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In first, Perseverance Mars rover makes oxygen on another planet

NASA's Perseverance rover keeps making history.

The six-wheeled robot has converted some carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into oxygen, the first time this has happened on another planet, the space agency said Wednesday.

"This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars," said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA's space technology mission directorate.

The technology demonstration took place on April 20, and it's hoped future versions of the experimental instrument that was used could pave the way for future human exploration.

Not only can the process produce oxygen for future astronauts to breathe, but it could make hauling vast amounts of oxygen over from Earth to use as rocket propellant for the return journey unnecessary.

The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment -- or MOXIE -- is a golden box the size of a car battery, and is located inside the front right side of the rover.

Dubbed a "mechanical tree," it uses electricity and chemistry to split carbon dioxide molecules, which are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms.

It also produces carbon monoxide as a byproduct.

In its first run, MOXIE produced 5 grams of oxygen, equivalent to about 10 minutes of breathable oxygen for an astronaut carrying out normal activity.

MOXIE's engineers will now run more tests and try to step up its output. It is designed to be able to generate up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour.

Designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MOXIE was built with heat-resistant materials like nickel alloy and designed to tolerate the searing temperatures of 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 Celsius) required for it to run.

A thin gold coating ensures it doesn't radiate its heat and harm the rover.

MIT engineer Michael Hecht said a one ton version of MOXIE could produce the approximately 55,000 pounds (25 tons) of oxygen needed for a rocket to blast off from Mars.

Producing oxygen from Mars' 96 percent carbon dioxide atmosphere might be a more feasible option than extracting ice from under its surface then electrolyzing it to make oxygen.

Perseverance landed on the Red Planet on February 18 on a mission to search for signs for microbial life.

Its mini helicopter Ingenuity made history this week by achieving the first powered flight on another planet.

The rover itself has also directly recorded the sounds of Mars for the first time.

Over 1,700 detained at pro-Navalny rallies across Russia

More than 1,700 people were detained by police at rallies in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in dozens of cities across Russia, an independent monitor reported on Thursday.

Thousands of people took to the streets Wednesday evening to demanded freedom and proper medical attention for Navalny, who has been hunger strike for three weeks in a penal colony outside Moscow.

The opposition staged demonstrations in dozens of Russian cities, with the largest rallies taking place in Moscow.

The OVD-Info monitoring group, which tracks detentions at opposition protests, said that by Thursday morning police had detained "more than 1,783 people in 97 cities".

In Russia, participation in unauthorized demonstrations can lead to a fine or several days in jail.

The majority of detentions -- 805 -- took place in Saint Petersburg, where police violently dispersed crowds with shock sticks.

Navalny's press secretary Kira Yarmysh was among those detained. She was given a 10-day stint behind bars for calling on people to join unauthorized rallies.

Key Navalny aide Lyubov Sobol was also taken into police custody ahead of the rally in Moscow and is due to appear in court later Thursday.

Wednesday's rallies did not match in size those held in the winter when Navalny was arrested after returning to Russia from Germany.

Tens of thousands took to the streets despite freezing temperatures while more than 11,000 people were detained.

Navalny, 44, was arrested when he returned to Russia in January after months recovering in Germany from a near-fatal nerve agent poisoning he blames on the Kremlin -- an accusation it rejects.

He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years over an old fraud conviction and has been serving time in a penal colony about 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Moscow.

His health has been failing since he launched his hunger strike to demand proper medical care for a range of ailments, including back pain and numbness in his limbs.

© 2021 AFP

Study probes COVID among vaccinated at US nursing home

An unvaccinated worker infected with a Covid variant sparked an outbreak at a US nursing home where nearly all the residents had been inoculated, said a study out on Wednesday.

The dozens of cases, including 22 among fully vaccinated residents and staff, highlighted the importance of broad vaccine coverage and prevention measures, according to the research released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the March outbreak at a nursing home in the state of Kentucky, 46 cases were identified, with three residents dying, including two who were not vaccinated, the study said.

The spread was traced back to a worker who had symptoms and was not vaccinated. The variant was R.1, which is "not currently identified as a CDC variant of concern or interest," the paper said.

While the researchers noted the flare up of the disease showed the strong effect the vaccine had in preventing symptoms in the sick, they also noted its limits.

"This underscores the importance... that all persons, including those who have recovered from Covid-19, be vaccinated," the authors wrote.

"A continued emphasis on strategies for prevention of disease transmission, even among vaccinated populations, is also critical," they added.

Their findings, released alongside a study of a similar outbreak at a Chicago nursing home, pointed to the results of vaccinated and unvaccinated people mixing.

