April 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The Beatles are so ubiquitous in world culture, so a part of the aural landscape, that as we move closer and closer to a reality with no memory of a world before their existence and influence, it becomes even more important to remember that these were not gods, but men like all of us.
That’s the biggest value in a book like “Baby’s In Black,” which brings forth their humanity not only by relating their early years performing in Germany, but to also relegating them to supporting players in other people’s dramas.
Those people are Astrid Kirchherr and her boyfriend, Stuart Sutcliffe, the famous “lost Beatle,” who walked away from the band in order to pursue his true passion, painting.
Anyone who already knows how this story turns out also knows that Sutcliffe made the right choice, but not for especially feel-good reasons, and this gets to the core of why the story is worth telling.
It’s 1960 and the Beatles are slogging through the club scene in Berlin, living in a room together and constantly trying to figure out how to better their future as a band. It’s in this scenario that Kirchherr, a photographer, and Sutcliffe meet, fall in love and plan a future for each other as Sutcliffe struggles with his creative calling, as well as his health.
German cartoonist Bellstorff brings a flavor to the work that no English or American creator approaching the Beatles really could. His almost Manga-lie, charcoal black renderings evoke a time and a place that are as important as the players in the drama. It frames the Beatles squarely in the world they walked at a distance from whatever legends have been added to their biography. It’s an art gallery-laden Berlin filled with beatniks and intellectuals, and the Beatles are presented not at the center of a scene, but as part of it.
With a German point of view so integral, as much focus is given to Klaus Voormann as any actual Beatle. Voormann was a friend of Kirchherr who became integral in Beatles lore, among other things becoming part of the Plastic Ono Band. Voormann did many things beyond the Beatles as well, including producing the ‘80s mega-hit by Trio, “Da, Da, Da” and creating album graphics for the Bee Gees.
It’s the inclusion of Voormann in the narrative that really frames Bellstorff’s vantage point in regard to the less-celebrated role Berlin played in the story of the Beatles.
At center, though, it is about the love story between Kirchherr and Sutcliffe, and that is both sweet and heart-breaking. Sutcliffe’s short time on this earth at least offers one lesson that any of us can take to heart — be true to yourself. You never know when your opportunity to do so will cease, and there’s no point pushing it off until tomorrow, since there may not actually be one. It’s a simple moral, but one that too many people forget on a daily basis.
April 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
The tradition of calling your son “a chip off the old block” is purportedly for a show of pride, but really it seems like a hidden insult. It implies that while the son is like you, he in no way matches your stature. He’s just a misshapen little remnant of the monolith that is the father. A chip is a pathetic knock-off to the old block.
Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-Aba) is a Talmudic re searcher who specializes in a secular view of the Jewish texts, one devoted to history. More specifically, he is a philologist studying the language of ancient texts and carrying a burden of his past research. After spending decades on a theory of an alternate Talmudic source, a rival professor accidentally discovered the physical source and, refusing to share this with Eliezer, stole all the credit for it.
Further humiliating Eliezer is the success of his son, Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi), also a professor of Talmudic studies, but with a distinctly religious bent that his father despises. As Uriel reaps acclaim and awards for his work, Eliezer spends his years emotionally shrinking into his solitary research and becoming more distant from his family.
A simple clerical mix-up will lead to the biggest storm father and son have been required to weather together, and it requires Uriel to act out his usual beaten-to-a-pulp psyche in the
form of sympathy for his father. But at the edges of this sympathy are unanswered questions that may never be resolved about his father’s hidden life, professional skill and personal motivations that constantly work to shatter Uriel’s attempt to do the right thing. In this scenario, all lives are texts and all texts are as mysterious and ultimately impenetrable as the Talmud itself.
At center of director Joseph Cedar’s treatment of this relationship is the battle of the generations, but not in any easily answerable dichotomy. When Eliezer’s relationship with his son is portrayed, it is revealed as a tug of war between trying to not be his father and mirroring his father’s behavior completely. It is a tug of war that is in all of us — the struggle to pick the parts of our upbringing that we agree with, but dispense of those we see as useless or, worse, harmful.
