Review: Enter The Battlefield

Enter The Battlefield

Trailer

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Welcome to professional Magic.

A nice brief one this week. This short-enough documentary popped up on Netflix in the last little while, and immediately caught my eye, as competitive table-top card gaming is something that I have had only slight exposure to. Magic: The Gathering is one of the world’s most popular games, that attracts legions of professional players to its Pro Tour circuit. Some seek money, some seek to make a lasting legacy, some are trying to break through barriers. But all of them are united around this fantastical game that has come to dominate their lives to varying extents.

Narrated by Will Wheaton, Enter The Battlefield is a fairly simple piece. It’s just over an hour long, and even that seems a bit too much: this is a film that is repeating itself constantly, as if the creators had a mind of TV, with ad breaks, instead of Netflix. But it’s still a fun, interesting look at a professional sport that remains largely locked in a niche in terms of wider understanding.

I have a fairly liberal definition of what I would consider a competitive sport, that essentially amounts to an expectation that the main resolution of the contest not be down primarily to blind luck. And while MTG covers itself in all of the trappings you’d expect of a competitive sport – the sponsorships, the TV coverage, the established structures and teams and commentary – you might still be forgiven for thinking that a game based on the drawing of cards still has more to do with blind luck than anything else.

I suppose it’s a somewhat arguable point, but Enter The Battlefield really does make it clear that MTG is an affair that requires a great deal of intelligence, timing, willpower and the ability to withstand pressure, over any need to defer to the whims of fortune. Indeed, the film showcases players whose entire lives have been badly affected by one ill-move, that had more to do with their own failures than a random throw of the dice. It’s more chess than poker, and has a complexity that makes it very hard to explain or grasp in a single hour, and in truth Enter The Battlefield doesn’t actually try all that hard to make the audience understand the ins and outs of the actual play (one section, when an expert outlines an important moment in a pivotal match of years ago, might as well have been explaining theoretical physics to a four-year-old).

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The film would be better off limiting the amount of players it follows around.

But Enter The Battlefield, like all goods sports movies, is less about the actual sport on display than the personalities that take part in it, which the film jumps around on. There’s Patrick Chapin, the charismatic go-getter who spends his time writing raps in-between building decks, and seems like the most relaxed man on the planet otherwise; there’s Christopher Pikula, a one-time great fallen far, now desperately trying to string enough wins together to get into the MTG Hall of Fame; there’s Melissa DelTora, one of the only women competing at the highest level and getting used to being a female role-model; there’s Shahar Shenhar, the Israeli wunderkind dominating all before him; and there’s the “Peach Garden Oath” team, a trio of players of disparate backgrounds and mood, trying to prove that working together is a better avenue for success than going all lone wolf.

Most of this is interesting stuff, but the limited timeframe means that we can never really get in-depth with anyone. There are the interviews of spouses (a nice surprise to see the excellent Allie “Hyperbole And A Half” Brosh pop-up, Chapin’s girlfriend, who has somewhat vanished from the internet in the last couple of years) and family members, who express varying sentiments of pride and concern at the obsession with MTG, but things rarely get negative, and Enter The Battlefield doesn’t seem interested in showcasing any personality flaws or darker aspects. It is, by and large, a puff-piece, aiming to make the games top players look as positive as possible and doing the same thing for the sport generally. A few minutes on background, a few minutes on parental pride and expectations, a few minutes on a tragedy to tug at the heartstrings: this playbook should be familiar to just about anyone. That doesn’t make it bad, just forgettable.

It’s difficult to get super-engaged with that kind of approach, and I wonder if a limited scope, on just three or so players, over a slightly longer timeframe, would have made for a more engrossing narrative. As it is Enter The Battlefield bounces around so much in the course of its 64 minute running time that it never really gets settled, and can’t pick a narrative it wants to put front and centre. There’s just not enough driving Enter The Battlefield forward.

Amid everything, there are cool moments: Chaplin’s raps, Pikula’s work on cutting out cheating in the sport, DelTora’s incredible poker-face and the World Championships, the 2015 version of which forms the basis for Enter The Battlefield’s finale, as numerous players focused on in the course of the documentary head to Nice for a weekend of high-pressure gaming. It would have been expected that the people in charge of the sports organisation and promotion would be at pains to maximise the experience for cameras, trying way too hard to appear legitimate, but in truth the opposite is the case: these people are comfortable in their roles, be it playing or commentating, and just let their usual work speak for itself. I can appreciate that, and how there isn’t any real sense of desperate longing for mainstream acceptance.

Ultimately, Enter The Battlefield, at just over an hour long and unfolding the way that it does, is not a film that will stick in the mind for a very long time, and could have been executed a lot better. But if you’re someone with a mostly complete ignorance of MTG’s professional side, it’s a half-decent introduction to both the game, the sport and the people that play it. Some fine-tuning, and a really great documentary could have been produced here. Partly recommended.

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Worth considering.

(All images are copyright of Hazbro Studios and Wizards Of The Coast).

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Ireland’s Wars: Ballinamuck

Not counting a small amount of unnumbered supplementary entries I wrote out to fill in a few gaps, this is the 200th edition of Ireland’s Wars. We’ve come a long way, and still have Robert Emmet, Young Irelanders, Fenians, World War One, 1916, the Anglo-Irish War, the Civil War, the Emergency, UN peacekeeping missions, and the Troubles to cover, not to mention a host of other, lesser-known, military events to consider. I’d like to thank all readers, subscribers, commenters and well-wishers from sticking with me for this long, and I hope I can keep this series up to an inevitable conclusion.

Cornwallis and his army stood ready at Athlone as September began. The news of Castlebar was unhappily digested by the Lord Lieutenant, but he remained cautious and optimistic about the situation in front of him. With more reinforcements promised by London and over 10’000 men to command himself, Cornwallis could still easily consider himself in the far better position. When he began a slow advance towards Tuam, he did so with numerous generals commanding sections of his army – among them John Moore, and Hutchinson, smarting after his repulse a few days previously – that moved slowly but must have seemed irresistible.