Though 90 percent of the 83 residents at the Kentucky home had received their doses, only half of the 116 workers had been inoculated by the time the outbreak was spotted.

Indonesia races to find missing submarine with 53 aboard

Indonesia deployed warships Thursday in the hunt for a navy submarine that went missing with 53 crew aboard off the coast of Bali, as other nations sent vessels to help with the search.

An oil spill where the vessel was thought to have submerged early Wednesday during regular exercises could point to damage, the navy has said, fanning fears that the Southeast Asian nation may be the latest country to suffer a fatal submarine disaster.

The German-built KRI Nanggala 402 was scheduled to conduct live torpedo exercises when it asked for permission to dive. It lost contact shortly after.

Navy spokesman Julius Widjojono said Thursday that search teams were focused on an area around the oil slick, but that the exact location of the vessel had yet to be pinpointed.

"It has not been found yet," Widjojono told AFP.

"But we've detected the area...Today, around 400 personnel have been deployed."

Six warships and a helicopter have been sent out to look for the sub, the navy said.

Other nations including the United States, Australia, France and Germany have offered help.

"We are obviously very concerned about these reports. It's very distressing for families and particularly for the Indonesian navy," Australian foreign minister Marise Payne told broadcaster ABC.

"We've indicated that we will help in any way we can."

Neighbouring Singapore and Malaysia have already dispatched rescue ships that are expected to arrive in the coming days, said military spokesman Achmad Riad.

There were 53 crew aboard the vessel, which was believed to be in waters about 700 metres (2,300 feet) deep.

French navy vice admiral Antoine Beaussant told AFP earlier that the submarine was not built to withstand such a depth.

"If it went down to rest at 700 metres the likelihood is it would have broken up," he said.

Workhorse submarine

Indonesia, which has been moving to upgrade its ageing military equipment in recent years, has five German and South Korean-built submarines in its fleet.

The 1,300-tonne KRI Nanggala 402 was first delivered for service in 1981.

It is a Type 209 diesel-electric attack submarine that has served in more than a dozen navies around the world, including Greece, India, Argentina and Turkey, over the past half century.

While Indonesia has not previously suffered a major submarine disaster, other countries have been struck by accidents in the past.

Among them was the 2000 sinking of the Kursk, the pride of Russia's Northern Fleet.

That submarine was on manoeuvres in the Barents Sea when it sank with the loss of all 118 aboard. An inquiry found a torpedo had exploded, detonating all the others.

Most of its crew died instantly but some survived for several days -- with a few keeping heart-breaking diaries written in blood to their loved ones -- before suffocating.

In 2003, 70 Chinese naval officers and crew were killed, apparently suffocated, in an accident on a Ming-class submarine during exercises in 2003.

Five years later, 20 people were killed by poisonous gas when a fire extinguishing system was accidentally activated on a Russian submarine being tested in the Sea of Japan.

And in 2018, authorities found the wreckage of an Argentine submarine that had gone missing a year earlier with 44 sailors aboard.

The wreck of a French submarine that had gone missing with 52 sailors on board in the Mediterranean in 1968 was found in 2019.

(AFP)

Oscars more diverse as pandemic, protests shake up Hollywood

Actors of color are favorites in each category, and two female directors are nominated for the first time -- this year's Oscars could set new benchmarks for diversity, thanks to long-brewing industry changes as well as Covid-19's transformation of Hollywood, experts say.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has drastically reformed its membership in recent years, admitting large batches of new Oscars voters each year who better reflect society's diversity, after much criticism for its mainly white, male base.

"I think that this Oscars will be forever remembered as the one where changes in the voting body made six years ago in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite has delivered on a promise by the Academy to reform itself," Black US actor Dwayne Barnes ("Menace II Society") wrote in a column for industry site Deadline.

While it is difficult to draw a direct line from those changes to this year's nominations, the current Oscars race is startlingly different from those seen in previous years.

Last year, Cynthia Erivo was the sole non-white actor among 20 nominations, but this time the late Chadwick Boseman ("Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"), Black British actor Daniel Kaluuya ("Judas and the Black Messiah") and South Korean star Youn Yuh-Jung ("Minari") are the firm frontrunners for acting statuettes.

Boseman's co-star Viola Davis is among a crowded pack vying for best actress, while Beijing-born Chloe Zhao ("Nomadland") looks like a shoo-in for best director if she can fend off Emerald Fennell ("Promising Young Woman").

The #OscarsSoWhite campaign was launched in January 2015 on social media to denounce and draw attention to the overwhelming majority of white nominees rewarded year after year by the Academy.