It’s not so easy a task, as any adult can attest. That’s because the family strands that link parent to child are as invisible and immeasurable as any of those in culture and history. A religion might attempt to codify these strands — as with the Talmud and Judaism, in context of “Footnote” — but the reason re ligious scholarship continues over thousands of years is that no final code is ever really achieved. There is always room for interpretation, as well as need. So it is with family, as well.
There is no ultimate, final, perfect son. We are all chips off the old block, but perfection should not be implied with the parent any more than with the child.
April 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Writer and director Ain Gordon’s work has often been preoccupied with the past, but his stage production, “Not What Happened,” focuses as much on a direct thematic line between what was and what is.
“Not What Happened” will be performed Saturday, April 28, at 8 p.m., at Mass MoCA.
Gordon’s work captures the experiences of two women separated by time. One lives in 1804 and the play captures her in her kitchen, during summer, on a baking day. The other is a tour guide 200 years later in the same physical location, now a historic farm. Her job is to reenact this same woman, and she’s been doing it for half her life.
“The character is actually more comfortable in her historical role than she is in her own body,” Gordon said. “She’s verbose and talkative, un like the other one, but the way they’re connecting, I don’t want to give it all away, but where they’re connecting is also about being in mid-life and in any era, what is the visibility of women in mid-life in this country.”
In Gordon’s conception, the 19th century is a time when women, especially of a certain social and economic class, were born into roles that they were require to play — there were very specific kinds of lives that a woman could lead. The re-enactor is also playing a role and, in the layers upon layers, embracing that same role the previous woman is required to live.
“It is a lot about the mirrors that we don’t necessarily think
about and how these things are still going on cloaked in other guises,” said Gordon, “and also about all of us, as humans, our knee-jerk rush to create a story that makes sense out of anything that happens. Is any of that ever true and how fast do we do it, and how fast are we departing from the truth?”
The show at Mass MoCA is the third of a three-date tour designed to further development and as presented on stage, the play is still a work in progress. Gordon says to expect a basic staging with two actors holding their pages in front of projections, what he describes as an advanced stage reading. From there, the production will hibernate for a year while Gordon finishes up two other commissions, and then returns in the summer of 2013 for a full scale workshop, and then production the following fall.
Gordon’s real interest in history is in the stories of ordinary people, of how those stories are uncovered and perceived now and of whether we ever actually get to the truth of any situation.
“I was interested in what some people might say was a woman of no consequence on a day of no importance engaged in an act of no significance,” he said. “I was really interested in what it would look like to think about that as a historic piece of information. I very consciously tried not to endow her with the traditional things that would make it worth watching her and to see if I could make her interesting enough and the workings of her mind interesting enough that the fact that this isn’t a do or die day, it’s just a day, would matter.”
Gordon’s 19th-century character is not based on any specific person, but is rather a figure of marginalized history, which remains center of his narrative fascination. Gordon teamed with artist and historian Forrest Holsapple and went on frequent trips to Vermont over a period of time that had the team tracking the landscape Gordon was portraying in the work. Hols apple’s photographic work and photo manipulations of period photography will be used in the performance — the Mass MoCA show represents their debut on stage.
Time spent investigating re forested pasture land, cellar holes, foundation corners and abandoned graveyards gave Gordon the opportunity to think about the physical space his character inhabited and what that meant to her every day life.
“I spent a lot of time contemplating the real distances that everyone was navigating,” Gor don said. “How long it took to get anywhere to see even another person, to even have a visit, therefore how lonely it was, how silent it was, how solitary a woman alone on baking day really would be. “
Gordon augmented those visits with a trip to Historic Deerfield, where the hearth cooking experts taught him how to bake bread like the woman would have. He also delved into the world of re-enactors, interviewing someone in that world and spending a lot of time on their posting boards online, finding out their concerns on the job, the sorts of things that would affect his modern woman character.
