March 30, 2006 § Leave a Comment
Never more simply and directly has the connection between world consumption on a large scale and decimated lives on an intimate one been presented as in Hubert Sauper’s brutal documentary “Darwin’s Nightmare.” The film examines the result of an invasive species of predatory fish being released in Lake Victoria in Tanzania. What transpires is more than an environmental nightmare — it’s a rape of humanity on such a scale that it creates, as Sauper describes it, “an ungodly globalized alliance on the shores of the world’s biggest tropical lake: An army of local fishermen, World Bank agents, homeless children, African ministers, EU commissioners, Tanzanian prostitutes and Russian pilots.”
The explosion of Nile perch also has lead to an economic boom for processing companies, who pay the natives practically nothing to fish away that food source — at risk of their own lives — and ship it out to Europe so the company makes a profit. Meanwhile, the locals, desperate from disease and starvation, turn to solutions such as prostitution, armed robbery and assault just to survive.
Sauper has amazing access to the stories of some locals and puts faces on the suffering — the buck-a-night security guard at the fish research facility who shoots poison arrows at intruders; the hookers who make $10 for an evening that usually ends up with them being beaten by their foreign pilot customers; the street children who melt down fish packaging into a sniffable drug to help them pass out on the street and forget reality; the African minister who refuses to offer condoms to the populace to help control the AIDS epidemic in his community, and the factory owner who whines that business is slowing down a bit.
The figures in the backgrounds are as distressing as those whose lives are unfolding in front of us — starving children, bellies swollen and far too many missing limbs and hopeless faces. The only natives in the film who have any significant flesh on their bones are the hookers, who are often treated to restaurants and bars before being taken home and beaten.
The most jarring — yet darkly poetic — scenes involve the journey of the stripped fish carcasses after the factory is finished procuring the good stuff for the fattened consumers of Europe.
As the film points out, “two million white people eat Lake Victoria fish each day.” Juxtapose this with the fact that there are two million starving people in Tanzania. It’s not as if the factories aren’t giving back to the community — after each processing, what is left is shipped back to the people and dumped on the mud to collect filth and be infested with insects for the natives to subsist on. Watching the people pick through the rotting seafood looking for something to eat is a vision of apocalyptic poverty — as hastened by simple human greed and cruelty — that will never leave you.
The most popular dish in the country these days is fried fish head — in fact, it’s about the only one available.
The film is not an easy one to get through and there certainly is a point that you find your heart sinking with the realization that the mounting misery is nowhere close to ending and will just keep going until every horror imaginable has contributed to the misery of these people.
For instance, I haven’t even mentioned the weapons industry that uses the fish industry for transportation or the actual ecological devastation that has destroyed not only the present, but the future as well.
“Darwin’s Nightmare” will make any thinking, feeling person feel heavy anger. As hard as it is to watch, I do think we have some responsibility as citizens of the world to suffer through the presentation of these honest stories. However, viewing a documentary — as well as writing about it — is pretty lame as solutions go, even though sitting in a darkened room with some popcorn at hand might offer misguided justification for congratulating myself for my political awareness and compassion.
The real question asked by the film, though never directly, is obvious: What do you intend to do about this? It’s a question that each of us must answer on our own, but with the understanding that our answers affect the world.
March 27, 2006 § Leave a Comment
A new film by a Williams College alumna will be making its television debut on PBS this summer. Adele Horne’s documentary “The Tailenders” examines the missionary efforts of an evangelical audio company that translates Bible stories and lectures into extremely obscure languages and dialects — and then creates contraptions that will play them without electricity for the remote indigenous populations they are given to.
Horne first encountered their ingenuity as a child in an Evangelical Christian family in the 1970s, in the form of a record player made of cardboard packing that could be arranged to manually spin an enclosed record on an embedded needle.
“It just made a huge impression on me,” said Horne, “because it’s this kind of miraculous object that plays without speakers and electricity.”
Years later, in art school, Horne remembered the item and hoped to make an audio installation using them. She found out from her parents about the manufacturers — a company called Gospel Recordings, now Global Recordings Network — and felt compelled to pursue a documentary film about their work.
Horne spent a lot of time in the Gospel Recordings offices, particular its engineering division, which was filled with makeshift gadgets of cardboard and tape. It also was loaded with manufactured technology that had been rigged for other purposes, like a microwave oven utilized to stop mold from growing on delicate recording tape.