At the time, the Academy's 6,000 members were 93 percent white and 76 percent male.

By this summer, the prestigious group had reached a goal of doubling the number of women and non-white members, reaching one-third female and 19 percent "underrepresented minorities."

"It took a few years to take hold, but there is every reason to hope that the change (in the crop of nominees) is... not a one-time occurrence," wrote Barnes.

'Perfect storm'

As well as #OscarsSoWhite, the #MeToo movement spurred by the sexual assault revelations about disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein has prompted calls for more female representation across all film professions.

The impacts of those campaigns have gathered steam over recent years, but in 2020 collided with a dramatic and unpredictable change -- Covid-19.

The coronavirus pandemic has closed movie theaters and delayed Oscar-tipped mega-productions, such as Steven Spielberg's "West Side Story" and sci-fi blockbuster "Dune," both directed by white men.

"They really shook the tree, and this year for the first time, because Covid knocked out a lot of the big movies... that left sort of a bare field," said Sasha Stone, founder of the Awards Daily site, which has analyzed film awards since 1999.

The "pared down selection" of films in contention "happened to be movies by filmmakers of color and women," she said, noting that "nobody had to worry about opening weekend" box office numbers for films lacking star wattage.

"It turned into the perfect storm," she told AFP.

The meteoric rise of streaming platforms during pandemic lockdowns "is certainly a part of" the overall leap forward in representation, as television "has become much more diverse more quickly than film," said Darnell Hunt, a professor of social sciences focusing on race, media and culture at University of California, Los Angeles.

"The streamers really took off in terms of their audiences -- that certainly helped present to the Academy a much more diverse slate of films than they're used to seeing," added Hunt, who is lead author of UCLA's annual Hollywood Diversity Report.

'The salad'

With California re-opening as vaccinations accelerate, Hollywood may return to a more familiar look next year, with a less diverse slate of nominees in coming years.

But Hunt says he does not expect a full return to "business as usual... like it was before the pandemic."

"The signs are pointing in the right direction," he told AFP, noting that in addition to membership changes, the Academy is bringing in eligibility criteria for best picture candidates involving minimum representation of minorities, women, and LGBTQ cast and filmmakers.

"I think all of those things collectively bode well," Hunt said.

Of course, the question remains whether changes to the Oscars will have a profound impact on the way the broader movie industry itself operates.

Stone warned that awards like the Oscars are increasingly "separate from box office anyway now, because they've become so niche," and blockbusters will likely remain less diverse as a whole.

"If male directors make more money, then they'll keep getting hired for the superhero movies. And if white actors are drawing more money, they'll keep getting hired for the superhero," she said.

Oscar nominations can help films to make money and studios to burnish their image, but ultimately "it's like how McDonald's has the salad," she said.

"McDonald's sells Big Macs all over the world, but they have this salad that makes them seem like they care about health.

"That's what the Oscars are to Hollywood -- the salad."

Joe Biden hails 'stunning' US achievement in giving 200 million vaccine doses

President Joe Biden on Wednesday hailed his government's "stunning" achievement in administering 200 million Covid-19 vaccine shots across the United States ahead of schedule.

Biden said the landmark had been reached a week before he hits his administration's 100-day mark -- the deadline he'd announced for meeting the 200 million doses challenge.

"Today we did it, today we hit 200 million shots," he said in a televised speech from the White House. This is "an incredible achievement for the nation."

Biden called the 200 million shots in 100 days a "goal unmatched in the world or in prior mass vaccination efforts in American history."

"The progress we've made has been stunning," he said.

Announcing a tax break to encourage businesses to give all employees a day off for vaccinations, Biden said the country was still "on track" to being able to celebrate the July 4th Independence Day holiday in relative normality.

But he warned that rising infection rates in parts of the country showed that it was too early to declare victory.

"If we let up now and stop being vigilant, this virus will erase the progress," he said.

While the United States leads the world in reported Covid-19 deaths, it has also raced ahead in the vaccination stakes, outperforming some major European countries and neighboring Canada.

Biden came into office on January 20 initially vowing to get 100 million shots administered in his first 100 days. On March 25, with vaccination deliveries far ahead of their targets, he doubled the goal.

Starting in May, all states will be required to lift restrictions on eligibility for access to the free shots. Many have already done that.

Dampening the celebratory mood in the White House is a surge of infection rates in parts of the country, including the state of Michigan.

Death rates, however, remain down nationwide as a result of the high vaccination rate among the elderly and improved care.