Gordon traces his interest in ordinary stories of historical people — and the often un steady ways they are related to listeners — to his childhood.
“I spent a lot of time as a child with old people, particularly old women,” he said.
With a great-grandmother who lived into his early teens, and two sets of grandparents — one in New York, one in London — that he spent a lot of time with, there was ample opportunity for mining family lore to amuse himself.
“Both of them did not go out anywhere except to buy food,” said Gordon. “They didn’t play. They didn’t watch television. They didn’t do anything. There was nothing to do, and in England, in particular, they lived in a small seaside town that was kind of a forgotten place and everybody there was 80, so nobody did anything. The only thing there was for me to do was talk to them, and I realized not just by luck, at some point, early like 7 or 8 years old, that they had stories and that if I would unlock the door, they would entertain me.”
More than just storytelling sessions, though, the activity became a way for Gordon to exercise his analytical abilities in regard to narratives — it began to seem to him that the information he was being given was not the most solid information despite the fact that these were real stories about real people.
“I began to realize that the stories were inconsistent, that they would change,” said Gor don, “because they would get repeated and new details would emerge and other ones would go away and things would be contradicted, and that I couldn’t know what really happened, I could only piece together these things.”
When Gordon would return home and tell the stories to his parents, he found that they had no idea about any of it — their own parents were a mystery to them. It was at that point Gordon realized that each person is a closed treasure trove of stories and interpretations.
“Inside these aged, stooped, relatively inactive people were scandalous, active, wild, un known people, sexual people, but you couldn’t see anything of it anymore,” he said. “Inside these people were these other people, and I think that’s where it really started for me, with this idea that there’s all this invisible history that is being pushed to the side.”
When Gordon began to apply this experience with the discipline of history, he realized that the field requires a historian to take the chaos out of real life and, as he says, “create a traceable sequence of events in order to tell that story.”
“I’m interested in all the sidebars that ended up on the cutting room floor,” said Gordon.
To Gordon, this is an exercise that makes life bearable, and the very non-linear quality that history, as related through people, exhibits offers an outline to living within the chaos, and that’s something he brings to his work.
“For me it actually makes present day a little less hard,” he said. “When my life seems like it makes no sense and is just a pile of crap, well, that’s what everybody’s seems like at some point and the way we hear a story now makes you think that your life would make sense and should be on a progression instead of doubling back on itself all the time, which is what life does.”
April 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
A case of mad cow disease is suggesting we panic again. The anti-vaccine crowd are still in a tizzy. The autism epidemic still has an angry mob screaming prevention instead of accepting it as a neurological subsection of the human condition that we are getting better at diagnosing. Still much less action on diabetes in the public face of American outrage.
I mean Type 2, of course, and the reason I’m thinking about it is that it was reported in England that the condition is likely to bankrupt the country’s national health system. An estimated 70 percent of diabetes spending is complications from Type 2 sufferers that are entirely preventable — eye problems, nerve damage. The British are outraged, since 90 percent of diabetes cases are Type 2, and that form is preventable through your own actions.
The nearest breaking news in America about diabetes I could find this morning was about a guy complaining about parking costs for dialysis while he waits for a transplant. No actual mention of the price of dialysis or transplants in that report.
I did find one item reporting that diabetes costs Europe 90 billion euros a year, and is on a dangerous rise in countries like Austria and Hungary. According to the Daily News, Hungary has actually enacted a policy that will punish diabetes patients who don’t eat their prescribed diet — blood tests that reveal cheating will lead to lower grade insulin for them, which is less effective.
It seems harsh — well, it is harsh — but I understand the message. If you are not serious about doing your part to better your health while on the taxpayer’s dime, then you do not get the privilege of the taxpayer’s top shelf treatment. According to doctors in Hungary, only 30 percent of patients are actually able to control their diet, which means 70 percent of patients are effective addicts.
Still, little word on the American cost as I searched around. That’s odd, considering the debate over the costs of health care in this country.
