American Media Intervention in the Middle East

Matthew Sienkiewicz is assistant professor of Communication Studies at Boston College.  In 2010, he produced Live from Bethlehem, a documentary about Palestinian media in the West Bank.  TheVisionMachine is proud to feature selections from the documentary (have your library order a copy from the Media Education Foundation) as well as his thoughts six years later.  Sienkiewicz’s fascinating new book on US media operations in the Middle East is The Other Air Force (Rutgers UP: 2016).

My interest in Bethlehem’s Ma’an Network was piqued when a friend of a friend, a Grizzled American Newsman, told me about his trip to the West Bank. He was sent by an NGO, which was sent by the US Government, to help the producers and journalists of this fledgling Palestinian network learn how to make ‘independent’ media. My initial reaction was probably a lot like yours in reading that last sentence. How can an agent of the US, a nation so far from a neutral arbiter in the Middle East, possibly be giving lectures on independence? Ten years later, this knot certainly hasn’t fully untangled itself for me. However, a lot of contextualization has helped. First and foremost, in researching Ma’an up close I came to understand that, like any media outlet, they are free from some external pressures, beholden to others. In the case of Ma’an, executives and journalists willingly take on American-authored restrictions in exchange for insulation from the factional and economic difficulties otherwise embedded the production of Palestinian television.

In the making of my (co-produced w/Joseph Sousa) documentary Live From Bethlehem, I also came to appreciate the danger in conceptualizing any media production, even in the most politically charged space, as primarily ideological. Certainly Ma’an’s creative freedom (or lack thereof) is a matter of political importance. The day-to-day experience of producers, however, is dominated by attempts to work within material circumstances, with the idea of structural change rather far off in the distance. As Live From Bethlehem details, Ma’an’s producers spend relatively little time considering the politics of word choice or the symbolic meanings of minor artistic adjustments. Instead, they spend their time trying to work out a production schedule that accounts for the uncertainty of movement imposed by Israeli occupation or attempting to jerry-rig substandard equipment so the final product looks good enough to suffice in the hyper-competitive world of Arab TV. Certainly, ideology frames these circumstances and provides a long-term sense of purpose, but the task at hand is generally a practical, not political, one.

The Media Education Foundation released Live From Bethlehem in 2010. It remains relevant and generally reflective of contemporary circumstances, in large part due to the lack of progress in the struggle for a peaceful, long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Ma’an Network has, however, grown in the intervening years, becoming an important regional satellite outlet while still remaining heavily intertwined with Western funders, including America. This progression is outlined and analyzed in my recently released book, The Other Air Force. In addition to serving as a sort of sequel to Live From Bethlehem, the book adds a deep consideration of America’s media projects in Afghanistan. Bringing these case studies together, The Other Air Force theorizes recent American communication intervention in the Middle East as “soft-psy media”—an attempt to blend the commercially oriented foreign policy strategy of “soft power” with the military control tactics of “psyops.” Put simply, America has been funding media outlets such as Ma’an and only loosely monitoring their content in the hopes that they will succeed financially and help bring “American-style” media into new spaces. Of course, there are always red lines not to be crossed, as detailed in the documentary.  In media, as in most walks of life, freedoms are precious, partial, and always fragile things.

Live from Bethlehem


Iraq: Angels of War

*Reprinted with permission from PeaceNews

Over the past 35 years, the people of Iraq have had little peace.

The country has been the central theatre for the Iran-Iraq War, with an estimated 1 million deaths, the Gulf War and International Sanctions Regime, where up to 1 million people died, the Iraq War, with an estimated 115,000 deaths, and now the war against ISIS.

However, one photojournalist was fed up with how the media portrayed his homeland.

Jamal Penjweny comes from a border town in Kurdistan, and has worked for The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Geographic. But he was frustrated with the media’s focus on devastating images of Iraq. Jamal wanted to show that his country is capable of more than just violence.

So he created an exhibition called Angels of War.

It’s a stunning reminder of the tenacity of Iraqi people, and of the hope that doesn’t make into mainstream images of the war-torn region.

In the series, ordinary people are depicted with angelic wings – an attempt, Jamal said, to show the people of Iraq that angels are all around them, in the everyday people they encounter.

Jamal told us that after speaking with accused terrorists in custody several years ago, he was inspired to create the exhibition.

He said he wanted to counter the ideology of reaching paradise through suicide bombing – he wanted to show people who might be tempted by extremism that they are already surrounded by angels.

He also wanted to show the wider world another side of Iraq.

“We have art, we have culture, we have life. I want to show people the other side of the war,” he said.