Publisher to release ex-VP Mike Pence's memoir despite objections

Simon & Schuster has said it will go ahead and publish former US vice president Mike Pence's memoir despite objections from staff who petitioned against the book.

In a memo sent to employees on Tuesday, CEO Jonathan Karp said the publisher's mission was to "publish a diversity of voices and perspectives."

"We will, therefore, proceed in our publishing agreement with Vice President Mike Pence," he wrote.

Simon & Schuster announced earlier this month that Pence had inked a deal to write an autobiography detailing his time in former president Donald Trump's administration.

The publisher said it would be a two-book contract, with the first volume tentatively scheduled for publication in 2023.

Two people in the publishing industry said Pence's deal is worth between $3 million and $4 million, CNN reported.

The announcement sparked an outcry from staff who circulated a petition saying that the agreement meant the publisher was "legitimizing bigotry."

The petition, which does not list the number of signatories, accused Pence of pushing policies that discriminated against people of color, LGBTQ groups and women.

"Mike Pence has literal and figurative blood on his hands. We demand you cancel Mike Pence's book deal," it said, according to copies circulating online.

The currently untitled memoir is expected to cover Pence's faith and public service, including his stint as a US congressman, his rise to become the governor of Indiana, and his return to Washington as Trump's number two.

Pence, 61, has largely been on the political sidelines since he and Trump lost the November election to now-President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

But the conservative is Republican widely believed to be considering a presidential run of his own in 2024, and a pre-election memoir would fulfill a step traditionally taken by American politicos mulling higher office.

Last week, Simon & Schuster announced it would not distribute a book written by a police officer involved in the shooting of Black woman Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky last year.

After Chauvin verdict, US launches probe into Minneapolis policing practices

US Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday launched a sweeping investigation into policing practices in Minneapolis following a jury's verdict that former city police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd.

"Today, I am announcing that the Justice Department has opened a civil investigation to determine whether the Minneapolis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional or unlawful policing," Garland said at a news conference.

He said the civil probe – separate from an ongoing criminal investigation into Floyd's death – will examine whether the police systematically engaged in the use of excessive force, including during legal protests.

It will also examine whether the city force showed a pattern of discrimination and unlawful treatment of people with behavioral health disabilities, Garland said.

If evidence is found of a pattern of unlawful practices, the investigation could possibly lead to a civil lawsuit seeking to compel the city to undertake sweeping reforms of its police department.


"The Justice department will be unwavering in its pursuit of equal justice under law," Garland said.

Chauvin's conviction was a milestone in the fraught racial history of the United States and a rebuke of law enforcement's treatment of Black Americans.

Garland has previously said he will make cracking down on police misconduct a priority.

President Joe Biden called the conviction of Chauvin a "giant step" towards justice in the United States.

The Justice Department previously announced an investigation into whether the officers involved in Floyd's death violated his civil rights.

Last Friday the Justice Department withdrew a policy put in place during former President Donald Trump's administration that limited the tools the federal government could use to monitor and probe police misconduct.

Garland, in a memo to staff, said the department would return to its traditional practices of investigating state and local police departments, allowing unit heads to approve most settlements and consent decrees.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

Black Americans embraced Biden, and in Floyd trial he embraced them back

Joe Biden's emotional voice on the call to George Floyd's family told the story of his presidency: "I wish I were there just to put my arms around you."

The most powerful man in the world was calling Tuesday from the Oval Office to a cellphone in Minneapolis, just minutes after a jury convicted a white former policeman for Floyd's murder during a brutal 2020 arrest.

"We're all so relieved," Biden told the family and their lawyer Ben Crump, who tweeted a video of the more-than-three-minute exchange, played out on speaker phone.

"Nothing's going to make it all better," Biden said, "but at least now there's some justice."

A politician whose own seemingly charmed life was turned upside down by searing family tragedies, Biden has long been a master at showing compassion.

His willingness to mourn American Covid-19 deaths -- now numbering over 568,000 -- helped set him apart from Donald Trump during last year's election.

And the Democrat's well of emotional strength runs especially deep when it comes to the traumas -- historic and current -- facing Black Americans.

Biden may be white, but as former vice president to Barack Obama, the first African American president, he has unique credentials with the community.

When his campaign to become president hit an especially low ebb last year, it was a powerful Black politician, congressman Jim Clyburn, who pulled him up and set him on a remarkable path to victory.

Entering the White House, Biden brought Kamala Harris as his vice president -- the first person of mixed race and the first woman to hold the office.

African Americans tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats in nearly every US election.

Biden, though, has tried to convince the Black community that he doesn't just consider them political chess pieces -- that he actually cares about their unique plight.