The one article I did find on the issue was a column by Geoff Colvin, editor-at-large for Fortune magazine, who talked pretty bluntly about the figures of prevention as a way to manage health care costs.
According to Colvin, actually taking some responsibility and an individual effort by each of us to try and prevent our own preventable diseases to the smallest degree would bring down our health care costs tremendously. Not making ourselves horribly sick, in other words, would cost us less money every year. And in a country so averse to taxes, so angry about deficits, so torn about entitlements, you’d think we’d be eager to save some bucks in other areas of our lives, too.
Prevention is the best health care plan there is in battling not only Type 2 diabetes, but also heart disease, strokes and some cancers — and in medical terms, it’s the face of rugged self-sufficiency. This combination of fiscal and personal responsibility seems like it should be a core Republican value, but it actually butts up against consumerism with a full boom. In a capitalist society that values the free market, the libertarian wing of the Republican party is happy to let the every man for himself philosophy play out in every area of life except purchasing.
Look at the food industry giants that court that party, like American Frozen Food Institute, and listen to the party’s rhetoric — it will never live down proclaiming pizza a vegetable — and you’ll see how devoted that party is to real personal responsibility. It’s more important to them that they sustain the profitable business of the diet-related disease equivalents of drug pushers.
Go read up on the brain’s reaction to fats and sweeteners, to the tag-team enabler recipe of salty-and-sweet to ignite insatiable appetites, and then pretend that our government isn’t owned by people with their own personal recipe for a diabetes epidemic.
But remember that the blame game only goes so far — and it’s not as easy as getting your insulin paid for. Dialysis is not fun. Kidney transplants require a lot of post-op responsibility. Losing your leg or going blind really, really sucks.
If you really want to beat the forces that conspire to help you make yourself sicker, you’ll do everything you can to take care of yourself. Only in health are you truly independent of the system.
April 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Though records are still released in limited fashion, the girth that created such a pastime as record collecting has been gone for a long, long time.
While the surface implications of what is lost might not be huge to the many people who point out the huge amount of music available on demand these days, those who participated in the pursuit can tell you it was never just about hearing things. Record collecting was an activity, a hunt, it was a game you played with reality in order to unearth pieces of information that, when they joined the other pieces of information you had procured, told a wider story.
Record collecting was an engagement with mystery.
Thomas understands this and his book, “Listen Up, Whitey,” which documents the pieces — both lauded and obscure — of the recording element within the Black Power movement of the 1960s and ‘70s.
The book itself isn’t literally about record collecting and doesn’t often say much about the pursuit of the titles discussed within, but the air of discovery permeates the work and functions as the guiding principle of the knowledge passed along, as well as the origin of some of the investigation.
Relating the history of the Black Power movement — easily obscure knowledge to most 21st-century white people — Thomas winds through the back catalogs and record store bins that include not only music releases by the likes of Gil Scott-Heron, Charles Min gus, Pharoah Sanders and a host of more obscure artists, but also poetry titles by collectives like The Last Poets and speech recordings by Stokely Carmichael, Bill Cosby, H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis, and others, documentary recordings like “Guess Who’s Com ing Home,” which featured interviews with black soldiers serving in Vietnam, religious records by the Rev, C.L. Frank lin, and much more.
In one of the most fascinating chapters, Thomas reveals all the existing recordings of the actual Black Panthers leadership like Bobby Seale, Elaine Brown, Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton. Another equally mesmerizing section dissects the output of the Black Forum label, Motown’s politically themed subsidiary.
Nowadays, revolutions are easy to track — you just Google them. But back in the 1970s, LPs became dispatches from the front that people could play in their homes, or on local radio stations, to gauge how the rest of the world was approaching the political that was so personal to them.
These small discs were part of the overall effort that allowed African Americans to get real information about the Black Power Movement, to let them know they weren’t alone, to show them ways to be involved, to stoke ideas and energy, and to provide catharsis. Thomas mines this territory to construct a richly illustrated history of a time when revolution was damn hard, and it left reminders that it once existed.
