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This weekend we’re watching: American misinformation for dummies

'Curveball' (Image supplied)

‘Based on a true story. Unfortunately.’ Curveball is a 2020 German satire showing at the European Film Festival which runs online from 12 - 22 November, about the misinformation and political blunders which led to the American war in Iraq.

In 2017 American Republican senator Bill Cassidy criticised Obamacare, asserting that “Conservatives believe in truth!”, and quoting Ronald Reagan as saying: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

This wise and famous saying actually came from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat, but the irony of Cassidy’s misquote is more disheartening and infuriating than it is amusing.

Relativism, the view that truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them, and that everyone is therefore entitled to their own, is a more and more pervasive idea – one that has threatened the fabric of democracy in the modern world.

Demagogues have used truth decay to avoid culpability, even from within their own support base – rather than convince a population of some radical manifesto, whether conservative, revolutionary or otherwise; they cultivate a state of confusion, fear and skepticism around the facts, allowing reality to be manipulated to justify almost anything.

After four years of Donald Trump, the world is acutely aware of how would-be despots lie to the public in the interest of subversion, but the deception sometimes begins deep beneath the foundation of our political landscape, shifting the tectonic plates of international politics in ways which even tyrants themselves do not always understand.

Curveball is a German 2020 political thriller drama about the deception and the lies told in pursuit of political clout, which led to the American war in Iraq.

Curveball | Trailer: OV w/Eng. Subtitles from ARRI Media GmbH on Vimeo.

Curveball begins with a subtitle saying, “Based on a true story. Unfortunately.” The film is cocooned in this sardonic tone – it may be satirical but it’s not particularly funny.

The sheer incompetence of the officials depicted is worth a pointed scornful laugh, but the grim consequences of their ineptitude is an ever-present tragedy which stifles what might otherwise have been comedic moments.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed by American forces, based in large part on the babblings of one random dude.

It was 1999 and the CIA had recently completed their inspection of Iraq for chemical weapons and left with their pants down. No countries were claiming to have an inside source in Iraq, but Israel and all of the West were desperate for one.

The German chancellery wanted to impress the Yanks by landing an informant, and, out of nowhere, they thought they’d found one, but not in Iraq – in a refugee camp in Germany. What are the chances?

Rafid Alwan was a goofy Iraqi chap (with an incorrigible hankering for Coca-Cola) who claimed to have been a chemical engineer for a biological weapons project in Iraq producing anthrax. A visual effect resembling spores recurs several times in the film, alluding to anthrax itself, but also to the nebulous nature of truth and the infectiousness of the fears and lies that poison us.

‘Curveball’ (Image supplied)

Dr Wolf, an expert on biological warfare who had spent three years in Iraq, deemed a German expert on Iraq, was tasked as the case officer for dealings with this informant.

Alwan’s demands in exchange for his “inside information” make it immediately obvious what game he was playing, but apparently not to the German Federal Intelligence Service. He put on a dramatic performance, taking deep nervous gulps and squirming guiltily in his interrogation chair. He feigned paranoia that the Iraqi secret service would come after him and pleaded for political protection.

Alwan managed to squeeze an apartment out of the deal but he didn’t stop there – he wanted a German passport, and when Dr Wolf promised him one if he could prove that Saddam Hussein was producing chemical weapons, what do you know, Alwan came up with a story lickety split!

The information was deemed plausible and without any further verification, the news was carted off to the CIA, Mossad and MI6. The source was considered so important that the informant was christened with the codename “Curveball”.

Aaaaand busted. Mr Curveball was promptly discovered to be a total phony, but his evidence was still used by the CIA to justify the invasion of Iraq with the knowledge that he was a fraud.

The fatal sin of the Germans and the Americans was that they wanted so badly for Curveball’s story to be true that they ignored his obvious motive for lying.

Curveball, the only significant Iraqi informant the West had access to, was genuinely just some guy looking to hustle a way out of a refugee camp and score citizenship in Europe.

The German Federal Chancellery remained silent to preserve transatlantic relations even though they knew that Curveball was unreliable. Its then chief of staff is now Germany’s federal president.

Some might rush to the defence of this ruse, citing the heinous crimes of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and arguing that the ends justify the means.

Curveball concludes with a monologue which posits an answer to this argument: “What is truth? Yes, an illusion. But what do we become if we stop searching for the truth? Why have laws? Why have news reports or elections?”

These questions are as relevant to American politics today as they were 20 years ago.

Many are still reveling in the relief of having escaped Trump’s reign of madness, but it’s not over yet. Even after definitively losing the election, Trump insists that he won “by a lot” and refuses to step down.

As long as a huge proportion of American voters remain receptive to misinformation and bigoted rhetoric, the battle against “alternative truth” will rage.

Curveball has several cinematic shortcomings.

The jittery anxious score which was composed by the director, Johannes Naber, lingers between tense and sleepy. The action takes about an hour to build before really kicking off and the typically German restrained acting, while highly believable, makes this build-up feel altogether uneventful.

But the build-up is necessary for historically accurate context and the film ultimately redeems itself.

It is shocking to witness how individuals’ blunders and trivial political manoeuvres set the Middle East ablaze with conflicts that still rage today.

Curveball has a lesson to teach about the inevitable suffering which is caused when politics informs truth, rather than the other way around. DM/ML

Curveball is available for free screening on the European Film Festival site from 12 – 22 November 2020. You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]

 

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  • “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own set of facts” simply explains the need for choice! One mans terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, while the range of religions arise from one faith! This is a part of life which has been with us since the dawn of time. The use of the phenomenon can be good (creating competition) or bad (creating/perpetuating conflict)! The phenomenon is harmless, man’s use of it is dangerous and painful

  • And today…in Israel Pompous Pompeo on his ‘scorched earth’ tour is saying ‘international law’ is what he (and his type) SAY it is ! He like Trump decides what is law and what is not ! Trump with the connivance of the Republican senate and McConnell (the other poorly disguised white supremacist) have decided Trump is above the law ! And the Americans have the audacity to call out some middle eastern and other countries as dictatorships.

  • The insanity of politics and the absolute ludicrous reality that society sanctions it all. Gramsci outlined it well in his notes on hegemony. Another fabulous and delightfully entertaining review albeit on a grave topic thank you Tevya