The murder trial of former policeman Derek Chauvin gave him that chance.

'Change the world'

Earlier Tuesday, while jurors were still deliberating, Biden courted controversy by telling reporters in the White House that evidence in the case was "overwhelming."

"I'm praying the verdict is the right verdict," he said.

Accusations immediately flew that Biden was pressuring the court or inadvertently risking a mistrial.

Others said Biden was being classic Biden, a renowned gaffe machine.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki answered that Biden was just being himself -- a man who reacts in the face of suffering.

"He understands people are exhausted, they are tired," she said. "He recognizes their loss and their trauma and he wants to put reforms in place."

In his post-verdict phone call, Biden recalled something George Floyd's young daughter Gianna had told him after her father's murder.

"I think of Gianna's comment: 'My daddy's going to change the world,'" Biden said. "We're going to start to change it now."

The conversation, joined by Harris and Biden's wife Jill, alternated between moments of intense feeling and laughter.

"You better all get ready because when we do it, we're going to put you on Air Force One and get you here," Biden promised the Floyds.

"Jesus Lord!" one of the family exclaimed.

Later, in a formal televised speech, Biden spoke to the whole nation, not just one African American family. His message, however, was the same.

"Systemic racism is a stain on our nation's soul," he said.

Then he insisted that Gianna had been right about George Floyd's death.

"Daddy did change the world. Let that be his legacy."

Japan PM sends offering to controversial shrine honoring war dead

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga sent a ritual offering Wednesday to the controversial Yasukuni shrine that honours war dead, including perpetrators of the country's World War II atrocities on its neighbours.

South Korea expressed "deep disappointment" at Suga's offering to the shrine to mark a spring festival, while China also protested the move.

The Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo honours some 2.5 million war dead, mostly Japanese, who perished in the country's wars since the late 19th century.

But it also honours senior military and political figures convicted of war crimes, and has frequently been a source of sour relations with countries that suffered from Japan's military atrocities -- particularly China and South Korea.

Suga's predecessor Shinzo Abe, who stepped down last year for health reasons, visited the shrine in person on Wednesday.

The prime minister sent a sacred tree but was not expected to visit the shrine.

South Korea's foreign ministry expressed "deep disappointment and regret" over Suga's tribute and urged Japan's leaders to "face history squarely and humbly and truly reflect on the past".

"Japan should keep in mind that is the basis of a future-oriented Korea-Japan relationship."

Chinese foreign affairs ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin also urged Japan to "draw a clear line with militarism and take concrete measures to earn the trust of its Asian neighbours and the international community".

"We firmly oppose Japanese politicians' erroneous practices."

A 2013 visit to the shrine by then-prime minister Abe sparked outcry from Beijing and Seoul, as well as a rare diplomatic rebuke from close ally the United States.

© 2021 AFP

'Joints for jabs': free marijuana for vaccinated New Yorkers

New Yorkers who have been vaccinated against Covid-19 were able to get an unlikely freebie Tuesday: a marijuana joint.

Activists celebrating the recent legalization of recreational pot in New York state handed out free doobies in Manhattan to anyone with proof they had received at least one vaccine shot.

"This is the first time we can sit around and legally hand people joints," said Michael O'Malley, one of the organizers of the "Joints for Jabs" giveaway in Union Square.

"We're supporting the federal effort to roll out vaccinations. And we're also trying to get them to federally legalize weed," he told AFP.

Organizers chose April 20 as the date as a way to mark 4/20, an annual day of celebration amongst cannabis fans.

Marijuana activists also handed out free weed in Washington DC.

Several dozen, relaxed looking people formed an orderly queue as the distribution of joints in New York began at 11:00 am (1600 GMT).

One woman held a sign that read "pro-vaxx, pro-weed." The giveaway was due to last until 4:20 pm.

They only had to wait ten minutes at most in the spring sunshine. They showed their vaccination card, in paper or via phone, gave their email address and a joint was theirs.

There seemed to be little verification required to prevent someone from queuing twice.

"We are not really being very careful," admitted O'Malley.

Sarah Overholt, 38, left with two joints in her pocket after showing vaccination cards belonging to herself and her 70-year-old mother.

For Overholt, marijuana and the vaccine are essential.

"I smoke every day and I am a better person if I smoke, trust me," she said with a smile.

"Everybody should get vaccinated. It should not be weed that is getting them there. But if it works, then it works," added Overholt, who received her first vaccine shot on March 25 and gets her second on Thursday.

Alex Zerbe, a 24-year-old a trader who came from his nearby office, agreed. He has already had both doses and said he smokes a joint once or twice a day.