“They had this funny cardboard contraption in their office,” said Horne, “and on the side of it, somebody had stuck on a plastic handle and written on it ‘handcrank.’ That’s when I learned that they had this funny term that they applied to everything that’s a handmade, do-it-yourself, make-something-out-of-nothing kind of thing.”
Among their premier “handcrank” mainstays were cassette players reworked to be physically cranked to play.
‘Handcrank’ is an ethos that the missionaries apply to other aspects of their work, from procuring rejected fruit to going through the trash for useful items. They fashioned a “Media Mobile” — a converted bus that could be optimized according to the personal and technical needs of the trip.
“I felt like I could take a page or two from their book,” said Horne. “This Media Mobile, I just thought was amazing, what a great idea, a do-it-yourself presentation mode. A lot of my artist friends would probably love to do something like that.”
The group does embrace computer technology when useful — it records audio on solid-state recorders and edits them on Pro Tools.
Horne followed missions to the Solomon Islands, Mexico and India and observed not only the way the recordings are given, but the way they are gathered. The missionaries’ goal is to have recordings in every language and dialect in existence in order to get their message across. They audition and hire local readers in villages to do the work — niche marketing at its best.
Vast audio library
As a result, Global Recordings Network has the largest and most thorough audio library of languages and dialects ever assembled.
“There are predictions that in 100 years, half of the languages that are spoken now won’t be spoken at all,” said Horne. “We’re at this point in history where it’s accelerated tremendously, and so there is a poignancy to that archive. It’s not necessarily the intent of the archive and it’s not clear how useful that archive would be, but there is some trace left of languages that might otherwise have no record.”
So far, the company has only had ethnomusicologists use the resource. The missionaries also record music by natives, with religious songs translated into local melodies. The company has a large room filled with reel-to-reels, but has digitized the entire collection.
“It was really awe inspiring to sit there and listen to these voices from all over the world,” said Horne, “from really remote places, and for them to be so distant, and yet there’s a vibrancy to the voice. Some of them really had a personality that really came through, even if you don’t understand what they’re saying.”
However, the religious conversions don’t always continue as expected. In some places, Christianity mixed with local tradition, leading a whole new mix from two belief systems. In others, the conversions shifted the local economies and social orders, isolating Christians from others. The point of physical transfer of the objects and its effects afterwards interested Horne greatly.
“Whether the missionaries want it or not,” said Horne, “they are often bring commercial and industrial capitalism, and they bring these commodities. These recordings, not only are they biblical spiritual recordings, but they’re physical objects that are an immediate commodity and that’s part of how people see them.”
On one hand, the natives were touched and shocked that someone would go to such extremes to present them with these items, especially in their own language. On the other, there is the possibility that the transaction that is leading to language preservation is also hastening its end by introducing the first salvo of outside influence into the community, access to technology and, thereby, power and money.
In many ways, a cardboard record player and a Mexican migrant worker have more in common in the eyes of the missionaries than is initially apparent.
“It’s funny, because they would talk about converting these gadgets,” said Horne, “converting a consumer product into something else, and that connection is there between something being transformed and used in surprising ways.”
March 17, 2006 § Leave a Comment
A school research project at Ithaca (N.Y.) College snowballed into a full-blown documentary project that sent students down to southern Arizona to patrol the border with a number of gun-toting conspiracy theorists. Jeremy Levine, 22, co-directed “Walking the Line,” which will screen at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art on Saturday, with Landon Van Soest.
The film examines the eruption of a “border war,” where armed militias work to stop illegal immigrants from crossing the border. Their claim is that the U.S. government is not doing its job and these men have decided to handle the situation themselves, despite the sometimes dubious nature of the threat to property that they proclaim exists.
On the other end are humanitarians who attempt to give aid to immigrants as they brave the desert, the immigrants themselves, and the local American Indian communities that have found themselves bearing the brunt of the influx.
“It started off as shock value,” said Levine. “‘Let’s go down to the border and interview the guys with guns’— I think that was as complex as our thinking was.”
As it turned out, the team did figure out the immigration issues and the complexity of the chaotic situation once they got there, but the border patrols themselves still loomed as larger than life personalities who dominate the film by the sheer magnitude of their bravado.