His counterpart, Humbert, was stuck in that unenviable position of having gained immense success but now not totally clear what he should next. The victory at Castlebar had done the job of swelling recruitment into the nascent Irish revolutionary army, as men came from all corners of Mayo to join up with the cause. But they were an undisciplined and difficult to control lot, with a tendency to pillage Protestant houses and complain when they were ordered not to. Humbert summarily executed more than one Irish member of his army in a bid to re-assert control. All the while, he tried to organise a revolutionary government for Connacht that could administer a new Irish army, with mixed success. The political enthusiasm that he and the other French officers hoped would be evident in Ireland was largely non-existent, and the higher classes had little interest in aiding his cause. A lack of expected currency to augment Humbert’s dwindling financial resources was also a pressing issue.

All of this might explain Humbert’s decision to press on and attempt to break out of Connacht, instead of staying out and waiting for the promised reinforcements from France, that were not actually all that far away. Fearing that staying sedentary would invite the British forces on to crush him, Humbert’s believed that opportunities to spread rebellion outside of Mayo existed, and determined on trying to grasp those opportunities, to increase both the size of his army and the problems for Cornwallis. The initial target would be the north, with Humbert gathering up his French regulars and a selection of Irish for the task, marching towards Sligo on in the early days of September. This route had the advantage of avoiding the barrier of the Shannon, as tricky a natural barrier as it had been in the 1650’s.

Humbert had a relatively free hand to act. Cornwallis’ advance towards him was incremental: The British general didn’t trust the Irish militia and yeomanry that made up the bulk of his army, and was not eager for an engagement, wanting more leeway to set the terms for one. As well as that, the garrisons in northern Connacht were threadbare, in no position to sally out and impede Humbert’s progress.

When the combined French/Irish army reached Sligo Town, they faced some resistance in the form of a small army headed by Charles Vereker, a Limerick MP and militia colonel, that engaged them in a small skirmish at Collooney. Somewhat exaggerated in the media afterwards, the government forces held their enemy for a short-time before falling backwards, with around equal casualties sustained between both sides. It was a stop for Humbert, and a crucial delay, that bolstered British morale at a time when it seemed like the entire United Irishmen rebellion was about to kick off again. Humbert must have considered an attack on Sligo itself, but must have concluded that he could not hope to pull the same trick as he had at Castlebar again.

Besides, soon after he decided to alter his plan, upon hearing word that new rebel armies were massing in the counties of Longford and Westmeath. Though they had organised United Irishmen cells, they had failed to rise with the rest of Leinster in May, perhaps due to the arrest and surrender of crucial leaders. Now, with rumours of vast French success to the west, Irish men wielding pikes, scythes and other implements suddenly started assembling at various hills across both counties. Hearing of this and envisioning the first proper stirrings of the promised nationwide rebellion, Humbert relented on his plan to head north, and instead decided to bear east. By September 7th, he had reached and crossed the Shannon at Ballintra.

Unfortunately for Humbert and this French/Irish army, they would find little support in the midlands counties, where the rebellion that had inspired this strategic shift had already been crushed by the time they got there. At Granard and Wilson’s Hospital large assemblies of rebels had formed but, without the required leadership to direct them, they had done little more than loot and burn Protestant homes. By the 5th, small but well led forces of militia, yeomanry and regulars attacked the Wilson’s Hospital camp, with significant losses at the Irish side, while a well-coordinated defence of Granard had the Irish attackers there soon fleeing backwards. Most dispersed, but a few struggled westwards into the path of Humbert’s army.

Humbert, even if he had got the expected support, was in deep trouble. Cornwallis had remained biting at his heels the entire time, directing various facets of his army in an effort to encircle the Frenchman, following his route back towards Dublin. While Humbert’s march would naturally have created fears in the capital – defended by just over a thousand men only – it is extremely unlikely that he would ever have gotten that far in any position to actually threaten the seat of government, as his army shed numbers through desertion and government strikes at his rear the entire time.

Humbert dumped cannon from his army to increase their marching speed, but it wasn’t enough. The failure to destroy the bridge at Ballintra – a vanguard of Lake’s section of the army, under a Colonel Robert Craufurd, had prevented this – meant that Humbert was bound to be surrounded at some point, but he pressed on, perhaps hoping that he could someone get around Cornwallis’ personal section of the army that sought to place itself in his path. He couldn’t.

On September 8th, Humbert ran out of options at Ballinamuck, County Longford, not too far from Granard, in-between two steep hills. Cornwallis, with over 5’000 men, blocked the road westwards, while Lake was rapidly coming on behind with a force nearly as strong. By then, Humbert had his 850 French regulars and a few thousand Irish left.

The resulting fight was exceedingly brief. The government forces opened fire with cannon and then launched a cavalry attack on exposed Irish positions, which broke quickly. The government then advanced on the French lines. After an exchange of musket fire, Humbert suddenly signalled his desire to surrender, having wanted only to fight so long as to protect both his own and his nations honour in the face of the enemy. The battle lasted little more than a half an hour. More Irish, who refused to lay down their arms at the same time, were killed even as Humbert was arranging his surrender.

500 Irish were killed at Ballinamuck, the last major land engagement of the 1798 rebellion. Cornwallis reported that 3 of his own men fell, while Humbert may not have lost any French at all. While many of the Irish prisoners, including Matthew Tone, would be hung, the French were safely escorted to Dublin, their higher ranks a source of much public interest and even a sort of strange fame. They would be eventually repatriated to France in a prisoner exchange, and held a low opinion of their Irish allies ever afterwards. Humbert would serve again in the French Revolutionary Wars, in Switzerland and the Caribbean, but left French military service when Napoleon rose to power. Emigrating to the New World, he took part in military adventures in Mexico and Argentina, and last saw fighting in the War of 1812, under future American President Andrew Jackson. He died in 1823. A street in Ballina is named in his honour.

All that was left after the battle was to snuff out the garrison at Killala, which held together amid the rumour of defeat for another two weeks, until government forces under a General Trench finally arrived there. With only a handful of French officers left, most of the Irish in arms had deserted. Those that remained put up a brief but gallant resistance outside the town but were hopelessly outnumbered. When they broke, a massacre ensued, outside the town and in it, leaving another 500 dead, and bringing a final end to the Republic of Connacht.

