"Buy Bye Beauty": Classic hatchet job, Swedish-style

  • 2001-03-01
  • Juris Kaza
In journalism a hatchet job is when one selectively takes facts and warps them or hallucinates some version of the truth that gives a deliberately unfair, biased or even slanderous account of some public or private issue.

The so-called documentary "Buy Bye Beauty" (see The Baltic Times #245) by alleged Swedish filmmaker Pal (pronounced "Paul") Hollender is a classic hatchet job. Actually it's worse, but that's what it is in journalistic terms.

Our pal Pal's 56 minutes of digital videotape, narrated in English, was shot entirely in Latvia. It seems to have been edited by a 16-year-old on amphetamines using editing equipment for the first time. It's a collage, with major and minor figures he apparently ran into while in Riga.

They include DJ Ozols, a barely-20-something dressed in a bright yellow outfit that looks like a French Foreign Legionnaire's uniform from a 1930s Errol Flynn movie. Ozols punctuates most of his relatively fluent English with the f-word, which must have made him street smart in our pal Pal's eyes. Ozols tells us the remarkable fact that he (as part of a rap group) has played in bars where they have striptease shows. After that he kinda bops on down the line.

Sometimes, Hollender's hyper-wired video editor plays with the fast forward and jog button and holds down all the keys for other effects. All this stuff, which if you saw it on MTV would make you shake the cable decoder, is intercut with English-speaking men who look like they were filmed by a dwarf. I guess the dwarf asked these guys something about girls and women in Riga. The men say there are pretty women in Riga. Some of these guys have had a couple of pops. It was probably Friday night.

The dragon speaks

Our pal Pal also visits some dude labeled a writer. In my humble opinion, the man looks like he has had a long and complicated relationship with what the Latvians call the "green dragon." I wonder if the Chinese have the same nickname for booze.

The unsung literary sage says that Latvians had it bad in the past but also have it bad in the present. You don't say! By now the dwarf isn't doing the camerawork anymore and the sage is filmed from some strange angles and if I remember correctly, jumps into different shirts between cuts.

Thrown in toward the beginning of Pal's rat's nest of video shots are some graphics that claim there are lots of prostitutes in Latvia and that people don't earn much money. Who does earn a lot of money in Latvia is Swedish companies - billions.

Whether this figure is per year, since 1991, the last five years, since the beginning of time or whatever doesn't really matter.

Women, often the same women, keep showing up as the tape unreels. They don't make much money. They have problems. Some are single mothers. It could be that some of them aren't too well educated. They have Latvian-sounding names, but seem to speak mostly Russian. There is one who speaks Latvian but then also seems to speak in a fairly fluent, disembodied English voice. Or maybe not. Maybe it's the translator.

Some of the women may have worked for Swedish companies and run across some Swedes. It is not really clear what the "Swedes" do in Latvia, though it seems our Pal has some idea that they out-source the sewing of ready-to-wear apparel.

Some of the women admit they have sold their bodies. This theme is reinforced by a sequence showing girls at bars and a voice that sounds like Bela Lugosi on a speedball bellowing something about sex for money. We are supposed to conclude that all of the girls interviewed in the film are prostitutes. Pal warns us in one of the graphics at the beginning of the film that he has made contract with all of the women.

He also films some Latvian porno photographer who has a severely fluctuating comprehension of English. This guy confirms that there's, like, sex and stuff going on in Latvia. In these scenes, there is also some haggard character who keeps coming back like a bad acid flashback knowingly asking "Do you, do you…" Later the guy passes out on the floor.

And so it goes. The big climax is when our pal Pal actually gets it on with some of the girls he interviews. In the unaltered version, it's real hardcore stuff.

Fear, loathing and humor in Sweden

Which brings us to the other merry black humor part of the whole happening. I saw this film, sanitized of some unauthorized clips from Swedish public television and the heavy sex scenes, ahead of a public affairs show on Swedish TV3. Several members of the discussion panel - two Swedish politicians, a journalist from a national daily and myself - viewed the film in a darkened conference room.

Before the screening started, I had a pleasant chat with the two politicians, one a smart-looking female Social Democratic parliamentarian. When the discussion got started, this woman didn't disappoint me. She apologized to the whole Latvian nation for the drivel that had just been shown. But let's not knock drivel. It has a certain charm when done with such pretense and self-importance as Pal manages.

The journalist was more reticent and afterward muttered greetings and sat silently until the room fell dark and the film had been underway for some five minutes. Then he suddenly burst out with one of the most common Swedish curses "Fy fan!" which literally translates as "Yuck! The Devil" (the horned one is way ahead of excrement and fornication on the Swedish obscenity list - a linguistic curiosity).

