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Netflix, Iran and the Documentary as Geopolitical Weapon

By Brian Mier | FAIR | January 21, 2020

Netflix: Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy

Netflix‘s Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy

Like The Mechanism before it, Netflix’s new series Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy is an entertainment product that advances US interests through character assassination of a popular left-wing Latin American leader.

“Try saying this,” the director said:  “‘In the ’80s, Rio de Janeiro was a land of the haves and the have nots. I was a have not.’” In 2016, I was working as a fixer on an episode of a Netflix documentary crime series, and the main character was not cooperating with the script.

He was Afro-Brazilian, but he was not the stereotype they had imagined while preparing the story in England. He had never lived in a favela, was educated in elite private schools, and was an Army special forces captain before entering a life of crime. “In the ’80s,” he said, “Rio de Janeiro was a land of the haves and the have nots. I was a have.”

To the production team’s credit, after half an hour of trying to get him to say he was a “have not,” they changed the story to better fit what really happened. But this episode illustrates an important point that most casual viewers are unaware of: Nearly all documentaries are highly manipulated.

As I learned on the set of various TV documentaries, if an important character refuses to give an interview, their importance to the “narrative thread” of the documentary is minimized, and the script is adjusted accordingly. Characters are prone to get more airtime and scripts are likewise adjusted if they have expressive facial features, good eyebrow control and appear pretty, handsome or humorous on camera. All of this makes sense if the end product is entertainment, but what happens when the program involves real people in positions of power?

Furthermore, if documentarians regularly manipulate narratives and script dialogue for entertainment purposes, wouldn’t it be reasonable to think  that they may also do this to advance the geopolitical interests of the companies that hire them? The Capital Group, for example, is the largest investor in both Netflix and Shell, a corporation that has made  billions of dollars through petroleum privatizations by right-wing governments in South America. Could it be that it and the other big mutual funds that invest in both Netflix and the oil industry, such as Blackrock, use their power to influence content in a manner similar to how governments influence the TV and film industry in accord with their geopolitical interests?

Netflix: The Mechanism

Netflix‘s The Mechanism

During Brazil’s 2018 election year, Netflix launched a dramatic series called The Mechanism, which portrayed a thinly disguised character based on former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—who in real life was leading all polls for a return to the presidency, with double the popularity of his nearest rival, the neofascist Jair Bolsonaro—as a criminal mastermind behind a multi-billion dollar corruption scheme. This led to a boycott drive in Brazil, international media attention, an apology by director José Padilha, and probably influenced Netflix’s purchase of transmission rights to Edge of Democracy, an Oscar-nominated documentary about the 2016 Brazilian parliamentary coup that was less biased against Lula’s center-left PT party.

On January 1, four days before the US assassinated Iranian General Soleimani, Netflix launched a six-part documentary series called Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President and the Spy, about the death of conservative prosecutor Alberto Nisman. He was found dead in his bathroom five days after accusing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and four of her aides of treason, in connection to an alleged cover up of Iranian involvement in the 1994 AMIA Jewish cultural center bombings that killed 85 people.

The documentary makes it clear that the treason charges are frivolous. Treason can only take place, according to Argentinian law, during a time of war. Nisman accused Kirchner and her aides of covering up for Iran in exchange for a bilateral agreement between the two nations which was never ratified. Finally, as the documentary painstakingly shows, despite 20 years of joint investigations between the police, intelligence services, the FBI and the US Department of Justice, nobody has ever been able to provide any material evidence linking Iran to the bombing (FAIR.org, 11/3/15).

But this is what series director Justin Webster refers to as “cinematic non-fiction,” and the facts do not seem  as important as the tone and the mood. It spends a lot more time with the Prosecutor and the Spy characters than it does with former President Kirchner, who averages about one minute of airtime per episode.

Alberto Nisman

Alberto Nisman in Nisman

Nisman, coming to life through old footage and stories from friends and family, gets the lion’s share of attention. The week before his death, he appears nervous about having to defend his treason accusations in front of Congress, initially saying he will only appear to members of the sympathetic and conservative Republican Proposal party, and if there are no reporters. When he is told it will be a public hearing, he asks his friend, Congressmember Laura Alonso, to postpone it for a week.

The night before the hearing, his body is found in his bathroom, in what is initially ruled a suicide. As sad music plays in the background, Alonso talks about the dark mood that was sweeping over the country and her worries about her friend.

We are not told that Alonso is former Argentine director of Transparency International, the ostensibly “anti-corruption” NGO which is funded by the US and British governments, Exxon Mobil and Shell (Guardian, 5/22/08). We are not told that Alonso was the most vocal public critic of Kirchner’s nationalization of the petroleum industry, or that she directly benefited from the charges filed against Kirchner, assuming the position of Anti-Corruption Minister in the Mauricio Macri government. In the doc, she is just a concerned friend.