"I can get a joint anyway, but (the giveaway) is just cool you know," Zerbe told AFP.

By 11:30 am, between 150 and 200 joints had already been distributed, out of some 1,500 rolled in advance by a handful of volunteers.

On March 31, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation allowing adults 21 and over to purchase cannabis and grow plants for personal consumption at home.

Several US brands, particularly in food and drink, have launched various incentives for vaccinated patrons in recent weeks, from donuts to hot dogs and beer, in an attempt to counter vaccine hesitancy.

The eight contenders for the best picture Oscar

In a year that saw movie theaters boarded up due to Covid-19, eight new films that did reach our screens impressed Academy voters enough that they are in contention for Hollywood's biggest award -- the Oscar for best picture.

The blockbusters may be absent, but an eclectic array of titles are in the mix, from a lavish Netflix ode to Tinseltown's Golden Age to a tiny indie drama about Korean immigrants scraping out a living off the land in rural America.

Here are the eight movies battling for the top prize at Sunday's Oscars ceremony:

  • 'The Father' -

Starring Anthony Hopkins and adapted by French playwright Florian Zeller from his own stage production, "The Father" takes viewers on a terrifying voyage through the onset of dementia.

The film is set in a London apartment where ailing but stubborn father Anthony (Hopkins) has chased off his latest caregiver, forcing daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) to find a replacement before her departure for Paris.

But nothing in Anthony's life is quite as it seems, with the audience increasingly questioning his perspective, as his faculties rapidly appear to fade.

Widely praised at its Sundance premiere in January 2020, the film has many admirers -- particularly for Hopkins' tour-de-force lead performance -- but is a long shot for best picture.

'Judas and the Black Messiah'

In a year that produced several acclaimed movies led by Black casts and filmmakers, only "Judas and the Black Messiah" made the Academy's best picture shortlist.

A twist on the traditional biopic, the movie tells half of the story of slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) from the perspective of the FBI informant who betrayed him, William O'Neal (Lakeith Stanfield).

Produced by Ryan Coogler -- director of Marvel superhero film "Black Panther" -- the 1960s Chicago-set movie follows Hampton's efforts to galvanize activists against police violence, even as the FBI encircled him and his followers.

The latest entrant to the Oscars race, having only premiered to critics this February, has made a splash with six nominations but remains an outside bet.

  • 'Mank' -

No film has more Oscar nominations this year than David Fincher's "Mank," a black-and-white prestige drama bankrolled by Netflix that dramatizes -- and heavily fictionalizes -- the making of "Citizen Kane."

Conceived as a booze-soaked ode to Hollywood's Golden Age, it features a who's who of movie titans of old, including David O. Selznick, Louis B. Mayer and "Kane" creator Orson Welles himself.

The drama centers on aging screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he pens -- apparently single-handedly -- what would become arguably the greatest movie of all time, while mingling with studio bosses and corrupt politicians.

Despite its multiple nods and bona fide credentials, "Mank" has left critics and voters bitterly divided, and its best picture hopes appear to have gone the way of Rosebud.

'Minari'

Korean-American director Lee Isaac Chung was on the verge of leaving his film career behind for teaching when he shot "Minari," a final throw of the Hollywood dice, based on his own childhood.

Shot in both English and Korean, "Minari" is in many ways a quintessential American story -- of scrappy immigrants trying to carve out a space for themselves, in this case by growing Korean vegetables in 1980s Arkansas.

The film -- which brings together Korean-speaking actors from both sides of the Pacific, including "Walking Dead" star Steven Yeun and veteran South Korean actress Youn Yuh-Jung -- focuses on intimate, family relationships rather than broader issues of race or ethnicity.

Almost universally admired if not loved, the film is arguably the least divisive of the best picture nominees and could be a dark horse thanks to the preferential, ranked voting system used by the Academy.

'Nomadland'

It is rare for a film to dominate the fall festivals and still be the undeniable frontrunner months later at the Oscars, but Chloe Zhao's "Nomadland" has yet to falter this awards season.

A daring and distinctive blend of road movie, Western, drama and documentary, "Nomadland" depicts a community of older Americans who live off the grid in run-down vans after losing everything in the global financial crisis.

The cast, which features several real-life "nomads" playing versions of themselves, is anchored by a nuanced, earthy performance from Frances McDormand, who helped bring the movie to life as an early producer.

Few analysts see any film other than "Nomadland" taking the top prize, and it is likely to earn several other Oscars.

'Promising Young Woman'

With its pop soundtrack, colorful pink costumes and largely unknown director, "Promising Young Woman" is not a typical Oscar film -- but then, it is not a typical film at all.