Juliet den Oudendammer from Art Represent said the London gallery is excited to host such an insightful exhibition. Her favourite piece is an image depicting a young child looking through metal bars.

“You see this little boy in a complicated situation, with a really complicated story at the beginning of his life already, and because he has those wings it shows that even in a bad situation, there is always hope,” she said.

She said art offers a different view of conflict, and people’s experience of it.

“We can show a different perspective, and start a dialogue between what the media is saying is happening in these countries, and what is actually happening to these people who are a lot of the time very far away from the politics, or the fighting or actual conflict,” she said.

“Art can motivate people, to gather behind a movement or to pay attention to issues that aren’t ‘sexy’ enough to be portrayed in mainstream media.”


Innerview: Ron Deibert

Cyberterrorism, cyberwar, espionage, the Great Firewall of China, surveillance, human rights, Snowden, insurgencies, computer network attacks, hacking, data sweeping…  The Vision Machine had the extraordinary opportunity to interview Ron Deibert, Professor of Political Science in the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.  Deibert runs the Citizen Lab, a large interdisciplinary research facility that endeavors to track attempts by state and non-state actors to control the flow of information in cyberspace.  This interview, conducted by Seb Kaempf, plums Deibert’s extensive knowledge of how the gears of the net really turn and its possibilities for both democratic and authoritarian politics.  In addition to the reports generated by the Citizen Lab itself, Deibert has most recently authored the book Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace (Random House, 2013).


The Army Experience Center

The Vision Machine is excited to feature a microdocumentary by one of our own curators, Peter Mantello.  You may remember that Peter previously posted a fascinating video on the company, Strategic Operations, which uses Hollywood special effects to train soldiers.  The Army Experience Center is another installation in this series that looks at the military-entertainment complex.  The following is Mantello’s narrative of his eperience of the Army Experience Center and its life cycle.

The Army Experience Center
by Peter Mantello

This micro doc explores the porous boundaries between 21st century military recruitment and first-person shooter game culture. In 2008, the US Army decided to experiment with finding new solutions to old approaches to regenerating its ranks by substituting dreary recruitment offices located in urban ghettos for exciting yet militarized video arcades in popular suburban shopping malls.  The result was known as the Army Experience Center (AEC). Situated in the Franklin Mills mall just outside Philadelphia, the AEC merged the imaginary and actual worlds of military life, tapping into the popularity of first person shooter games and the wonders of smart phone technology.

Free to the public, the AEC offered young adults a chance to immerse themselves in the hi-tech world of 21st century war craft while discovering well-paid, military career possibilities through touch screen technology. Row upon row of computer terminals allowed participants to play an array of first-person shooter videogames (including America’s Army) while two large simulation halls offered volunteers a chance to experience ‘humanitarian’ combat missions by riding Humvee vehicles and Apache helicopters (while of course shooting their way through never ending waves of faceless, brown-skinned adversaries). Moreover, participants could visit the war room of the digital age where distant war is fed to analysts on 50 inch screens through satellite imagery.

Meanwhile, Army recruiters (often fresh from Iraq/Afghanistan) traded in their military fatigues for polo shirts and jeans and casually circulated through the complex, offering advice, answering questions and ultimately assisting the interested in signing up for stint in the real US military. But by 2010, local public opposition to the AEC garnered negative national attention. Angry parents accused the AEC of attempting to seduce their children with overly sanitized impressions of war. The AEC was officially closed in 2012 becoming a small but important footnote in the increasing synergy between the US military and the entertainment industries.


Cynthia Weber on Film in IR


What role can filmmaking have in the social sciences and in particular the study of International Relations?  Cynthia Weber, a professor at the University of Sussex, is a leading voice in the field of IR among those who have experimented with film as a medium for doing academic work.  Here we are thrilled to curate some of her recent provocations, a series of short films on the Occupy Wall Street movement that are part of her larger “I Am An American” project.  Each tells a story, as she puts it, about what it means to be a US American in the twenty-first century, stories that together formed the eclectic mix that we call “Occupy.”  In addition to screening these for TVM, Cynthia was gracious enough to sit down with us and talk about how she developed as a filmmaker, how it has energized her work, and the philosophical controversies it inevitably brings to the academy.  To investigate the “I Am An American” project further, see the following:

I Am An American

‘I Am An American’:  Filming the Fear of Difference.  Bristol, UK:  Intellect Books and Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2011.

2010 – ‘Cynthia Weber’s ‘I am an American’ Project’, International Political Sociology, 4(1):80-103. 