Humbert’s time in Ireland achieved far more than it ever really should have, thanks largely to the unexpected triumph at Castlebar, which left the government briefly on the back foot and gave him the opportunity of free movement in Connacht and the ability to raise more rebels. But when it came to the crucial moment, those same men could not be trusted to stand and fight. In the face of Cornwallis’ patient encirclement, Humbert was essentially powerless: whether it was in a mad dash to Dublin or hunkered down in Killala, defeat was inevitable without further French reinforcement. Humbert was a half-decent general, but at Ballinamuck nothing could have stopped Cornwallis’ victory, the British commander undertaking his job with skill, competence and determination, all qualities that most government leaders had been sorely lacking thus far.

But still the bloodshed of that year was not over, as the very last chapter of the 1798 Rebellion began to unfold.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

 

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Serenity: Hobbes, Locke And The Alliance

The Alliance, throughout the course of Firefly and Serenity, provides a decent cipher for the never-ending “liberty/security” debate, and through this we can also get an insight into the thinking of Joss Whedon on the subject.

It is important, I think, to realise that the governmental system in Firefly/Serenity really is, as the Operative puts it, “not some evil empire”. That is, it is not the equivalent of Palpatine’s tyranny in Star Wars or the Romulans in Trek. It is something much subtler and insidious than that, in the way that it appears much closer to the governments of some nations in the 21st century, than any fantastical antagonist.

What is the Alliance? The Alliance is an oppressive government, yet appears to have some form of democracy behind it. The Alliance has a structured caste-like society that it supports, but is indicated to have a huge amount of backing from the densely populated core worlds. The Alliance is militant, yet can barely keep a semblance of control on the outer rim, and had to fight a war just for that pleasure. This is no evil empire.

Indeed, just take a look at Firefly’s pilot, the first half anyway, and consider what we see of the Alliance up to the reveal of River. They win a war against Mal’s Browncoats, but we don’t know the specifics of why this is a bad thing, other than that Mal lost. They attempt to intervene in an illegal salvaging operation, nothing much wrong with that. They are a police presence on many worlds, one that a ship full of self-acknowledged criminals fears. And they chase Serenity when it becomes clear they have wanted fugitives on-board. These are not the nefarious actions of an evil empire, but they are the standard actions of an over-reaching government. The good that the Alliance can give, through its law and order in areas where it has uncontested dominance, healthcare, education, etc, are obvious, albeit coming with a significant price in terms of personal liberty and the surrender of civil rights.

Their evil is something worse than Death Star antics: refusing to help at Paradiso in “The Train Job” because it isn’t the federals’ job, the manner of the “investigation” into the derelict in “Bushwhacked”, the implicit condoning of duelling culture in “Shindig”, their non-caring about the wounded Book in “Safe”, the indentured servitude system of “Jaynestown”, the corruption evident in “The Message” and the general lack of control and protection offered by the Alliance from things like the Hill People in “Safe”, the Ring pirates in “Our Mrs Reynolds”, the likes of Niska in “War Stories” or Burgess in “Heart Of Gold”. These are not the actions of an evil empire, but they are the actions of a bloated, overstretched government, that wants to look like it’s in charge everywhere without actually taking on the responsibilities that come with such nominal authority.

And much of it comes back to the simple truth that government as big as the Alliance, with authority over so many worlds and moons from the core to the rim, has ceased to view its citizens as people. This is not the mortal sin it has to be – indeed, to some extents it’s understandable and even necessary for governments to strip away emotional attachment to its population in terms of law and order – but the Alliance, bigger and more capable than any government that has come before, takes this detachment to a scary place.

There is a creeping decline in the Alliance’s moral standing in the course of Firefly/Serenity, and especially Serenity. The treatment of River Tam is a horrible act of torture and a human rights violation, but appears to be wrapped up in so much secrecy that only a small part of the Alliance system knows about it, and thus approves of it. The Alliance starts off Serenity as the gleaming beacon of civilisation with the slightly stained underbelly, but then, through the actions of the Operative and the revelation of Miranda, it becomes an altogether uglier thing, eventually so ugly that its most loyal minions turn against it. The Miranda holocaust, and the creation, then ignoring, of the Reaver threat is the very apex of the Alliance’s method of viewing its citizens first as a problem to be solved with their emotions and potential for rebellion, and then second as unknowing test subjects.

It’s complicated. I would say it’s delicate. You want to tap into it without being cheesy about it, without necessarily coming to a conclusion. We knew before any of the [NSA] stuff that we were basically dealing with [upbeat tone] a young individualistic ragtag group of [drops voice to sound menacing] faceless bureaucrats who know everything about you! And that was going to be part of the tension…but it’s not an argument you ever want to finish. Personally, the NSA collecting data on me freaks me out. It totally freaks me out. And yet I’m from the generation that wants to put a GPS in their kids so I always know where they are. So I understand both sides of what that is. So, you know, it’s one of the things, one of the pebbles we’ll turn over in our hands to examine over and over.”

That’s Joss Whedon speaking. It’s from an interview about the pilot episode of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D that he directed, but obviously speaks to a bit more than that. Whedon is certainly a man who is not a fan of big government, the surveillance state and the surrender of some liberty in return for greater security. In Firefly and Serenity, as other, more intelligent, writers have enunciated, the battle between that security-focused life and a liberty-focused existence, finds its key debatable point in the Alliance, and in a divide between Hobbesian and Lockean philosophies.

Thomas Hobbes, famous for his declaration in Leviathan on the nature of a place where there is no law and order, stated the following:

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Such a description could easily fit the verse’s border and rim worlds, as depicted so vividly in the prologue of Serenity: isolated places prone to lawlessness, banditry, diseases and death. Without a common ruling entity, such things appear inevitable.

But, in keeping with Lockean beliefs, creating that common power and then letting it do as it pleases is a worse eventuality. The Alliance, an unchecked authority with little to stand in its way, is a Hobbesian ideal, but Whedon definitively portrays this, eventually, as an evil: such things will lead to abuse of power, the dehumanisation of populations, and actions like Miranda and the Academy, in the pursuit of making “better worlds”: better for the Alliance and those that control it, worlds where the possibility of revolt and dissent have been excised completely. With Locke, and Whedon, people have certain rights – unalienable rights – like life, liberty and the ability to pursue happiness, the denial of which is a justification for revolt, for the breaking of the “social contract” between those chosen to lead and those willing to be led. Serenity is a depiction of such thing, with Mal’s declaration “I aim to misbehave” as potent a breaking of that contract – one that he barely bought into in the first place, if ever – as you can get.

