer and member of the Cuba Research Forum drew a picture for the Britons in the audience of Fidel Castro as a mix of “Winston Churchill, Aneurin Bevan (the founder of the NHS) and the Queen Mother”. He went on to stand up for the “audacious revolutionary” whose radicalism had “strong anti-imperialist and anti-racist” elements to it. He also saw one of Castro’s legacies as the “success of social welfare programmes across Latin America”.

The final section was on the former leader of Cuba’s global legacy. For this, Canning House invited the Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens and the ex-Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone.

The politician put forward an appraisal of the revolutionary, calling him a “giant” and an “icon to those who want to live in a better country”.

Peter Hitchens delivered the opposite. He described the Castro regime as being treated in a “rock-star way” when it was really a “government of torture”. Hitchens saw Castro’s “boasts of social advances go unchecked” and argued that “people should grow up about Castro…this cult of Fidel should be dropped.”

Questions were taken after each section and there was a notable intervention during the regional legacy part of the morning. The “Ambassador from the British Empire” was lambasted for challenging the fading policies of the Castros by a book publisher and socialist apologist who offered a vehement defence the Cuban leftist model. There were other questions, too, from exiled Cubans, criticising divisions in society created by the lack of a free press and the fact that Castro never held an election.

Portraits of a Search – review

A woman traipses through scrubland, brushing aside dusty bushes with a stick, looking for a piece of clothing, a shoe; anything that may give her a clue as to her son’s whereabouts.

Retratos de una búsqueda (Portraits of a Search) follows three mothers whose children’s names have sadly been added to the growing list of ‘disappeared’ in Mexico. The documentary tells a familiar story but tries to do so differently from similar films.

The director, Alicia Calderón, explained at a screening this blog attended that she wanted to shy away from a simple portrayal of the women as listless and unorganised mothers. Instead, she preferred to focus on their resilience and resolve; the lengths they will go to exhaust every avenue that could aid them in their search.

One of the mothers enlists the help of the FBI in sourcing DNA tests on the alleged body of her daughter. Another cradles a notepad full of names and numbers as she tries yet another call to yet another unhelpful person in the authorities.

Towards the end, we see all three women endure a seven-day hunger strike outside the local government offices.

Some of the scenes are heart-breaking. One of the mothers plays hide-and-seek with her grandson, who is happy in his innocence as he runs outside to feed the chickens. His missing parents have “gone to the United States”, he tells us, but his grandma worries over how and when to tell him the truth: they have disappeared and are likely dead.

A documentary like this, with the subject matter as it is, will always have parts that are particularly harrowing.

One of the women shows remarkable strength to recount the story of extreme violence and depravity that her daughter suffered. Detail by disturbing detail, she documents the violations of her child while she was alive and then the violations of her body after she had been killed. It is uncomfortable to watch and creates a confusing human picture: that this barbarity continues to plague Mexico; how the simple design of family life has been ruptured in so many complex ways.

So what can be done – what policy changes are needed?

I wondered if there was any hope for answers from the highest level of government, with a presidential election due next year. Alicia Calderón replied that the “justice system has collapsed” and the only light at the end of the tunnel would come from the pressure groups established by members of the public.

Consecutive presidents have tried differing but unsuccessful methods to combat the kidnappings, extortions and killings.  The day before this film was screened, the attorney-general in the state of Guerrero admitted that his office did not have the “capacity to confront organised crime”.

What Portraits of a Search shows us is that these mothers certainly do have the capacity to confront the disappearance of a loved-one with dignity, determination and a drive for answers.

Presos – review

The renegade daughter erring on the side of danger.

So far, so familiar for the film staple of rebellious teenagers.

But when you add the fact that the adolescent in question is acting alongside real-life inmates in a working prison, it becomes a different kind of movie.

In Presos, from the Costa Rican director Esteban Ramírez, the fact that true cons play the roles of fictional prisoners is one of the major stand-out points. This is only revealed to us at the end, but it underlines what is a powerful culmination to the film. This strong finish is welcome to make up for the weaker beginnings of the movie.

The lead in Presos is a schoolgirl called Victoria. She has a needy but kind boyfriend, and we are never truly convinced that his dedication to her is reciprocated. Anyway, she wants to break free of restrictive family and romantic binds to find a job for herself.

It is clear from the outset that there is something fishy going on at the workplace where she lands a role as the chief executive’s assistant. The fact she’s answering calls on the important work phone from the San Rafael prison attests to this.

As she spends more and more time talking to the mysterious imprisoned voice on the other end, her character pushes back further and further from her boyfriend. She begins to make secret visits to the man, who is only ever called ‘Jason’ during the film. When the news breaks with her family that she’s been spending time at the jail, their anger only strengthens her resolve to continue meeting Jason.

Family is at the very heart of the film.

Mothers and wives queue at San Rafael prison to visit sons and husbands. Victoria and her sister row as their mother cooks and their adulterous father stands quietly in the shadows. Victoria’s wronged lover, Emanuel, even sees her family as his. And then there is the broken family of the prisoner: the mother of his child determined that he’ll never see his daughter; his own, cheerful mum breaking down as she opens up about her fears that her son will die inside.

The way that Victoria is developed in the first half could be enhanced and the clarity and choice of shots in this part could also be tightened.  The cinematography improves as the film goes on, with enriched light and depth.

In the closing scenes, we see Victoria transformed from the cute schoolgirl to a drugs mule standing in line outside the jail. As she walks briskly away she seems tormented: either the sad realisation of what she has just carried out – transporting internally-hidden drugs into a prison or the upsetting feeling of failing her inmate by pulling out of the drop-off at the last moment.

We are left to work out for ourselves which way Victoria would have gone as she moves sadly towards the camera.

This review also appeared on the Sounds and Colours website.