2013 – ‘“I am an American”:  Protesting Advertized “Americanness”’, Citizenship Studies, 12(2):125-142.  Reprinted in Janelle Reinelt and Shirin Rai (eds) The Grammar of Politics and Performance.  London:  Routledge.


The Nature of War

Democratic Communique is coming out with a special issue this month that focuses on war and media.  I urge you to check it out. (Thanks to the editors, Robin Andersen and Tanner Mirrlees.)  I have a piece in the issue about the ways the discourse of “war” in news, pop culture, and weapons industry PR has taken on a host of biological metaphors.  I call this discourse “biomimetic war,” and it is one that, in the end, tacitly extends military jurisdiction to the governance of life itself.  Here I want to give a snapshot of some of the more provocative aspects of the piece, including some video.  A good part of the essay looks at innovations at DARPA that have caught public attention such as the weaponizing of insects and other animals.  The essay then extends out into public and popular life as it tracks how these image-metaphors have translated into a rather coherent image of future war.

Some TVM readers may be familiar with DARPA’s HI-MEMS (Hybrid Insect Micro Electromechanical Systems) project, an effort in the last five years or so to put a chip on an insect in order to fly it around by remote control.  On the right (Cyborg Insects) is an early press release hosted by New Scientist magazine. These efforts have seen remarkable success with untethered flight and even the ability to extract electricity from glucose in the insect’s blood.  In addition to weaponizing living bugs, the Air Force has established a mini-drone program it calls the uAVIARI (Micro Air Vehicle Integration and Application Institute).  See the press release to the right (Air Force Nanodrone).  The Army has its MAST (Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology) program represented by the video press release from weapons contractor BAE Systems (Army’s Mini-Drone Swarm). This kind of research progresses along two tracks: weaponizing existing life forms and using “nature as inspiration” for new robotic weapons systems.

For me, the discourse, rather than the research, is the most fascinating aspect of these projects, however.  Relatively speaking, these are rather modest projects, but they have seen a tremendous amount of public attention, mainly from popular sciences magazines. As a I want to excerpt a representative bit from an early National Geographic Explorer episode aired called “Nature’s Secret Weapons.”  This was aired in 2002 during which the programs described above were in incubation.

A kind of arms race has raged over the earth for millions of years. And from these titanic struggles have emerged superb fighting machines. They are the lords of the air, specialists in all-terrain combat, and armed with uncanny senses to detect and kill. Today, we find ourselves looking to nature’s armies for inspiration. For in these troubling times, we face a different kind of threat, from an enemy lurking not just on the battlefield, but in our own backyards. A revolution in technology is changing the way we wage war in the 21st Century, and it’s based on nature’s secret weapons.

Such treatments appeared in outlets from Wired magazine to Popular Science and Fox News.  To really understand the narratives underpinning these reports, however, one must examine the images of future warfare that have been cultivated in popular culture and, in particular, sci-fi. The initial inspiration for the HI-MEMS project came, incidentally, from a sci-fi book by Thomas Easton called Sparrowhawk, and these ideas seem to have established a feedback loop between the arms industry and public notions of future war.  The reference points are too numerous to recount here, but one might say that biomimetic weapons really took hold in the late 1990s as an image in films like The Matrix, Johnny Mnemonic, Lost in Space, and The Avengers.  In the early 2000s, Minority Report‘s spiderbots became an icon that would show up later in the videogame Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 in 2012.  Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen even introduced a bug-sized sentinel that hunts the protagonist.  By the time we get to the late 2000s, we encounter Avatar, a film about the marshaling of an entire ecosystem to defeat a rather outdated machine-based military. And don’t forget the Jerry Bruckheimer kids film, G-Force, that featured weaponized guinea pigs and a cyborg fly called “Mooch” commandeered by the military to go on missions. The creators of G-Force, incidentally, talked openly about taking inspiration from the HI-MEMS project, which by this time had become an object of public interest.

Of course, biological metaphors have been a part of war/security discourse for a while. Consider the fact that “drone” came from a WWII experiment in unmanned flight that relied on a control center called the “Queen Bee.” Surveillance, especially during the Cold War, has been rife with “bugs” and “flies on the wall.”  In the post-9/11 period, however, the biological has edged toward the center as ultimate object of military power.  War has gone ecological.  Here, terrorism fuses with the natural disaster, Homeland Security responds to disease outbreak and domestic bombing alike, and the specter of biological weapons haunts the public imagination. In such a discursive environment, the contest we call “war” has effectively been mapped onto the biosphere as a permanent and ubiquitous condition determined less by the policing of national boundaries than policing life systems.  The upshot is that this discourse of war normalizes an increasingly invasive security apparatus.