Mal and the people he gathers on Serenity are seeking their own way of life – you may dub it a “social contract” – free from Alliance control. As Mal says upon first introducing Zoe to the ship in “Out Of Gas”:

I tell ya, Zoe, we find ourselves a mechanic, get her running again. Hire a good pilot. Maybe even a cook. Live like real people. Small crew, them as feel the need to be free. Take jobs as they come – and we’ll never be under the heel of nobody ever again.

But it is interesting to consider how, if Serenity is a micro version of a social contract, with Mal at the head and the crew the governed, how tyrannical Mal becomes throughout the course of the film, to the point of threatening to kill his crew members if they get in his way. In effect, is he not trying to alter their behaviour to better suit his needs, via force? Perhaps this is too hypercritical, but I feel it is an interesting question to ponder. One man leading seven others is a hero. One government leading billions is a villain. Or, as Whedon himself said, a man freaking out about government surveillance might still want a GPS tracker in his kid.

Still, the series and the film are obvious examples of Whedon’s world view, if his actual utterances on such things were not proof enough. The Alliance, like the worst kinds of out of control government, is “meddlesome”, inside people’s homes and head, without the right to be there. Hobbes might have approved – to a point – but Locke certainly would not have, and neither does Whedon, who writes, depicts and advocates “acts of disobedience against the illiberal state”, acts that serve as a notice of sorts to powers like the USA and China, the combination of which Whedon envisions as the worst of both worlds.

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Review: Krigen (A War)

Krigen (Krigen)

Trailer

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Tobias Lindholm’s war drama is a challenge to the audience on numerous counts.

This is one I missed when it embarked on a brief and limited theatrical run in Ireland in January, but has now become available via streaming options. I would probably have overlooked Krigen at this point but for its notably high review scores – 91% on RT at times of writing – and more than one critic describing it as belonging in the top echelon of war movies, a genre that recently has struggled, in my eyes, with creating really quality pictures, with more emphasis going to the humdrum and badly skewed biopic route – Lone Survivor, American Sniper et all – than on creating really worthwhile explorations of conflict.

More recently, I believe that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has shown that interesting stories can be found in the Middle East wars of the last 15 years, but new and interesting perspectives must be sought. Tobias Lindholm’s depiction of Danish military operations in Afghanistan, for audiences more west of Scandinavia, surely fits under than category. Was it as good as they said, or is just another tired war story about a conflict tapped dry?

Company commander Claus M. Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) is tasked with leading a Danish contingent of ISAF in Afghanistan, dealing with IED’s, the problems of locals and the growing combat stress of his men, while his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) struggles at home with their three young children. When Pedersen makes a fateful choice in order to save the lives of one of his men, he must return home to face Krigen crimes charge, that calls into question his own judgement, personal integrity and the freedom of soldiers to react to circumstance.

The opening of Krigen follows a very minuscule looking line of desert camouflaged soldiers, utterly dwarfed by the immensity of the Afghan wilderness they patrol. They look so insignificant to our eyes, the kind of force pathetically unable to really make an impact on a land and a situation far greater than them. Krigen thus frames itself, from beginning to end, as a story about the individual isolated by events they are much smaller than, events they cannot control. And what emerges is a tale told with a masterful understanding of suspense, military life and the horrible contradictions of combat service, which effortlessly toys with the audiences’ emotions at every turn.

The narrative unfolds, in the first half of the production, as a dual look at men in uniform in theatre, and the spouses left at home to mind the fort and the family as best they can. There is an element of sameness to all of it in parts – certainly, you’ll have seen the contrast between tour and home life made before, on film or on TV – but Lindholm really captures the similarity and the differences brilliantly, swapping back and forth between Claus and Maria, both dealing with problems they would rather not be dealing with alone. And I think the quality comes from the fact that Lindholm’s narrative doesn’t condescend to one party or the other, though it would be easy to: the struggles of Claus and Maria are taken together and treated equally, depicted as differing problems of the same immense scope, relative to the situation that they each find themselves in. The pressures of camp life and home life are depicted brilliantly.

Claus tries to sympathetically deal with a soldier on the verge of a total breakdown. Maria’s son is caught fighting in school, acting out over his father’s absence. Claus orders a Taliban bombmaker killed by a sniper. Maria rushes her youngest daughter to the emergency room after she downs a bottle of prescription medicine. You can claim that some of these things are more pressing problems than the others, but Lindholm expertly frames them in just the right way to banish that distinction: the desperate attempts to stop a soldier bleeding out become a stomach being pumped, a crying trooper becomes a crying wife. Claus is an absent father to his children, and a substitute one to his men, his codename of “Papa” heavy with meaning.

Everything becomes interconnected, and that is one of the key points that Lindholm seems to want to make with Krigen: Nothing in war, no decision great or small, happens in the vacuum of that individual moment. Pedersen is a put upon man with worries in Afghanistan and at home, risking danger by going out on patrols with his men when he really doesn’t have to, or shouldn’t. And when the fateful moment comes, when he tells air support he has “PID” on Taliban fighters in a building so he can get a medevac for a critically wounded comrade, the audience realises that such a decision is not merely the sum of the current situation.

In effect, Krigen becomes suddenly a treatise on the moral grey area that war inhabits. The film turns on a dime in the second half, becoming a courtroom drama, and one with an alarmingly unique focus: the audience knows that Pedersen, by the letter of the law, is guilty. It was reasonable to assume that the Taliban were in Compound 6, but he had no PID. He presumed so to get the air attack, so he could get his wounded man the help he needed. It was a lie of emotion, in the moment, but it was a lie none the less. And 11 civilians died for it, even if the Taliban probably were in the building.