Emerald Fennell's debut feature follows medical school dropout Cassie (Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan) as she plots revenge on the former classmates responsible for the rape of her best friend.

While she's at it, Cassie's avenging angel sows broader terror among her hometown's misogynist men and the women who help them -- and bops along to a Paris Hilton song in a grocery store aisle.

It has five nominations and could be a dark horse for best picture, although the category's unique voting system tends not to favor polarizing titles like "Promising Young Woman."

  • 'Sound of Metal' -

The awards campaign for "Sound of Metal" has had a long gestation -- the movie debuted at the 2019 Toronto film festival and gradually built word-of-mouth buzz to capture six nominations.

That alone is hugely impressive for a tiny-budget, indie movie about a rather unfashionable and potentially depressing subject -- Ruben, a drummer (Riz Ahmed) who suffers hearing loss while also battling with addiction issues.

Ruben juggles his desire to recover his hearing via expensive implants with the peace he begins to find within his new, deaf community.

Among the least likely to convert its best picture nomination, "Sound of Metal" has brought significant attention to the deaf community, and could win in technical categories -- including sound.

'The Trial of the Chicago 7'

With its mouth-watering ensemble cast, cerebral writer-director and extraordinary timeliness of release during 2020's mass protests and divisive election, there is no doubting the Oscar credentials of "The Trial of the Chicago 7."

Steven Spielberg asked Aaron Sorkin to pen a script about the 1968 anti-Vietnam War protests that shook Chicago, and the police violence and bizarre trial that followed.

"West Wing" creator Sorkin eventually took on directing duties too, and brought in acting greats such as Mark Rylance and Frank Langella alongside younger A-listers like Sacha Baron Cohen and Eddie Redmayne.

If any film is going to unseat "Nomadland," "Chicago 7" is widely seen as the most likely, having already won the Hollywood actors union's prestigious top prize.

South Korea's 'comfort women' lose compensation claim against Japan

A South Korean court on Wednesday upheld Japan's state immunity to dismiss a lawsuit raised by a group of women who were forced to work in Japanese wartime brothels, contradicting a ruling in a separate earlier case that ordered Tokyo to compensate victims.

Remnants of Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of the Korean peninsula remain contentious for both sides, with many surviving "comfort women" - a Japanese euphemism for the sex abuse victims - demanding Tokyo's formal apology and compensation.

Diplomatic tension flared in January when another judge at the Seoul Central District Court ruled in favour of other women in a separate case, ordering Japan to pay compensation for the first time. That verdict had drawn a rebuke from Tokyo which says the issue was settled under a 1965 treaty and a 2015 deal.

But on Wednesday a judge at the same court recognised Japan's right to state immunity from overseas lawsuits, contradicting the January ruling that Japan could not assert immunity for "a crime against humanity."

"If an exception on state immunity is acknowledged, a diplomatic clash would be inevitable during the process of forcing the ruling's implementation," judge Min Seong-cheol said, dismissing the latest case brought by the 20 "comfort women" victims and their relatives.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said the latest verdict was "different" from the earlier ruling but declined to elaborate citing the need for closer examination.

"That January ruling was clearly against both international law and bilateral agreements, and as such was extremely regrettable and unacceptable," he told a briefing.

Lee Yong-soo, a "comfort women" victim and one of the plaintiffs, called the ruling "absurd, nonsense," saying she would seek international litigation over the case.

Justice Min also said the issue should be resolved via diplomatic consultations, and the 2015 agreement could provide the groundwork for a solution despite some flaws in negotiations.

Under that deal, Tokyo issued an official apology and provided 1 billion yen ($9.3 million) to a fund to help "comfort women" victims, with both sides promising to "irreversibly" end the dispute.

(REUTERS)

Russia, Cuba seek closer 'strategic partnership'

Russian President Vladimir Putin called communist Cuba's new leader Miguel Diaz-Canel Tuesday to discuss strengthening the two countries' "strategic partnership," the Russian foreign ministry said in a message retweeted by its embassy in Havana.

The call came the day after Diaz-Canel took over from Raul Castro as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), the most powerful position in the one-party state that was an important Cold War ally of Russia.

Castro and his brother Fidel before him had successively held the post for more than six decades.

In Tuesday's call, Putin and Diaz-Canel "confirmed their mutual willingness to strengthen the strategic partnership as well as to coordinate efforts in the fight against the spread of #COVID19," said the tweet.

The Kremlin had earlier issued a statement congratulating Diaz-Canel and expressing willingness to "develop a constructive bilateral dialogue and mutually-beneficial cooperation" between the two nations.