April 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
“The Matchmaker,” known as “Once I Was” in its native Israel, was a break-out hit in its own country, sweeping their own Academy Awards. It’s not hard to see why — sentimental in all the right ways, balancing anger and tenderness as it juxtaposes the devastating past of Jews with the safe, younger generation of Israel, it feels like the kind of movie that cuts to the core of who its audience is.
For an outsider to not only Israel in general, but Jewish culture in a general sense, it felt like physically opening up a person and peering into the jumbled thoughts and emotions that make an experience.
Mostly taking place in 1968, “The Matchmaker” picks up during the coming-of-age summer for Arik (Tuval Shafir) whose role in a prank leads to a reunion between his father and his father’s past, and a summer job that offers in trigue and a rare glimpse into the seedy world of adults.
Arik begins work for the mysterious Yan kele Bride (Adir Miller), a childhood friend of Arik’s father who plies the trade of bringing to gether marriage-minded people, but also seems to have other, more questionable business concerns that remain hidden. Arik’s job is to follow prospective matches to make sure they are suitable for their match — if they are who they say they are, if they are actually looking for love and not sex, if they are not already engaged, that sort of thing.
The summer is not confined to just that; rather, there are plenty of other situations that will allow Arik to apply this knowledge of the grown-up psyche. There is the sad, captivating associate of Bride’s, Clara (Maya Dagan), who helps him in various capacities. There is the vivacious dwarf, Sylvia (Bat-El Papura), who owns the local cinema and craves partnership. There is Me ir (Dror Keren), the emotionally-stunted librarian who insinuates his opinions on Arik.
And then there is Tamara (Neta Porat), niece of the Iraqi family who lives next door, a bombastic, selfish free spirit who awakens sexual feelings in Arik and shows him first hand how difficult navigating the world of love really is.
All these characters inhabit the promise of a new Israel, but violence looms like a bitter shadow behind their real world. In one manner, it is constantly being referenced in television and radio reports about the after effects of the Six Day War. Equally, though, it is the Holocaust, a horror kept hidden in the back rooms of the survivors’ dark psyches, little spoken of, but infecting their lives to such a degree that they can never live fully and freely again.
Holocaust survivors wander the streets of Haifa like ghosts, rejected socially because of the hint of impropriety to survive, staying hidden as much as possible from the government for fear of being rounded up again, psychologically incapable of resuming what people would term a normal life and victim to the repression of information about the Holocaust within Israel that causes salacious rumors to supplant historical reality.
It’s a devastating back-drop to reach maturity within and a side of the Israeli psyche that we outsiders aren’t privy to. As put together in “The Match maker,” it’s a gripping subtext that comes to life within a charming coming-of-age dra ma, and an important cinematic chapter in understanding what Israel is all about.
April 21, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Can conservatives and liberals be friends? Really, truly friends? Sometimes I wonder.
Back in the old days — which could be anywhere from the 1940s to the 1990s, depending on your vantage point — conservatives and liberals probably had an easier time of it. The last 12 years have pushed things over the edge, though, and it’s gotten so nasty that I do wonder how people do it.
Your politics, I believe, are a public reflection of who you are on the inside. They are a signpost to how you think other people should be treated and how you perceive yourself in context of the world. Put into liberal and conservative terms, the question seems to be: Do you think you are more important than everyone else?
When I listen to conservative rhetoric these days, I feel the answer would be yes to most of the people doing the chattering. That’s not really an audacious statement for me to make, since so much of the Republican membership has been leaning more and more to some cherry-picked version of libertarianism. I use the term cherry-picked because, in the hands of 21st Century Republicans, libertarian ideas become not so much an every-man-for-himself free for all, but a convenient excuse for control of the lives of others.