Other films would paint Pedersen as the villain, but not Krigen: instead, Lindholm’s well-crafted tale has the audience retain their sympathy for Pedersen, in the face of quite correct judicial proceedings, but proceedings we might, if we care to be honest, be happy to see fail. Not just because we want to see Maria and her family reunited with their husband/father, innocents in this confusing morass as much as anyone, but because we know Pedersen is no war criminal at heart, even if he has almost certainly broken the rules.

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The war at home is as important as anything else here.

Krigen mixes its themes and tones well, and even with the sudden shift in setting I couldn’t say that I found it too jarring. Amid the discussions on rules of engagement and the role of CO’s in combat, there are also thoughts on to what lengths a man must go in order to protect and be with the ones he loves: Pedersen is presented with the option of lying under oath, at the urging of a wife who cannot contemplate four years of her husband in prison, and later the biases and preparedness to commit perjury by those under his command in examined.

Such moral qualms inspire the most cutting moments of Lindholm’s script: “You may have murdered eight children, but you have three living ones at home!” Maria spits at Claus, instantly regretting so crude summations. Other moments stand out: Lasse’s tear-filled admittance that he’s starting to lose it out on patrol, Pedersen refusing to allow an Afghan family to stay the night in their base (though, somewhat lamely, the objection to this is put in the mouth of the sole female soldier we see), a soldier calming down an interpreter so hopped up on combat adrenalin that he’s lashing out (“It’s OK to be upset”) or Pedersen’s awkward response to a daughter asking him if he killed children. It’s subtitled, but a good job has been done there, and nothing seems to have been lost in the translation.

And still, our emotional connections are toyed with: Pedersen could be portrayed as a villain for his acts – after all, the 11 civilians deserve justice as much as anyone else – but he isn’t wrong to suggest in his defence that his job is to protect the soldiers under his command. The ROE of the situation are weighted against the Danish soldiers, and the survival of Lasse. By the letter of the law, the Danish courts and international legislation would have had him bleed to death in that dusty Afghan square while his fellow soldiers remained unable to get PID on “Compound 6”, whose destruction at the hands of the air strike ends the fire from the enemy. Krigen presents that most tricky of scenarios – a target that can be deemed military by the facts as the audience sees them, but which cannot be proven to be a target legally in a court. Krigen examines the hypocrisy of a system that demands full accountability for a commander’s actions in such a circumstance, without leaving much wriggle room for the powerful emotional and adrenalin based factors that push such actions in the midst of flying bullets and RPG’s. It does so without much judgement: that is left for the viewer.

It helps that Asbæk is as commanding in the lead role as he is. The Borgen veteran (Lindholm was a writer for the well-regarded political drama, and other alumni show up here too) steps into very different shoes here, but manages to capture the loneliness of military service and command, as well as the quiet dignity of the soldier. To others are left the truer emotional stakes, not least Novotny, whose own lone struggle allows for greater expression than is practical in military circumstances, but still comes with that staunch, almost admirable, reserve.

As a depiction of a military marriage under pressure, it is light years ahead of the last time I saw such an arrangement on-screen, in the turgid back and forth between Ethan Hawke and January Jones in Good Kill. A word of praise for Dulfi Al-Jabouri too, who portrays combat exhaustion well, without hyperbole or exaggeration and Charlotte Munck as the state prosecutor of Pedersen, cold, calculating, but betraying the right sense of outrage at the right moments.

Shot simply in an almost documentary style, with Magnus Nordenhof Jønck as cinematographer, Krigen is no stirring military epic in its portrayal of combat – in the critical scene, like Pedersen, we never actually see the “bad guy’s” – and a dull colour palette between the sand of the desert and the plain white of the courtroom paints a picture of a drab life that people are struggling through, rather than celebrating. Brief moments of real visual direction genius stand out though, such as when Pedersen reveals to his wife the real reason that he is home early from Afghanistan: we see the scene from outside the Pedersen household, looking through a sliding door window without audio, like a voyeur creeping through the bushes, intruding on what should be a private revelation. It’s like the director wants us to again consider the unseen personal side of any such event, that is usually portrayed in stark black and white terms of by public media, with the more subtle greyer aspects left in the darkness.

I will not spoil the ending, which comes with a sense of almost tragic inevitability, if only to say that it is appropriate to see Pederson is left alone once more, just as he was in Afghanistan: surrounded by people who love him, but isolated regardless. I was reminded very much of the conclusion of John B. Keane’s The Field (the play, not the film), wherein the “Bull” McCabe laments his role in a murder he has gotten away with: “It won’t be long before he’s forgot by all…forgot by all except me”.

Krigen will probably not ever be considered one of the all-time great war movies, its country of origin and language will see to that. And that is unfortunate, because this really is an all-time great war movie, and one of the best that I have seen in a long time, the perfect tonic to the nationalistic dross of American Sniper, the shady fictionalisation of Lone Survivor or even the entertaining but ultimately unoriginal Fury. This is a film that has serious points to make about war, and doesn’t sensationalise the subject, lecture the audience or pass judgement on soldiers or governments. It presents a story that is all too real, and presents a man who we can both condemn and admire. It presents people and factions, be they soldiers, spouses or governments, who all have clear motivations that are then suitably muddied. The rest, it leaves to us, asking uncomfortable questions about combat, the wars in the Middle-East, rules of engagement, home fronts and military law, challenging the viewer to consider the complexity of such things rather than seeing them in as monochrome a way as possible. Well written, well shot and well-acted, Krigen comes highly recommended.

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A really great war film.

(All images are copyright of Nordisk Film Distribution).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Races Of Castlebar

Despite his orders not to attempt any large scale military manoeuvres, Humbert did make some moves in-land following his initial success at securing Killala, brushing aside the minuscule amounts of yeomanry standing in his way in the Sligo region. But this minor success did not make up for the overall disappointing situation: there was no sign of an ongoing rebellion elsewhere in the country, the promised reinforcements were nowhere to be found and there didn’t seem to be the expected enthusiasm for the revolutionary cause, notwithstanding the rallying of some amount of Irish peasantry. Efforts to create a revolutionary administration in the area – that some have grandiosely labelled the “Republic of Connacht” – were frustrated by the ill-education of the Irish Humbert had to deal with, and the lack of support from what Protestant gentry also existed in the area. Killala served as a HQ, but Humbert must have been aware that his position would rapidly become untenable without additional support from some avenue.

