Doc Talk: Russian interference, Cuban oppression, unreal estate

Motherland Monument, in Kiev, Ukraine
Motherland Monument, in Kiev, UkraineHBO

Alex Gibney won an Academy Award for his 2007 documentary, “Taxi to the Dark Side.” His new two-part, four-hour documentary “Agents of Chaos,” about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, has all the twists and turns and revelations (though many by now not so revelatory) of a thick, page-turning, and implausible espionage thriller. He even includes a clip from the 2006 adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code.” It would be entertaining, escapist fare if it weren’t all too real, and a reality that is still ongoing.

Part One begins by outlining the initially amateurish tactics of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian troll farm in Saint Petersburg. Secret videos taken inside show a bunch of college-age kids at laptops playing with a toy tank. Gibney interviews a journalist who relates how he gained access to the operation by answering a help wanted ad and once inside recognized one of the people working there as another investigative journalist.


It had gotten its act together by 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin grabbed Crimea from Ukraine, sparking a conflict between pro-Russian elements in eastern Ukraine and the pro-European Union west. Using fake news sites, phony personae, and bogus media outlets, the trolls set in motion a wave of disinformation targeting those on the left, who were flooded with stories about neo-Nazis behind the pro-European movement, and those on the right, who were fed rumors that the pro-European movement was a Jewish conspiracy. The goal, Gibney suggests, was to undermine faith in institutions, sow doubt about the difference between fact and fiction, and create chaos.

The Ukraine operation established a model for Russian interference in the 2016 US election. But as Gibney relates in Part Two (co-directed by Javier Alberto Botero), that was only one aspect. Another element was hacking the accounts of political entities and leaking seemingly damning material at key moments in the campaign. The events of just one busy news day – Oct. 7 – epitomize this tumultuous period. As Hurricane Matthew battered Florida, 17 US intelligence agencies released their conclusion that the Russians were hacking the election. A couple of hours later a tape from “Access Hollywood” was leaked in which Donald Trump made his now-notorious remarks about taking liberties with female anatomy. Twenty-nine minutes later Wikileaks dumped a trove of e-mails from John Podesta, chairman of the Hillary Clinton campaign, that had been hacked by the Russians.


Gibney has enlisted an all-star cast of interviewees for this epic documentary. Among them are Glenn Simpson, cofounder of Fusion GPS, which commissioned the controversial Steele dossier; former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe; the creepily disingenuous Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the Russian State News Agency; and former National Security Council senior director Celeste Wallander.

Wallander offers one of the more ominous assessments. Gibney asks whether the Russians had in fact gained access to the election infrastructure and could have interfered with the actual vote. “They were in the system,” she says. “They were poised to do it. They didn’t need to.”

“Agents of Chaos” Part One can be seen on HBO beginning Sept. 23 at 9 p.m. and Part Two Sept. 24 at 9 p.m.

Go to www.hbo.com/documentaries/agents-of-chaos.

A scene from "Letters to Eloisa."
A scene from "Letters to Eloisa."Boston Latino International Film Festival

Reputation restored

Though the name may be unfamiliar, the Cuban poet, philosopher, and writer José Lezama Lima (1910-76) is ranked alongside Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges as one of the greatest Latin American literary figures of the 20th century. He’s the subject of Adriana Bosch’s documentary “Letters to Eloisa,” one of the highlights of this year’s Boston Latino International Film Festival (Sept. 23-27).


Obscure but already respected in literary circles in his early years, Lima saw his career bloom after Fidel Castro took power in 1959 and the new regime touted him as one of the revolution’s cultural treasures. But when he published his homoerotic, autobiographical novel, “Paradiso,” in 1966, the government turned on him, removing his books from circulation, subjecting him to constant surveillance, and refusing to allow him to travel to other countries.

Bosch adds to the usual interviews and archival material excerpts from the correspondence Lima wrote to his sister, who was then living in exile in the United States. In them he describes with aching eloquence and poetic pathos the oppression and loneliness of an artist overwhelmed by the circumstances of history. Richly resonant of this time and place, the film provides a microcosmic glimpse into a country that though only a little more than 100 miles away is little known to most of us in the United States. An excellent complement to Hubert Sauper’s portrayal of present-day Havana, “Epicentro.”

Go to bliff.org.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, from "Public Trust."
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, from "Public Trust."FLORIAN SCHULZ

Land grabs

It sounds like a good deal — lease out or sell millions of acres of undeveloped public land — national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas — to mining, lumber, and fossil fuel companies who will create jobs and bring in billions. Unfortunately, these corporate outfits often take the resources and run, leaving behind toxic pits, poisoned water, and deforested wastelands. The people who live there are left to clean up the mess and face the environmental and public health consequences for generations to come.


David Garrett Byars’s documentary “Public Trust” follows the struggle to preserve three such places now in danger of being lost forever. They include the Boundary Waters Wilderness, in Minnesota, a paradise for sportsmen that already provides thousands of jobs for local people and which is the proposed site of a sulfide-ore copper mine that might pollute the watershed; the Bears Ears National Monument, in Utah, a million acres of sublime landscape and the repository of artifacts from thousands of years of indigenous habitation which has been reduced by 85 percent and handed over to mining and oil exploration; and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a 19-million-acre tract in northern Alaska where indigenous people depend on herds of caribou for their existence and which is now threatened by oil drilling.

The film puts these crises in perspective by relating the history of the public lands movement from its origins with Theodore Roosevelt to its erosion under recent Republican administrations. It focuses on activists who are trying to save these sites, sharing their short-lived triumphs and their crushing disappointments. With its stunning images of spectacular landscapes, “Public Trust” makes clear what is at stake.


“Public Trust” can be seen beginning Sept. 25 on YouTube.

Go to youtu.be/OGjnIG7puzY.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.