At the forefront, though, were the border militias and the over-the-top personalities that were involved. Among the most extreme are Glenn Spencer, the founder of the American Border Patrol and a man convinced that illegal immigration is part of a systematic conspiracy on the part of the Mexican government to take back the American Southwest. Spencer was insistent that he do background checks on the crew before speaking to them.
“He was just annoyed that we didn’t have a history,” said Levine, “we didn’t have other projects we had worked on. When I would tell him ‘We can’t get you that information because we don’t have it,’ he just started going off on me.”
Eventually, Spencer calmed down and Levine learned that even gun-toting conspiracy theorists have a soft side.
“You show up at the door, he’s got his little dog and his little house and welcomes you in,” said Levine.
Levine and company also spent a lot of time with the group Ranch Rescue, especially its rather loudmouthed, gung-ho leader, Casey Nethercott, who has been in and out of jail. Quite the opposite of Spencer, this group was desperate to get their message out.
“Ranch Rescue were very media hungry,” said Levine. “They just loved the attention, they just loved the cameras there, it was no problem getting access to them. They would’ve had us around forever if they could.”
A good portion of Levine’s interaction with the group involved going out on patrol with them and that sense of danger proved an intoxicant initially.
“At first it was really kind of exhilarating and frightening at the same time to be walking around with these guys dressed up in army camouflage with their guns,” said Levine.
Once the filmmakers began to live the life, however, they began to see it in a way that conflicted with the general paranoia of the men warning of conspiracies.
“The more time we spent out there, the more normal it got,” said Levine, “and that was actually frightening in its own way. We were out with Ranch Rescue so long, nothing happened, day after day after day. It was just getting boring more than anything, sitting out on the desert brush and waiting for hours.”
At the same time, the humanitarians on the case were finding immigrants, despite the fears of the local Indian populace that providing aid was just encouraging more people to brave the desert to cross the border.
Levine sees as many similarities between the militia and the activists as he does differences. A man like former minister and member of the Tohono O’odham Reservation Mike Wilson spends as much time patrolling the desert as Casey Nethercott, it’s just that he wants to give the immigrants water and medical care rather than a bullet for trespassing.
“It’s fascinating to us how similar both sides seemed,” said Levine. “We took sympathy much more with the humanitarians, but both sides would be out driving around looking for illegal immigrants, though their purposes were a bit different.”
Levine thinks that each side draws inspiration for their work from a similar, private place.
“I wouldn’t want to equate them all,” said Levine, “but I think both the vigilantes and the humanitarians, this gives them a real sense of purpose.”
Still, Levine was not blinded by the over-the-top personalities — he and Van Soest came away with their eyes focused clearly on the big picture.
“The situation was so much worse than I could have imagined,” said Levine. “We have this huge problem that the government is not handling and it’s overwhelmed small towns who have never dealt with this before, which has caused so much resentment. At the same time, it’s causing thousands of migrant deaths and suffering. There are a lot of different opinions about what we can do from here, but it’s sad to say that I don’t think we can be doing much worse.”
March 17, 2006 § Leave a Comment
The two-hour American premiere of the revived “Doctor Who” (Friday, March 17, at 9 p.m. on the Science Fiction Channel) may be first honest opportunity this long-running British series has really had to appeal to Americans — that is, beyond the usual oddball cultists. In its current incarnation, the show is accessible and fun, with just enough darkness to add to the tension and intrigue. The series is renowned for the unusual formula in which the main character — the Doctor — is portrayed by a succession of different actors over the years. The Doctor’s latest face, Christopher Eccleston, brings a manic intensity to the quirky hero, pulling as much inspiration from films like “Trainspotting” as it does the Doctor’s earlier incarnations. Eccleston skirts animatedly between delight and despair and, sometimes, imparts both at the same time.
“Doctor Who” began in the early 1960s as a children’s show about a mysterious old gentleman who brings various companions on trips through time and space in his time machine, an old London police box. The scripts and performances were of high quality and these standards were mostly retained throughout its 20-year run and are now vibrantly on display in the new version. In fact, Americans don’t even need to see any of the original series to enjoy this one.