While Russia seeks closer ties, Cuba's relations with the United States have been at a low since then-President Donald Trump reinforced sanctions following an historic but temporary easing of tensions under Barack Obama between 2014 and 2016.

The tougher measures and the effects of the coronavirus epidemic contributed to Cuba's economy declining 11 percent in 2020.

In his final address to the party last Friday, Castro affirmed a "willingness to conduct a respectful dialogue and build a new kind of relationship with the United States" but without Cuba renouncing "the principles of the revolution and socialism."

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said last Friday the United States was not planning any immediate change in its policy toward Cuba, which would continue to focus on "support for democracy and human rights."

"It is said that Cuba is not a priority for the United States... That begs the question why then are there laws... with the objective to attack and to try and control the destiny of Cuba," Diaz-Canel said in his first address as leader.

© 2021 AFP

Biden says evidence 'overwhelming' in tense George Floyd trial

President Joe Biden on Tuesday called for the "right" verdict in the racially charged trial of an ex-policeman accused of murdering George Floyd and described the case now before a Minneapolis jury as "overwhelming."

Biden's unusually strong comments in the White House came on the tense, second day of jury deliberations.

The president stressed that he would not be speaking out if the jury had not been sequestered, meaning that it is isolated from the public until it reaches a decision.

Derek Chauvin, 45, is charged with murder and manslaughter over Floyd's May 25, 2020 death during an arrest.

The experienced officer, who is white, restrained Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes, even as the handcuffed 46-year-old Black man said repeatedly "I can't breathe," then died.

The shocking incident, captured on video by bystanders and repeatedly replayed around the nation, ignited global protests against racial injustice and quickly became seen as a landmark test of US police accountability.

US cities are braced for possible violence, depending on the verdict, and Minneapolis is under an unprecedented security lockdown.

Biden told reporters he had spoken with the Floyd family by telephone and said "I can only imagine the pressure and anxiety they're feeling. So I waited till the jury was sequestered and I called."

"They're a good family and they're calling for peace and tranquility, no matter what that verdict is," Biden said.

"I'm praying the verdict is the right verdict which is -- I think it's overwhelming in my view."

- Closing arguments -

Prosecutors and the defense presented closing arguments on Monday and Judge Peter Cahill sent the case to the seven-woman, five-man jury.

The racially diverse group is being sequestered during deliberations and their identities will not be known until afterward.

In his final instructions to the jury, the judge noted the gravity of the case, which comes amid heightened tensions fueled by other police killings.

"You must not let bias, prejudice, passion, sympathy or public opinion influence your decision," Cahill said. "You must not consider any consequences or penalties that might follow from your verdict."

A unanimous verdict is required for conviction on any of the charges -- second-degree murder, third-degree murder or manslaughter.

Chauvin, a 19-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department, faces a maximum of 40 years in prison if convicted of second-degree murder, the most serious charge.

Three other former police officers involved in Floyd's deadly arrest -- he had allegedly just tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill in a store -- are to go on trial later this year.

- National Guard deployed -

Amid fears of unrest, National Guard troops have been deployed in Minneapolis and Washington, the nation's capital.

Minneapolis has been the scene of nightly protests since Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was shot dead in a suburb of the Minnesota city on April 11 by a white policewoman.

Some 400 protesters marched through the city on Monday calling for Chauvin's conviction, chanting: "The world is watching, we are watching, do the right thing."

In Washington, the National Guard said some 250 troops were being deployed "to support local law enforcement" in response to potential demonstrations.

Prosecutors, in closing arguments on Monday, showed excerpts from the harrowing bystander video of Floyd's death that was seen by millions around the world.

"This case is exactly what you thought when you saw it first, when you saw that video," prosecutor Steve Schleicher told the jury.

"You can believe your eyes," Schleicher said. "It's exactly what you knew, it's what you felt in your gut, it's what you now know in your heart."

"This wasn't policing, this was murder," Schleicher said. "Nine minutes and 29 seconds of shocking abuse of authority."

Defense attorney Eric Nelson told the jury they need to look at Chauvin's actions "from the perspective of a reasonable police officer."

"He did not purposefully use unlawful force," Nelson said.

He said Floyd's heart disease and drug use were factors in his death and "the state has failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt."

Much of the three-week trial involved testimony from medical experts about Floyd's cause of death.

The defense called a retired police officer who said Chauvin's use of force against Floyd was "justified."

Police officers testifying for the prosecution -- including the Minneapolis police chief -- said it was excessive and unnecessary.

© 2021 AFP

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