Wartorn Britain

In partnership with filmmaker Michael Bluett, The Vision Machine is excited to feature Wartorn Britain, a new short documentary film. Wartorn Britain examines present day British military culture through a series of careful and sincere vignettes that read the nation’s present self-understanding as a series of familiar echoes. Below is Bluett’s narrative of how the film came to be.


Why I Made this Film – by Michael Bluett
(Reprinted from Open Democracy)

Violence has always been my bread and butter from, when I was working with young homeless people in Blackpool facing violence from family, police, or each other, to working with human rights activists and survivors of war in military occupied territories like Papua in Indonesia. Violence was the reason I was there. What is it, this behaviour, this activity and why do we humans engage in it in so many different forms, and what’s more – why was I always attracted to it?

I found myself most fascinated by the military who are trained and legally sanctioned to do violence on our behalf. Naively, I had believed soldiers would uphold the views of the politicians who sent them there and I had assumed their feelings and empathy for local civilians would be numbed by military service.

I was surprised to find how critically they reflected on their role. I feel their mixed emotions were due to the face-to-face human situations they were in, where politically constructed discourses meet everyday human reality.

There is so much noise about the military and war; books, movies, TV news and public commemorations. In contrast, the responses of people, both civilians and soldiers who have been caught up in armed violence is often silence. War seems to be the most talked about of activities, and yet the least known.

I’ve been making films for the last 6 years on and off and I was interested in trying to capture the British military experience. I never really considered going to Afghanistan or Iraq, where the embedding process leaves little freedom to work, and visually filmmakers seem overwhelmed by the terrible thrill of war and violence.

But I saw my opportunity when I returned home to Britain. I had left the UK to work overseas in 2003 just after the invasion of Iraq, and it still loomed large in my memory of what Britain was. I decided to search out British soldiers who had been part of the Iraq war, to see what they said and didn’t say about that war, and whether that violence still played a part in their everyday lives 10 years on, and if so how.

I began my research and my film where I grew up, in Blackpool – that icon of the British national imagination. I knew young Blackpool men and women commonly joined the military, but I didn’t realise that the connection between this tourist town and military commemoration went so much deeper; with military reunions from across the north west and Scotland regularly held here and many public events for both commemoration and entertainment.

In particular, the government’s new Armed Forces Day has been wholeheartedly embraced in ‘don’t do it by halves’ Blackpool, and renamed Armed Forces Week. It regularly sees over 50,000 visitors.

During the first Armed Forces Day, an empty town centre shop was turned into a visitor information point, and quickly became inundated with requests for help from veterans. It has now become a permanent veterans museum cum gift shop cum welfare centre.

As my research with the veterans progressed, I realised that it was futile to focus on one ‘war’ such as Iraq. I was coming across veterans who had served in all of Britain’s post-imperial spaces, from Borneo to Belfast to Baghdad, and all of them were being personally remembered right here in Blackpool. The veterans I met embody Britain’s unending military actions and our propensity for opting for military intervention, an option we are discussing again this week as conflict mounts in Iraq. To try and reflect this continuity of war and violence, the film I made in the end tinkers with notions of time and place. Archive footage of civilians watching the British Indian Army enter Baghdad in 1917 merges with British Army patrols in 2004 at street checkpoints frisking Iraqi drivers and passengers.

Gradually my film became a portrait of one veteran of the Iraq war, Darren, juxtaposed with past and current public memorials. Now home in Blackpool for over 7 years, we see how he locates his experiences of violence and follow him through intimate settings with family and friends, as well as public settings, where veterans and the military are honoured and celebrated.

These scenes show the tension between personal and collective remembering, forgetting and the denial of state violence. An individual may identify with a dominant collective narrative of war and violence, particularly constructions of the enemy, the violent ‘other’. At the same time, that individual has their own personal experiences which both support and contradict this.

Human interrelationships formed and deformed by violence are reimagined with fear, remorse, hate or love on a human level. To capture this in the film I tried to leave all judgments and assumptions behind to build a relationship with this and other veterans. In doing this, I found that what developed was friendship, which came as the biggest surprise to me and Darren, who said this when I asked him for a quote for this article;

“Working on this film made me open up in ways I didn’t realise. The finished result was very humbling to watch and made me realise just how far I have come with my rehabilitation. One bonus about this film is a friendship that has been formed by two people from totally different ends of the spectrum. I now consider Mike a true friend in every sense of the word..Thanks mate…”

Judgments and assumptions are an essential ingredient in the creation of fear and hatred, and when we leave them behind there are opportunities for friendship and love.