The Irish soldiers Humbert was arming and equipping were hardly exemplary material. Most had little real inkling of what they were getting into, some believing that the French were a pro-Catholic force (the French had expelled Pope Pius VI from Rome in February of that year). They struggled with the guns they were given, and wasted powder prodigiously. The limited rations Humbert had available were rapidly consumed by Irish recruits who seemed to have no sense of conservation. Humbert himself was nearly killed when a newly armed Irish soldier accidently discharged his gun near the general. Still, Humbert marched east, seeking rebels to join his army and to spread the growing revolution.

Humbert advanced first to the nearby town of Ballina, leaving behind roughly 200 men to garrison Killala, and to secure his retreat in the, extremely likely, scenario that he had to withdraw. The local yeomanry offered what amounted to a token resistance, and after a brief exchange of fire retreated rapidly, leaving the town to the French. It was there that Humbert learned that a government force of 3’000 regular troops was advancing towards him from the south.

Conscious of his limited numbers, and the small area he controlled, Humbert was faced with the option of a rapid retreat, and probably a withdrawal from Ireland entirely, or being bolder and advancing out to meet this force, before they had time to push him back. Humbert choose the former and, using a lesser known road to bypass the more well-travelled routes that were heavily guarded, he continued south, aiming for Castlebar. In a daring operation, Humbert’s army, carrying a singular artillery piece with them, marched nearly twenty-five miles in a night and approached the walls of Castlebar on the morning of the 27th of August.

The garrison there, around 1’700 men, was nominally commanded by General John Hely-Hutchinson, and had focused on the main road for its defence, digging trenches along that path and placing its sizable artillery contingent facing in that direction. General Lake had arrived with additional militia the previous day, and it was he now in command. When the garrison received the news of the unexpected advance from a westerly direction, he was forced to rapidly redeploy his troops to new positions.

The government army was able to do so effectively enough, setting up new lines of regulars and militia with artillery support, facing the oncoming French in a mostly open plain. Lake ordered a cannonade, hoping to break the enemy before they had a chance to make contact, and then to finish the job with his cavalry reserve. The French took heavy fire, but continued their advance, partially with the aid of a ditch they were able to use for cover. Most of the Irish soldiery either did not advance or fled at the first sound of the artillery.

When the French, fighting mostly with the bayonet, reached the most outward government artillery, a remarkable collapse began. It started with the inexperienced and unreliable militia troops, who were completely incapable of standing their ground against French regular infantry. When they ran, they spread panic to other lines of defence and to other units, even the regular infantry and cavalry, and soon the entire government army was rushing backwards, headlong, with their officers unable to stem the tide.

Within just a few minutes, the contagious sense of panic had infected nearly the entire army, who fled back into Castlebar and then beyond, barely putting up even the semblance of a fight. Most would not stop running until they reached the relative safety of Tuam, over 50 km’s away, even though Humbert’s exhausted men did not offer much of a pursuit. Instead, they gloried in both this unexpectedly easy victory and the mountain of supplies – guns, cannon, even Lake’s personal luggage – that their enemy had left behind. It was a victory that could herald many more, and was sure to attract more volunteers to the French army.

The Battle of Castlebar, better known to posterity as the “Races of Castlebar” was a thundering embarrassment for the British in Ireland, an utter humiliation that many feared would reignite the larger rebellion just as it seemed to have been stamped out. The collapse of the army showcased both the strength of the French – battle-hardened and able to advance under fire, unlike the Irish – and the terrible weakness of the militia, who ran for the hills when they suddenly faced a competent adversary. The warnings that the Ascendency had so rejected before the rebellion started, that the majority of the government military would not be capable of standing up to enemy troops, had been proven completely correct.

Over 300 casualties were taken, most of them simply missing after the fighting. Cornwallis had just arrived with his army at Athlone, astride the Shannon, when he received a report of what had happened from a suitably mortified Lake. As a measure of panic began to set in back in Dublin, Cornwallis, who was not so surprised by the news as others – he had a thoroughly low opinion of the Irish in militia uniform, and knew they could not be relied upon – prepared his counter-move with patience, organising his army around Athlone for a couple of days before pressing on. He knew that when he met the French in the field of battle, he would have to win.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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Serenity: Into The River

Serenity is a film about three people primarily. There is Mal, the hero. There is the Operative, the central antagonist, and direct opponent of Mal. And there is River Tam, who I would argue is the central protagonist of the tale. Let’s focus a bit on the younger Tam sibling, and what she brings as a character to Serenity. She opens and closes the story, and if anything could be described as Serenity’s Macguffin, it is her.

What is River’s journey through Serenity? You could say that her character arc was never fully defined in the TV show, being largely interlinked with her brother and cut short rather brutally by the cancellation. If you had to enunciate one at all, it would simply be River finding her place on the ship, one where she can be of use, and demonstrate that the crew is better off with her on Serenity than off of it. That was one of the main ideas of “Objects In Space” after all. In Serenity, I would look at River through the lens of three things her character seeks for herself, or for others: a search for sanity, a search for agency, and a way to act as a cipher for Mal’s needs.

River’s journey is the one that leads back to sanity, or a reasonable level of sanity at any rate. It’s a trip to discovering the thing that’s eating her brain without her even fully realising it up to now, and finding a way to exercise the tremendous push that it has been having on her. The physical and mental abuse suffered by River at the academy was one thing, but Serenity makes clear that it is the tremendous weight of that terrible secret – the “scary monsters” she can neither face down or quantify properly – that is the main problem holding River back from achieving some kind of proper recovery.

Breaking through the barriers in her own mind becomes the key task. The obstacles are many: the subliminal suggestions of the Alliance, the code words of her brother and the sheer inaccessibility of her own memories and dreams, which ran the gambit of pleasant classroom to pile of bodies. River has to fight her way to it, figuratively and literally. Finding out that Miranda is a planet isn’t enough. Until that demon is exercised, River cannot be, as she puts it later, “alright”. When it is exercised, River vomits, symbolically removing the bile of Miranda’s secrecy from her body, and declares herself, from that moment, as “alright”.

