TV programs worth watching
Sun 23 February — Sat March 1
Argentina is the most developed country in Latin America. Once the darling of the International Monetary community, it was a trailblazer for Reagan-style "trust-the-markets" economics. Argentina opened up her markets to outside investors, her financial systems to international banks, and privatised everything. The sale of public enterprises and assets kept the government's coffers full — for a time. Then came the crunch. The Cutting Edge documentary Cry for Argentina (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday), tells the dramatic story of the collapse of Argentina and the effects on both a personal and political level. The Argentineans are struggling to cope with an economy declining faster than that of the US during the Great Depression. Following the run on the banks in 2002, the Government defaulted on US$141 billion of debt. Production has fallen by 20 percent in a year. Unemployment is 25 percent and rising. Every day sees new demonstrations in the streets and desperate people gathering in front of banks, expressing their anger with the system. Some people bang pots and pans and deface banks in protest, while others march and blockade roads. A fifth of the population have resorted to pre- capitalist barter, joining Barter Clubs where goods can be exchanged for services and vice versa. Prime time television in Argentina even has a new reality show, Human Resources, in which contestants bare their souls before a national audience in order to win "a job" as a sales assistant on the minimum wage. The documentary follows two finalists on the show, Mariela and Samantha, back home to meet their families and explore a world of lost hope, where dreams of first world security have been swiftly replaced by fears of third world poverty. Cry For Argentina is a study of what happens when the bottom falls out of capitalism in a country which once was among the richest in the world. Director Nick Park joined Britain's Aardman Animation in 1986 to work with the studio's innovative founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton and at the same time to complete A Grand Day Out, a film he had started while a student at London's National Film and Television School. Nominated for an Academy Award, A Grand Day Out (1989) introduced the world to Wallace, the eccentric, somewhat inept cheese-loving inventor (voiced by Peter Sallis) and his faithful dog, Gromit whose wide, slightly mournful eyes quickly register his despair, frustration or total incredulity. The story was pure comic-book adventure — building a space rocket and blasting-off to the moon in search of cheese — but its success demanded a sequel, and in 1993 Wallace and Gromit returned in the Oscar-winning The Wrong Trousers (ABC 5.30pm Wednesday), followed two years later by A Close Shave which also won an Oscar. "All three films are packed with visual jokes (Gromit reading a paper carrying the headline 'Dog Reads Paper') and verbal puns (Gromit's collection of records by Bach), and there is a proliferation of wacky gadgets, ranging from the ex-NASA Techno Trousers to a device that catapults dollops of jam onto a piece of toast as it springs out of a pop- up toaster. "Park's films work on many levels. Children respond to the broad character comedy, adults to the more sophisticated elements including the affectionate spoofing of movie genres such as horror films, thrillers, heist pictures, action movies and the deep shadows and crazy camera angles of film noir. "This richness of character and relentlessly paced animation (the model train chase in The Wrong Trousers and the motorbike pursuit in A Close Shave) have carried clay animation to unprecedented heights" — Cracking Animation by Brian Sibley. By the early to mid-19th Century, British capitalists were highly aggrieved at their inability to make more money from the tea trade. They had the marketing of it in England and the rest of the Empire sewn up, but they had to buy the raw product from China. The Chinese authorities had guarded the secret of its cultivation and manufacture for more than 5000 years. British imperialism sought to change that by mounting an audacious industrial espionage mission to steal the secret of tea from Imperial China. The man entrusted with this mission was Robert Fortune, a 36-year-old Scottish botanist. Unconcerned by the colonial exploitation that it implied, Fortune saw his work as being for the greater cause of the British Empire. Robert Fortune: The Tea Thief, screening in the As It Happened timeslot (SBS 7.30pm Saturday), tells the extraordinary story of Fortune's mission. As SBS puts it, in a curiously mealy-mouthed expression, "From today's perspective, Robert Fortune's clandestine activities can be seen as an illicit technology transfer". Robert Fortune (1812-1880) was a distinguished botanist and adventurer in his day. Plants that bear his name can be found in many of the world's botanical gardens. Fortune supposedly spent three years "travelling clandestinely throughout mainland China, disguised as a mandarin and under the constant threat of death", observing and learning for himself the best methods and techniques of tea cultivation and processing. By the time he went to India in 1851, he had some 20,000 tea-plants and a compliment of eight Chinese tea workers to oversee their cultivation in the foothills of the Himalayas. British capitalism had taken over as primary producer in the tea industry. An interesting footnote: among those interviewed in the program is Anthony Wild, "current director of the British East India Company" (the company that originally sent Fortune on his mission. For me, it always comes as a surprise to realise that these colonial business concerns still exist. In some countries, like Zimbabwe, they actually dominate the economy (and are behind much of the current British campaign against the Mugabe Government).