Throughout the making of the film I came to see how we are all busy creating monsters, spreading fear and hate to turn someone or something into a monster. On any given day this may be Saddam Hussein, the Germans, Muslims or the Irish. For some, including sometimes myself, British soldiers were the ones to fear and hate and turn into our monsters.

I found this quote by Nietzsche which succintly describes where hate and fear lead: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” When we allow fear and hate to shape our opinions and our lives, that is what happens, which is why, as Les Back, the sociologist, says, “We need to find ways to repair the harm that hate and fear inflict on our ability to see, hear and understand.”

What I have realised is that we are usually none of us as tough as we think we are. We think we can be warriors, saviours, and end violence, but violence and the fear which produces it and the hate which fuels it are incredibly powerful. I hope love and understanding can be my guide, even when I am facing violence and hate.

Here are some lines from Homecoming, a poem written by my great uncle when he was a soldier in Mesopotamia in 1919, when the British Army occupied Mesopotamia and the borders of modern day Iraq were drawn up by European hands. I only found out about this and a relatively uncommemorated bit of history, speaking to my own family during the filming of Wartorn Britain:

“I saw arid plains where once great cities grew
like Nineveh and Ur
and thought I knew
my world
and my emotions too”


If you would like to organise your own screening of Wartorn Britain, please get in touch with Michael at


Consuming War: Peter Mantello at TEDx

In his TEDx talk ‘Media, Consumerism and Connectivity in the Age of Terror’, Professor Peter Mantello (co-curator of TheVisionMachine) discusses how after 9/11, political and commercial forces have come together in order to reshape our notions of freedom, liberty and security. In his presentation, Peter discusses how our everyday media behavior and habits are being not simply scrutinized but also weaponized against an invisible and perhaps mythical enemy, aka a world where the lines between policemen and marketers are now blurring together to fuel a growing political economy of fear.

Peter Mantello is Professor at the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, College of Asia Pacific Studies, Media and Arts.  After completing his degree in Media Arts and Fine Arts at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, he has been working as a Contract Filmmaker at National Film board of Canada. After that, he was Lecturer at the Department of Cinema at Concordia University and also teaching at Media Communications Department at Webster University, Bangkok. Professor Mantello has been awarded with a number of Faculty and Research Grants and Projects.


Film in IR: Innerview with Michael Williams

Film and visuality have long been used as sources of text and political interpretation in the subject of International Relations (IR). Much more recent is the emergence of IR scholars as direct producers of films about topics of international politics. IR scholars from James Der Derian to Cindy Weber et al. have been at the forefront of this development. Using the theme of ‘Film in IR/Filming IR’, an ISA workshop held in San Francisco in 2013 (organized by Laura Shepherd and Rune Saugmann Andersen), and attended by TVM’s Roger Stahl and Seb Kaempf, tried to identify and address the intellectual opportunities and challenges of this development.

What are the challenges that emerge out of using the production of film in the context of the modern university? How does one legitimately evaluate film as a piece of academic work? How does this relate ethically to the political economy of the modern public university? And how creative do or should scholars become with film? How should scholars engage with students over the interpretation of film?

In this Innerview, Roger Stahl and Seb Kaempf talk to another attendee of this workshop, Professor Michael C. Williams (University of Ottawa), who – as a self-declared ‘sympathetic skeptic’ of this development – reflects upon the possibilities and intellectual challenges surrounding film in IR/filming IR. This video is intended as a platform to kick off further discussion of these themes within the wider academic and non-academic community. We would like to encourage you to express your views in the comments section below.

Filmed, produced and edited by Roger Stahl and Seb Kaempf. Interview held in San Francisco on 5 April 2013.


Innerview: Mark Andrejevic

The Vision Machine sought out Dr. Mark Andrejevic for his thoughts regarding surveillance, datamining, and the recent NSA revelations.  His 2013 book, Infoglut: How Too Much Information is Changing the Way We Think and Know, is a timely confrontation with the recent shift toward this new mode of control.  What makes this book particularly powerful is not simply its documentation of how the big data apparatus works, but also its discussion of the philosophical and cultural undercurrents that accompany the big data world – everything from precog crime and signature strikes to the externalizing of subjectivity and the proliferation of conspiracy rhetoric in public life.   In the innerview, he draws both from the book and events that have transpired since its publication.

Dr. Andrejevic is media scholar at the Center for Critical and Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland.  Here, we present two versions of the innerview: a condensed video and a nearly unabridged hour-long audio segment that goes into greater depth and detail.

Full Audio:

Download MP3