As helmed by the versatile Russell P. Davies, creator of “Queer As Folk,” this 2005 version has the Doctor appearing out of nowhere in a department store basement in order to save Earth from a bunch of killer mannequins. As it happens, store clerk Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) is being attacked by those mannequins and, though the Doctor saves her in a brief encounter, their paths cross continually and Rose begins to see the Doctor as her ticket out of an aimless existence.
In the second part of the two-hour premiere, the Doctor decides to blow his wad at the beginning of the adventure by showing Rose the actual end of the world. Of course, it all goes awry and Rose gets her first lesson in such diverse items as universal sexuality and social orders and how these relate to the denizens of her home planet.
The series captures, with a great degree of sincerity, the same rollicking male/female adventure dynamic that films like “Austin Powers” lampoon — if the Doctor and Rose aren’t the John Steed and Emma Peel of our time, then I don’t know who are — and it’s this dynamic that makes the series shine. The Doctor, a displaced alien whose only remaining calling in life is to show off his knowledge of the universe, and Rose, a bored teenager desperately looking for a better way to live, not only need each other, but love each other’s company.
It’s an infectious relationship that rarely succumbs to the typical romantic television cliches. This is a tale of equals with different strengths. Davies has transformed the old children’s show into a fairly sophisticated drama that manages to hold different levels of interest for all ages.
The show is also high on satire and, throughout its 13-episode run, examines political and social issues — nationalism, isolationism, consumer culture, war, class, sexuality, and justice — with great humor. There are also echoes of 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the corporate-controlled media, as well as natural human complacency in regard to the big picture.
“Doctor Who” is clearly one of the smartest TV shows around, but it doesn’t decrease its enjoyment level through heavy-handedness. There are still plenty of aliens and monsters and space ships — and, in the Doctor, we oddballs still have a hero we can believe in.
March 11, 2006 § Leave a Comment
A new documentary by a Williams College professor follows the lives of people in Kabul, Afghanistan. “It’s about how people cope in a broken city,” said co-director David Edwards, “how they adapt and rebuild their lives while they rebuild the cities.”
“Kabul Transit” was directed by Edwards, a professor of anthropology, and Gregory Whitmore, a Williams alumnus.
“The main character is the city of Kabul itself,” said Edwards, “so the camera moves around the city and we encounter various people and in each case the focus is really, rather than doing sit-down interviews, is watching then and engage with them as they are doing things in their normal lives.”
Through the course of the film, Edwards and Whitmore introduce the audience to both Afghans and foreigners, from college students to medical professionals to Canadian peacekeepers.
“There was a real difference in dealing with Canadian peace keepers and American military,” said Edwards, “because the Americans were there to kill Taliban and the Canadians were there to keep the peace and many of them had been in Kosovo and Bosnia and other places on previous peace keeping missions.”
One Canadian peacekeeper is a prominent figure in the film and he expresses a suspicion that is shared by others the filmmakers encountered, that there is no plan in the big picture. Edwards found that many foreigners and Afghans felt this way, but that it was prominent in the peacekeeper’s minds since there sole purpose in the country was to carry out a mission that they were confused by.
“They had difficulty making sense of it,” said Edwards, “knowing the point of it, why they were there, and how their various efforts added up together.”
Edwards also found that there was a backlash against the foreigners and this was adding to the confusion. It is not surprising, however, considering the shape that the country was left in by the Taliban.
“It is a shattered society,” said Edwards. “The infrastructure hasn’t been maintained for a generation now, so the electric grid is broken. It’s mostly an agricultural country and the irrigation system is broken, but there’s also a real tremendous resilience in the people and unlike the situation in Iraq, the Afghans wanted us to be there.”
Despite the hopefulness, Edwards found that a lot of Afghans felt a little displaced by the events which followed the liberation of the country and are still waiting for their country to be rebuilt.
“I think that there is a lot of disappointment in the way the reconstruction has happened,” said Edwards, “and how a lot of promises were made and half have been followed through. Most the money that has gone over there has been for military support against the Taliban and not for reconstruction. Ultimately, if you want to defeat the Taliban and what they represent, you have to provide economic assistance to this country.”
The Taliban is still a problem for the rebuilding of Afghanistan, especially now that they are using violent tactics that have never before been practiced in the country.
“They have learned a lot, in fact, from Iraq,” said Edwards. “They never before used explosive devices, they never before used IEDs or suicide bombing, none of this ever happened in Afghanistan, but some of this is beginning to creep in now as one of the unintended blow backs from the Iraq conflict.”