The common ground between conservatives and libertarians seems to be the distaste for taxes and the distrust of a strong centralized government. The problem there is that while hardcore libertarians have a real survival-of-the-fittest mentality that would favor no one but the person who was able to gather the resources to climb to the top of the heap, mainstream conservative flirting with the movement tend to favor those libertarian ideals that control the lives of others, but still benefit the conservative viewpoint.
It’s that way with medical issues. How many ailing conservatives have I encountered complaining that some procedure that impacts them isn’t fully covered and they can’t afford it, but the government will fund an abortion? How many ailing conservatives have I encountered who don’t seem to feel the government providing some conduit to health care for all is the American Way while still complaining about the price of their health insurance?
I spoke with one hardcore Republican once who had the gall to in one breath complain about Obama and then in the next complain about how little the government was doing to subsidize the rail travel system in our country.
Certainly, these are circumstantial to my experience, but what alarms me is that I find that attitude in blog posts and message boards and newspaper columns across the country. I hear it in phone calls to NPR, in letters to the editor.
I’ve come to think of it as white-folk rage, because there doesn’t seem to be any rationality behind the anger other than that. It’s the old “they get everything and we get nothing” attitude, except that it’s coupled with a libertarian bent that under more pure circumstances would mean “no one gets anything” but has been twisted to mean “I’m not responsible for anything, but everyone else is, and they don’t get special favors.”
And, so, back to my original question. Can conservatives and liberals actually be friends? I suppose so, depending on the people. But I don’t think that politics is a silly reason to not be friends with someone. Let me put it this way — I think it’s great that you can trust your conservative friend to help you out in rough times. That’s what friends are for. But to me, the measure of a person is if they will help out a stranger.
The measure of a person is whether they will accept some responsibility for helping strangers without stipulation, without thinking about what they are losing in income tax. Or without thinking about whether it’s fair or not that they are helping more than people who don’t have the resources to do the same.
One thing Republicans have been unable to do is legislate reasons I choose to be or not be someone’s friend. I’m strictly libertarian in that sense.
April 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Has there ever been a more inspirational American success story than Mitt Romney? He’s a true lesson in the art of not being very likable, nor desirable, even among those who technically agree with you, and still having the opportunity to run for the office of the presidency.
He’s an example of how you can pander and kiss people’s butts, and they will actually see through it — and it won’t damage your political career whatsoever.
He’s an example of everything that’s horrible and great about our political process, of how lineage and perseverance are everything, and ability is nothing.
He’s proof that you can actually insult your own past, as if that past self were an evil twin rather than you, yourself, and get away with it.
And to think he got his start here.
By here, I don’t mean merely Massachusetts, but North Adams. Not that Romney ever set foot in North Adams — I have no idea, and actually don’t really care if he did. But what did start in North Adams was the political trajectory of the person who was considered so much worse than Romney that he was able to buy influence within the Republican Party and seize his stepping stone to the presidency.
I’m not making any personal or specific political judgments on Jane Swift — that’s all so far in the past that in political terms, it seems like another century. Oh, wait, it was.
Anyhow, I can’t really remember what Swift actually did in her brief term as our appointed governor other than being passed over by her own party for the apparently more enticing Mitt Romney, and that’s a horrible thing to be remembered for — being considered by Republicans as worse than Mitt Romney.
Romney’s hubris, though, is coming back to bite him on the butt, and Jane Swift can breathe a sigh of relief, because while the rest of the country doesn’t know much about her, they know about Romney, and I don’t think they believe there is anything worse than him. Oh, sure, crazy people like Santorum and Gingrich and Paul are worse in that they are representative of the fringe and unelectable, and this makes them not really logical choices for candidacy. We’re talking American president, not small-time dictator. In that crowd, Romney is obviously the only logical choice, everyone can see that.
And everyone can pretty much see that they hate him for that.
This is why there has never been a more delicious election cycle for those of us who enjoy watching the slow death of the Republican Party. In 2012, it is finally a snake eating its own tail. Romney, the closest thing to the serpent in the Garden of Eden I’ve seen — except the Republican Party is less a garden and more a fracking site — and that’s the lesson they failed to learn. You can’t decimate your own landscape and expect to survive. And when you’re desperate, a huckster will come in as leader and out of desperation, you will be forced to follow because you have no other plan.