Some might say that it is too simplistic for River’s problems to be solved by such an action, but Serenity makes clear that they aren’t fully solved. River’s reading abilities are still something that cause her problems in the resulting finale, and normality is never really going to come back for someone capable of destroying an entire band of Reavers single-handed. But she is, at least, “alright”: no longer dependent on, or holding back, her brother, and able to step up and become a more productive person and character.

River is sacrifice incarnate throughout Serenity, and for much of the film she has little agency of her own. The Alliance deemed her a worthy guinea pig, a talent to be sacrificed for the furtherment of the “better worlds” philosophy. The sins taken away from the “world without sin” have been dumped on her instead. Mal sees her as someone he is morally bound to protect at all costs, even to the extent that friends and crew members suffer for that, and while he knows she is capable of astonishing violence, it is not her mind behind the controls. And Simon essentially puts his life on hold for her, to the detriment of any possible relationship with Kaylee, because River cannot look after herself. There is a potent Jesus allegory in there as well of course: the poor innocent being with powers beyond what we can understand, asked to take the sins of the world (or worlds in this case) on their back for the rest of us. I always noted the way that Simon rubbed River’s forward after removing the needle in the prologue, the small streak of blood and the movement of the thumb making the action look like some sort of baptism.

But in terms of River’s journey, this state of affairs is altered irrevocably by the time the finale comes along. River rejects her role as sacrifice, and someone to be protected, and for others to suffer over. The sight of Simon, her highest protector, bleeding to death in her defence, and as part of the mission to deal with the terrible thing that caused her immense psychosis, is the breaking point. River becomes her own being and seizes her own agency as she flies out the blast doors and takes on the Reaver menace single handed, killing them all and saving the day in the process, no longer content to be passive or only active when being controlled by others. The power of the moment is magnified by River’s actions thus far in the story, as she rejects the seeming inevitability of being a strain on others, and becomes the heroine – the strong female character – she always had the potential to be.

In other ways, River must also repeat her journeys on Firefly – as part of the films soft reboot – and learn to find a way to connect with other people, outside of her brother. The crew of Serenity spend most of the film in fear or awe of River, treating her either as a pitiful child or a dangerous weapon they would rather not have pointed at them. The exception is Mal, who finds himself caught right in the middle. River barely has any interactions with anyone in the story except for Simon and Mal, and those with Mal are marked with an edge. Her first words to him before the heist make Mal grimly introspective (“This is what I do darlin’…this is what I do”) and when Mal tries to talk her down during her little walkabout, he makes it clear that, while he’s staking much on River’s humanity, he hasn’t discounted the possibility that she is just “a weapon”. He can’t help but view her as the ship’s albatross, the good luck that he would be a fool to discard or leave behind. For much of Serenity, Mal is a man looking for something to believe in again, and River’s plight allows him the chance to exercise his own demons over the loss suffered in the war. Mal doesn’t just find a new battle to fight, but finds a righteous one, against an enemy he needed a potent reason to fight once more. River remains mostly a symbol for Mal throughout the film, a living reason for him to fight, and to keep fighting.

But in the end, with the Miranda secret sent out into the ‘verse and no longer confined just to River’s brain, she is able to finally connect to Mal properly. She, more than anyone on the ship, can see into Mal’s thinking, and their final conversation is as much about reaffirming Mal’s faith in his ship and his crew as it is about introducing River as a new pilot for Serenity (which is also a call-back to that previously mentioned idea of River finding her place on-board, ala “Objects In Space”). That last point is important too: the film opens with Mal placing River in a position to help the crew in their work, but it comes with the objections of Simon and the potential breakdown of River at awkward moments. Her abilities prevent the crew from being caught in a Reaver ambush, but she is still an issue. By the end of the film, the entire situation is reversed: indeed, it might not be too long until Serenity is dependent on River for piloting expertise. For Mal, River’s recovery and agency is his victory, the one that was denied him in the Unification War. It did not come without cost, but it’s worth is obvious.

So, the three-fold path for River is followed in the course of Serenity. She takes back her mind, for the most part. She takes back control over her own life and the direction it is taking. And she serves as a method for Mal to reconcile his defeat in the war with his present day situation. Into the river she goes, and others go with her, pushed along the swell, struggling against the pull, finding a current to travel on.

 

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Review: Welcome To Leith

Welcome To Leith

Trailer

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Just another day in small-town America.

The new efforts coming thick and fast on Irish Netflix now, with this one, from directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, popping up in the last few weeks following a very limited theatrical run in the States and other parts of the world last year. Much like previously reviewed Western and Cartel Land, I was drawn to Welcome To Leith because it promised a unique glimpse at race relations in the United States in a year and larger era where such a topic has become a gigantic touchstone for cultural and political issues.

Recently, I’ve become rather enraptured with Hamilton, a vastly important piece of art that puts “POC” front and centre of American history in a way other mediums largely fail to do, in a time when the effort to accelerate this process is becoming overwhelming. But for everything like Hamilton, you have the continuing existence, and arguably greater reach than ever, of American white nationalist hate groups, that preach an ideology of white holocaust at the hands of minorities.

Welcome To Leith takes a look at a bizarre and almost unbelievable skirmish in this larger cultural war, when noted white supremacist Craig Cobb bought numerous plots of land in the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota. Cobb intended to transplant enough like-minded people that he could take over the towns civil structures and turn it into a white nationalist community: those already resident set out to resist his efforts.

As the mayor of the “city” (or so says Wikipedia) lays out starkly in the opening minutes of Welcome To Leith, the titular area is essentially a speck in the vastness of rural North Dakota, consisting of “three square miles, 24 residents…and one business”. The business is a bar, and the resident’s numbers include children. Looking around the ramshackle homes and dilapidated buildings that infest an area left burned by unfinished rail projects and nearby oil drilling – that never really gets much attention – you can easily believe the comments of one observer, that Leith looks “like B-roll of The Walking Dead”. Yet this isolated little place jumped briefly to near national prominence in 2012 when an extraordinarily nasty individual decided it was a perfect place for, essentially, a neo-Nazi colonisation.