Jaime Stiuso

Nisman‘s Jaime Stiuso

According to Webster, the other two main characters in the series, the Spy and the President, are “Shakespearean.” The Spy is Antonio “Jaime” Stiuso, a 42-year veteran of Argentina’s State Intelligence Secretariat (SIDE) with close ties to the CIA and the Mossad. He was in the agency during the Argentine military junta’s Dirty War, when it participated in the notorious “disappearances”  of leftists, 30,000 of whom were machine-gunned down, or drugged and pushed out of airplanes into the South Atlantic. He was corrupt and dangerous but, like the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, apparently too powerful to fire, until Cristina Kirchner did it in December 2014, one month before his partner Alberto Nisman filed treason charges against her.

In terms of entertainment value, Stiuso is a fantastic character, and he gets more airtime than any other living person in the documentary. With a boyish gleam in his eye and a quick, mysterious grin, he is the type of subject documentary-makers dream about, and is already showing himself to be a favorite of the critics—“charming and evasive,” according to Variety (9/23/19).

Cristina Kirchner

President Cristina Kirchner is not seen much in Nisman.

The third main character, President Kirchner,  in office from 2007–15, is a center-left politician who rejected Washington consensus economic policies in favor of Keynesian developmentalism, and reached out to Washington bete noires like Fidel Castro, Evo Morales and Hugo Chávez. She  set an example for leaders around the world by strengthening labor unions, initiating large minimum wage hikes and by renationalizing strategic companies that had been privatized during the disastrous IMF-imposed structural adjustment period of the 1990s, including the train system, the water system, the Aerolinas airline company and the YPF oil company. Her government was marked by high growth rates and innovative redistributive policies that reduced inequality. Consequently, she became extremely popular with the poor and working class.

After Nisman died, Alonso’s right-wing Republican Proposal party capitalized on the frivolous treason charges against Kirchner, spread conspiracy theories about his death and catapulted party leader Mauricio Macri to the presidency. Praised by Barack Obama and English-language corporate media, Macri used presidential decrees to immediately gut the public health and education systems, lay off tens of thousands of public sector workers, reestablish a relationship with the IMF and implement privatization.

As had happened during the IMF structural-adjustment period, poverty skyrocketed and widespread hunger led to food riots. As Macri’s popularity plummeted, fellow Nisman character Alberto Fernandez won the presidential election by 7 percentage points, with Cristina Kirchner as his VP; they took office on December 10, 2019. You would have no idea that any of this had happened by watching Nisman.

Cristina Kirchner is one of the most fascinating political characters of the 21st century, but all we see of her in Nisman are short speech fragments and soundbites, peppered with unflattering photos and ominous background music.

During her 50 seconds of airtime in episode 5, for example, she says, “This isn’t an issue that started here in Argentina, it is a political, judicial and communications matrix that extends throughout the entire region.” Kirchner is talking about “lawfare,” the weaponized use of legal tactics to destroy political enemies. This has indeed been applied to left and center-left politicians across Latin America, often with the support of the US Department of Justice, as happened to her friend and former Brazilian President Lula, who was arrested on frivolous charges with no material evidence in order to bar him from the 2018 presidential elections.

The frivolous treason accusation against her, also apparently prepared in partnership with the US DOJ, is another clear example of lawfare. Taking a small fragment of a speech on this subject out of context, however, makes her look like a paranoid conspiracy theorist. This is ironic to see in a six-part documentary that is entirely built upon two conspiracy theories which, as is shown in the series itself, do not have any material evidence to back them up.

This is not to say that the documentary is totally one-sided. Throughout, there are moments in which members of Kirchner’s party and journalists—all men—defend her. Importantly, however, Webster chose not to let her defend herself, despite the widespread availability of archival footage in which she does so eloquently.

Variety: Justin Webster Sheds Light on the Alberto Nisman Case in New Documentary Series

Audiences “may well come to a conclusion, one open to interpretation,
though it not for me to say,” director Justin Webster, Variety (9/23/19).

In  Variety (9/23/19), Webster says:

The rules with fiction and non-fiction are completely different in a sense of the relationship with the truth. A good non-fiction story is showing you “this much is true,” uncovering the details, the evidence…. It’s not like there is one version of the truth and another version of the truth, there is only one truth.

The problem is, a television director is not a judge or a prosecutor, and normally has little knowledge of the law. The proper venue for deciding whether the president of a foreign nation is guilty is a court of law, not a television channel controlled by corporate investors who have a vested interest in privatizations in the nation presided over by that president. In a court of law, defendants have the right to to defend themselves, normally through a final argument. In a documentary, the director can arbitrarily decide to limit someone they’re accusing of a crime to one minute of airtime per episode.

Given the long history of US-backed right-wing coups in Latin America, most recently in Argentina’s neighbor Bolivia, given the rising tensions between the US and Iran, and given the fact that neocon Foundation for Defense of Democracies vice president Toby Dershowitz, who appears in the documentary, began associating Fernandez and Kirchner with Iranian terrorists as soon as they took office last month, it would be reasonable to suspect that the US and its integral state allies in the corporate media are going to use this nonexistent Iran story from 1994 as justification for a coup attempt in Argentina in the near future.

Nisman is beautifully filmed and entertaining, and director Justin Webster does a good job uncovering the relationship between the FBI, CIA and Argentinian intelligence services. But the bottom line is that he casts suspicion on Cristina Kirchner even though he knows that there is no proof against her.

January 24, 2020 - Posted by | Film Review |

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