And so Romney’s ascendancy is the sort of public humiliation that’s been destined to happen following the over-heated entitlement of the Bush years. Romney was waiting, watching. It was lineage that dictated that John McCain run first — it’s the Bob Dole rule, old guys first — but in a slam dunk of being in the right place at the right time, Romney has been able to take advantage of the rise of the Sarah Palin mentality and, just like in Massachusetts, offer himself up as a more capable choice.
We here in Massachusetts could’ve told you he’d do that. I know we’re liberal heaven and all that, but we created Romney. He’s our monster. Looked at differently, maybe he’s our trap for Republicans, our ticking time bomb that is going to help that party implode once and for all. If the essence of politics is the right to take credit for happy accidents, then the state of Massachusetts reserves that right when Romney destroys his own party, and we’ll just smile and say, “Told you so.”
April 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In “Koran By Heart,” the trend in documentaries that capture children’s competitions is utilized in an unexpected way by paying attention to not only the suspense of the contest, but the unfolding and mysterious world in which the contest exists.
Each year during Ramadan, there is a Koran recitation contest in Cairo that gathers children from all over the Muslim world to put their knowledge and talent to the test.
The first challenge is that the Koran is written in Arabic — many of the children do not speak Arabic, but have mastered the words regardless. Koran recitation is a talent of memory, for sure, but also of musicality. The words of the holy book of Islam are delivered in an improvised sing-song chant called tajweed, and the person’s delivery of the words are often successful based on the power of the music that acts as a conduit for their delivery.
Director Greg Barker sets his camera with several competitors, all interesting, but with two compelling personalities who seize much of the focus of the film.
One is Nabiollah, a boy from Tajikistan who has mastered the improvised aspect of chanting in Koran recitation to the degree that it’s like hearing a musical prodigy at work. The other is Rifdha, a girl from the Maldives whose bright qualities seize on school subjects like science and math, even as her enthusiasm and goals are at odds with the life mapped out for a young woman in a fundamentalist family.
Barker journeys to the home situation of each of the kids, and this becomes a vehicle for insight not merely into the personal lives, but the crossroads at which the religion of Islam currently stands. Juxtaposed with interviews featuring the moderate religious leaders in charge of the contest, educators who juggle secular and religious learning and government officials who fight fanaticism in their countries, the traumas of the world and the pathways of fanaticism have a direct effect on these kids’ lives.
Nabiollah, it turns out, is functionally illiterate, despite the eloquence of his Koran reading. He not only can’t read the Arabic it is written in, but his own native language either. In Tajikistan, Koran had been traditionally taught in rural areas by teachers who were sometimes found to indoctrinate the students into fundamentalist ways, and the government deconstructed that system, creating state-approved schools that offer secular subjects as well for a more well-rounded education. It’s into one of these schools that Nabiollah’s father attempts to get his son into, much to his credit, even as he focuses on Koran recitation as a center in his own life.
Rifdha’s situation is the exact opposite. She thrives in a secular school, but her father is a latter-day convert to the religion. He ignored it for most his life, until changing his views on his father’s death bed, and now he pursues a conservative form of the faith and attempts to rectify his family’s life with that spiritual embrace. To this end, he hopes to move out of the Maldives and to a country where Rifdha can devote her education to religious studies. He doesn’t conceive of a world where his daughter will, as she herself expresses hope, become an ocean explorer.
Rifdha’s mother, meanwhile, expresses the opposite hopes for her daughter, while still taking a back seat in the discussion— for whatever reason, whether cultural or personal, it never appears acceptable that she advocate for her daughter’s future against her husband’s wishes. In context of the competition, the balance that Islamic moderates practice — embracing the beauty and sanctity of their religious iconography and tradition, while not allowing that to cut themselves off from the flow of time — takes center stage, and it’s the hopes and fears that these kids in the contest represent to these religious leaders that becomes most apparent.