The other half of the Afghan double whammy is the lucrative drug trade, a largely rural problem which seeps into the cities in the form of pay-offs and government corruption — money talks and the drug lords are the ones with the greatest power of speech. At the one point in the film that the issue really does creep in, a police officer voices his frustration about the difficulties of working within such a corrupt system.
“The only crop that is providing any sort of income for Afghans right now is opium,” said Edwards, “and that has fueled an alternative economy that is far more powerful than the open economy. It has a lot more revenue and a lot more resources than the government does at its disposal.”
Despite the turmoil that has defined life in Afghanistan for the past 30 years, Edwards was happy to get back. He first visited the city of Kabul as a young man in the 1970s and, at the time, decided he was going to devote his anthropological career to it.
“It was a place I fell in love with,” said Edwards, “and my original plan after becoming an anthropologist was to go back and work in a village in Afghanistan, but one year into graduate school, the communist coup happened and my research reoriented towards refugees and politics and Islamic activism and all the rest of it.”
Edwards managed to visit the borderlands of Afghanistan in the 1980s and 90s, but Kabul remained an impossibility until after the recent U.S. invasion. Being able to become reacquainted with a city he loves has been a major part of his joy in working on the documentary.
“It was a peaceful city,” said Edwards. “It was a city where western influences were coming in gradually but still incredibly exotic and romantic for a twenty-one year old American from the mid west. Even within the city you could go to the old city and it was like being in a Central Asian market and in a city that wasn’t like anyplace I have ever been before.”
March 9, 2006 § Leave a Comment
Bernadine Mellis’ “The Forest for the Trees” tells the story of Earth First activist Judi Bari in a way that could never be presented as unbiased.
The director’s father is Dennis Cunningham, Bari’s lawyer, which gives her total access to Bari’s friends, family, and associates. They are more than willing to tell their side of the story and elevate Bari’s memory.
Bari was a former carpenter who went from working with redwood being used on the vanity houses of the rich to becoming a charismatic and organizing force within the environmental group Earth First. She is credited for being the one so-called radical environmental activist who understood the plight of the timber workers and how they were being affected by activism. She was the first to denounce the practicing of tree spiking, for instance, and saw the way that logging corporations treated the workers and the land as different sides of the same coin.
Bari’s real claim to fame in the eyes of the wider public involves a car bombing in which she and an associate seemed to be victims. Mere hours after the explosion and while still in the hospital, Bari found herself charged with possession of the explosives — the police theorized that they had accidentally gone off in the car, but were meant for a different target — and labeled a terrorist.
Mellis helps the story unfold skillfully, taking us into the background of not just the immediate story, but also investigating the back stories of many of the players on either side, as well as addressing the meaning and significance of any given incident or comment. Though the subjects and their words often are impassioned, Mellis manages to keep the structure tidy and precise despite her personal involvement. Biased, yes — deluded because of the bias, no.
The environmentalists do seem paranoid at times, but Mellis carefully documents the paranoia of the FBI in regard to Bari and her organization in particular and perceived threats to American security in general. In this way, it is a tale of two sets of paranoia clashing with each other, and yet feeding off each other as well, shaping their defenses and their offenses and the instinct of each in guessing their opponent’s game plan.
In the end, it becomes apparent why so little seems to get done, with the world victim to the thunderous clash of two sides and the press lacking the wherewithal to really analyze the origin of the storm, ins-tead preferring to focus on the loud noise itself. Mellis’ film uncovers a cycle that is probably more common than most of us would care to ad-mit, but offers one antidote in the form of a documentary film. It is perhaps one proof that there are some people in the country who prefer real analysis with wider implications, rather than the shallow transcription that often passes for critical thinking.
March 4, 2006 § Leave a Comment
Performer Jennifer Miller takes two different formats — political theater and traditional circus — and mixes them up in one ring for people of all types to enjoy. “It’s a big spectacle,” said Miller, “and it’s in a ring and it has a big band — and I’m the ringmaster.”
Miller helms Circus Amok, a New York City-based performance troupe delivering fun and social justice through circus hi-jinks. Miller is also a professor for the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures, an Obie and Bessie award winner for her performances, and subject of the documentary, “Juggling Gender,” which chronicles her work as a talented juggler and fire eater skillfully skewing the American perception of women with beards as oddities to put on display.