Welcome To Leith is, more or less, an attempt to form a character portrait of Cobb, a figure who seems to vacillate between creepily friendly and mentally deranged. The directors take their time in getting to the man itself, making sure that we get the view of others first, people like those who run the hate group documenting Southern Poverty Law Centre or the residents of Leith who found themselves the subject of so much unwanted attention. For the first half hour of Welcome To Leith, Cobb is more of an abstract, almost cartoonish figure visible only in photographs and grainy video.

It’s when you got to actually talk to the man that the really bizarre stuff starts to come out. Leaving aside the hideous racism, Cobb claims to come from an “upper-middle class” background, that he is autistic and was once courted by both the NSA and military special forces due to his high intelligence, claims the directing team allow Cobb to make while making no effort to verify or refute them. It’s impossible to tell whether Cobb really buys into his own delusions as much as he sometimes claims he does: his later appearances, when he decides to let the documentarians interview directly, showcase a very different person to the Cobb that appeared earlier, but one cannot escape the sensation that the man is performing an elaborate and self-gratifying bout of fakery in order to avoid prison.

Cobb is fascinating enough, in a perverse, anger-inducing way, but Welcome To Leith is also quite interesting in the way that it presents such an unvarnished look at the hate group playbook when it comes to the kind of organisations that Cobb is a part of/leads. They multiply in online forums, safe from public criticism and censor. They obsess over an Aryan culture they have little genuine understanding of, proudly planting flags of long-dead European nations they feel somehow cleaved to their world-view (they include countries occupied by the Nazi’s in World War II, without a shred of irony). They insist upon their own racial purity, and then struggle to deal with the fact that very few people in the world are all one colour in the DNA (including Cobb, found to have 12% sub-Saharan DNA in his genetic make-up in a mortifying talk show spot).

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Things get real bad real fast in this story.

These people are hard to contemplate, let alone react appropriately to. There’s a sheer lack of understanding about the state of the modern day America, or the acknowledgement of lies, that it’s easy to dismiss nearly all of them as the kind of person who should be locked up for their own safety as much as for the safety of others. Perhaps most terrifying is the family that follows Cobb into Leith first, seen openly discussing the most hateful kind of ideology in front of very young and very impressionable children. They play an alphabet game, and ask the kid “What starts with N?” while being interviewed. The child, maybe wanting to leave the audience with some hope for the next generation, doesn’t say what they clearly want him to.

Worse, they love to bait and tease and provoke, non-stop. None of the self-proclaimed white power dimwits that Welcome To Leith portrays go very long without either holding a camera or being in the lens of one, and Cobb and others utterly delight in shoving them in people’s faces and seeking a reaction. The playbook is very clear: get people on camera, get them riled up, provoke them into a verbal or physical attack, and then edit the footage later to make yourself look like the victim.

Walker and Nichols were somehow able to gain access to some of this footage, and it depicts some truly startling mental illness, most notably when Cobb and another Aryan sycophant decide to walk around the streets of Leith brandishing guns, claiming later they had no intent to terrorise people (but are shown on camera bragging about their aim and hopes that people give them an excuse to shoot). You can almost imagine the defences in your ears – they were provoked, first amendment, yadda yadda yadda – that will be used the moment they manage to get things to turn violent.

Welcome To Leith, when not focusing on the racists that are trying to take over this tiny town, focuses on its residents, those who have to try and find a way to deal with Cobb, though the film never really spends enough time on them that you can really get a feel for their personalities. There’s the mayor, who seems a bit lost with what to do when confronted with such an unexpected problem, the couple whose daughter has been murdered at some time in the past, and see’s this factoid flung in their faces by Cobb, and there’s an interracial marriage, which includes the only black man in the town. You’d think his perspective would be important, but Welcome To Leith doesn’t spend all that much time on him.

Their options are frustratingly limited, as Cobb operates nearly entirely through the law: he buys plots of land legally, rents them to others legally, and is at pains to stay just within the boundaries of the law when it comes to his orchestrated campaign of intimidation. The residents fight back with some intimidation of their own – the directors don’t blanch from showing the harassment the aforementioned family go through, but the viewer’s sympathy will surely be limited regardless – but must resort to the law as well as they can.

And the law, as Welcome To Leith shows, is, if not broken, very bent. Cobb and his underlings can disrupt town hall meetings with abandon, and legislative measures to curtail his activities always come with the fear that Cobb or others will fly off the deep end and start shooting, as some of them have before (Cobb somewhat implicated in the murder of a judge sometime before the events being recorded).

When it comes to actual prosecutions for actual illegal behaviour, the citizens of Leith are similarly hamstrung. The slightest word out of order by witnesses can lead to collapse of a larger case, and hate groups like those Cobb is involved in are well versed in appearing contrite in front of a judge after months of opposite behaviour. Welcome To Leith’s final point in this regard is left open-ended, as we are shown a Cobb still clinging to the sweet words said to the court, and residents angry at a legal system that seems more concerned with lenient sentencing than protecting the law-abiding. In the aftermath, some of the Leith citizens decide to skirt the boundaries of what is legally acceptable to make sure Cobb doesn’t come back, and the lingering results of this action are apparently still in the courts today. But what else could they do?

The rot goes much further, onwards and upwards, with Welcome To Leith noting that the authorities fixation on Islamic terrorism post 9-11 has reduced resources to combat internal hate-crime based terrorism, leaving NGO’s like the Southern Poverty Law Centre to shoulder the burden. These people never appear to be in great numbers anywhere, but Welcome To Leith makes it clear what kind of terrible power they can potentially wield, using and twisting democracy to further values repugnant to the concept.

Welcome To Leith is a great documentary, if only a little aimless in sections, unsure of how to rightly pace the narrative being laid out. There are gaps in this story – like the aforementioned claims by Cobb – that could do with some filling, and one feels like this is the kind of story that the documentarians should have been just a little more comfortable putting themselves in, as opposed to staying unseen and, mostly, unheard. But as a look at the pitfalls that can affect American microtowns, the failure of law in situations regarding hate groups and as a character portrait of one of the most notable racist operating in America today, Welcome To Leith is a strong success. Apparently, Cobb has already tried to do the same thing he tried in Leith in two other places. Efforts like Welcome To Leith can hopefully keep the pressure on for him never to succeed.

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A thought-provoking piece of work.

(All images are copyright of First Run Features).

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