My first thought was that, 10 minutes having passed since he came indoors on a cold night, the poor guy was having a seizure. The respected journalist went briefly ballistic about what he was seeing. But he settled down, or at least chewed the rug silently for the rest of the film.

Up in the studio there were four other panelists, all of them big fans of their pal Pal, a man from the Swedish Film Institute, the star of the event himself (our pal), plus three hosts. As soon as the discussion began, the Swedes on my side of the panel started lambasting poor Pal, calling him, in so many words, a pig, a creep, a degenerate, a depraved wastrel of public funds. The Swedish Film Institute gave $30,000 to fund the film, including the $1,200 that Pal used for sex.

Film institute zombie

The representative of the Swedish Film Institute looked like he had been an extra in some zombie movie. I think he silently mediated on this issue while Pal's literary critics praised his film as the greatest thing since the Swedes invented the cheese plane (plane as in skimming thin slices off a surface with a blade, not an aircraft.)

Anyway, someone popped the inevitable question as to why taxpayers money had been used for Pal's fun and games. The film institute rep would have been better off staying catatonic. It was not "taxpayer's money" but "public money," he said, pointing out that in addition to taxes, which are paid under penalty of law, the film institute was funded by a charge on cinema tickets. This means that every Swede who took his children to a Disney matinee had thrown his two ore (100 ore in a Swedish krona) toward our Pal's ruttings in Riga.

When Pal got around to having his say, he said he was happy being a degenerate pig, at least in the context of his video thing. That was the whole point. I screw Latvian women, Swedish businesses screw Latvians, Swedish businessmen screw Latvian women, I am Swedish.

I got in my bit as well. I said Pal's facts were a crock of shit, estimates at best, and that foreign business at this stage of the game seemed to reinvest most or all profits rather than take them out of the country. I could neither confirm nor deny any of his economic figures, since nobody had any idea where or how he got them.

I said a few more sentences here or there. But the curious thing was that most of the debate was among the Swedes about the scandalous misuse of Swedish funds and about the depravity of one Swede, our Pal. Hey, what about Latvia?

As it happens, there are prostitutes in Latvia. A number of educated guessing games are played as to how many. One non-governmental organization says there are 10,000 to 15,000. The Ministry of Interior guesses 3,000 to 4,000. Pal pulled 18,000 out of his hat.

This is not a profession one proudly advertises, so you will never have exact figures. But there are prostitutes in almost every society on earth, across the entire scale of per-capita income from Sierra Leone to Western Europe.

One of the smart things that the Swedish female parliamentarian said was that women were drawn into prostitution by a complex set of factors. Middle-class girls with self-esteem and identity problems ended up as call girls even in Sweden. Poverty was certainly not on the back burner, but poverty and deprivation can lead to a number of other deviant behavior besides prostitution that improve income.

"Buy Bye Beauty" didn't establish, other than in a couple of slogans, that wages at Swedish owned apparel plants were poor by Latvian standards, although they were low compared to Sweden (where there is practically no clothing industry left). In fact, we learn nothing of the economics of this business, although facts are available.

Pal says in the film that he visited Latvia for exactly the same length of time as your average businessman (five days) in order to discover it was a whoremonger's paradise. In fact, he later admitted that he returned to Latvia for a month to do "more extensive research."

For a fraction of what he spent on the prostitutes our pal Pal could have extracted, through databases, detailed financial and cash flow data (4 lats a shot on Lursoft) on most Swedish companies in Latvia involved in the low-wage apparel-sewing business.

Of course, the lack of sourced facts and statistics in this film led one of the Swedish critics on the TV3 discussion panel to say how pleased she was by "the lack of a self-assured narrator" in Pal's documentary style. So it's like artsy that the filmmaker doesn't know jack about what he is talking about.

At the end of the day, the piece of work "Buy Bye Beauty" has created a great uproar about itself, its author and matters he knows little about. Maybe this was the real point - to do some kind of "social jamming," get everyone yelling and screaming and at each other's throats on a whole confusion of irrelevancies.

There is some fun in this. It's like starting a brawl in a bar you never liked and then stepping back to watch. In that sense, the film-like thing was a success. On the reader response Web site of one Swedish evening newspaper (sadly, the tabloids in Sweden are a prime source of the image that "Balts are bandits, cigarette smugglers, whoremongers and stealers of plastic elves from Swedish back yards"), a fair number of people seem to have swallowed Pal's non-information as the truth.