Circus Amok brings jugglers, stilt dancers, rope walkers, acrobats, clowns, dancing tea cups, and all kinds of puppets to public parks all over New York City and the surrounding boroughs to perform free shows. The troupe began in 1989 as Miller gathered a group of peers who she had taught circus skills. Miller started juggling and clowning in high school.
“I spent a lot of time in L.A. going to street fairs,” said Miller. “I was always attracted to that outdoor, groups of strangers forming community having fun in the sun. But I also got introduced to outdoor political theater early, the work of Bread and Puppet and Outdoor Pageantry and it all came together.”
In the late 1980s, Miller began performing the Coney Island Sideshow as a bearded lady, fire eater, and escape artist, which served as a way to do research while honing her circus skills. She joined after a chance meeting with Dick D. Zigun, the sideshow’s founder.
“He was out on the boardwalk when I walked by,” said Miller “and timidly asked me if I would be interested in working there, thinking I would scream at him because he had only seen me previously in a very other context, a not downtown, non profit art world context, and here he was asking me to be in his sideshow.”
Miller had the opportunity to work with the last of the sideshow old-timers, as well as explore theater ideas and concepts, and issues of gender and difference.
“I was this woman with this beard,” said Miller, “and always working against the imagery and the idea of the woman with a beard as a freak. I was very interested in the aesthetics and I was interested in the history and I was interested in confronting that history. I thought I would give it a try, it was very mysterious and interesting, and I was really interested in the fact that it was such a non-art world audience there.”
The revival of the sideshow was part of the ’80s subculture of neo primitivism, the forebears of the current youth culture of tattooing and piercing, and one that cross referenced the sideshow as it was on its last legs. The dynamic began to change to “made freaks” rather than “born freaks.” Nowadays, the sideshow is not such a huge influence in daily life and opinions, but it helped set a tone in the early 20th century that was shaping American perceptions of outsiders.
“It was delivering a disempowering message, very racist,” said Miller. “Black people were on display as wild Africans, there were whole communities of peoples on display with the contextualization that was just full of lies, racist lies. I found the whole thing quite problematic, fat people on display, skinny people on display, women with beards on display, so I was addressing all that in my act.”
In the ’70s, the circus had also made a comeback as with counter culture overtones that were grounded not only in the trappings of circus style presentations, but the social set-up as well. The old style representations of circus and sideshows often present traveling social structures.
“It seems to be attached to this search for community and alternative lifestyle,” said Miller, “but it tends to be very de-politicized, so in a way it’s also somewhat escapist.”
It’s no wonder that such entertainment structures would be embraced by a segment of the population that many Americans would consider alternative. A troupe like Miller’s takes the naked concept of a sideshow — presenting those who do not fit into what is perceived as the American mainstream — and twists in favor of the performers through the on-message circus setting.
“The circus is situated on a very queer landscape,” said Miller, “and there’s a certain amount of drag or cross dressing or camp and, in some ways, that’s challenging for our audiences, but we’re New York’s homegrown local people theater, which is just a lovely thing to be able to have with those two things together. It really helps us to meet our audiences because, sometimes, they haven’t met people like us before.”
The circus is also a form of theater which meets ordinary people on their own level and creates a sense of collaboration between performer and audience, rather than the strict confines of traditional theater.
“It’s a really useful form,” said Miller. “It is a popular form, it’s got a history of being a theater for people outside the elite and outside of the art world and it’s exciting. It’s big.”
Miller is not just offering togetherness as a wacky party — she is also presenting activism as a form of fun.
“It’s just theater that happens to be about the super interesting topic of housing, why can’t it be fun?” said Miller. “There is so much energy and excitement in these forms, so why not put them together representing interesting ideas?”
The success of Circus Amok serves as a good model for creating togetherness among various groups and giving people the experience to make social justice an achievable goal born of that unity. The hope for Miller and troupe is that the crowd stays united long after they leave the dazzle of the circus.
“It all comes together somehow,” said Miller, “and people will say, ‘That woman with the beard, she was funny,’ or ‘She was talking about things we all need to talk about, who cares is she has a beard?’ or ‘It’s exciting about the beard!’”