As expressed in this film, the problems moderate Islamic leaders are facing are no different from the ones moderate Christian clergy in America are now — how to promote reason in faith as a higher path that fanaticism.
With this juxtaposition, the Muslim world is brought closer to home than ever before — these are normal people with normal problems, as well as larger ones brought on by the culture in which they navigate. A kid in Cairo at the recitation contest is at core much different than a kid at a spelling bee in Washington, D.C., and nor are the current cultural struggles and what that child represents as we stand at the fork in the road.
April 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
To look at one of Diana Al-Hadid’s sculptures is to enter a point of perception that leaves you struggling — is this an architectural structure? The ghost of one? Or accidents meant to evoke structured, physical space? The Syria-born artist focuses on place as monuments to memory in her work — not necessarily specific locales, but more general swathes in the nostalgia that can infect our emotions and provide emotions of belonging through more vague structures that seem to span ages.
Her new work at Mass MoCA, “Nolli’s Orders,” which is part of the “Invisible Cities” show that opens on Saturday, April 14, reflects this quality in Al-Hadid’s work, mixed with a fascination for the human figure as it appears in classical paintings.
Pulling bodies from Renaissance paintings and reconfiguring them within the architecture of the sculpture, Al-Hadid has brought the relationship between the human body and its structural creations to a logical extreme.
“I started pulling from these figures in paintings a little bit at random. It was kind of privileging figures that I’ve had that were extremely different from each other as I collect them,” said Al-Hadid. “Holding a very different posture, but always looking a little bit relaxed.
“The first figure I pulled, he’d been stabbed with an arrow in his side and he’s laying down super-heroically and really comfortably, like he’s taking a nap under a tree. He had just been shot and it was a very weirdly beautifying as a violent moment.”
“They all have that quality about them where they look relaxed or comfortable. I felt like if I could get this part, then everything would fall into place, because they’re the anchor of the piece.”
Al-Hadid began the piece over a year ago, before being approached to participate in the Mass MoCA show, and while it was on the basis of her previous work that she was considered, it was really when Mass MoCA curator Susan Cross saw the beginnings of the piece in Al-Hadid’s studio that her inclusion was queried and the sculpture’s fate became linked with the actual show.
“I’m sure the concept of the show affected how I saw the piece, although I had sketched it out in advance of the piece,” Al-Hadid said. “I think there was something in my earlier works that is architecturally very structural and I think alludes to a city, but I think it’s really more of a structure that relates to a single figure. I mean that in terms of the scale but also in terms of the concept that might have inspired the work.”
The piece has grown upward from its beginnings down below, which have created a threetiered world for Al-Hadid to design. She wanted to include pedestals, and ended up placing six at the bottom, big white boxes from which the sculpture moves toward the figures.
“I’ve been treating the pedestals as a spatial blank canvas in my work recently,” she said. “I started by setting up six pedestals and started removing the figures from these paintings and started treating them as a compositional element rather than characters. So I set them up and I made the piece from one side very pyramidal and triangular and then changing a bit from different perspectives, from one perspective it’s really deep and from another it’s diagonal.”
The pedestals begin to resemble a Roman city, on top of which is a grid of sorts, with dripping elements, that form into a theoretical mountain flanking the city, above which the figures float like gods on Mount Olympus. The piece is inspired by Nolli maps of Rome, 18th century cartography meant to measure the density of a city by capturing the structures within in it, like a photograph taken in the air.
“I’ve been determined to create a mass, a population rather than a single entity or a work that corresponded with one,” said Al-Hadid. “So I started with that. I was looking at a lot of these paintings and I knew that I wanted to isolate figures from these paintings because I wanted to remove them from their narrative, decontextualize them. So I go off with some paintings here and there, and I would draw a line around a figure that I wanted.” Al-Hadid says that her latest sculpture is different from her previous work in several ways, most notably that in the past she had made use of computers to plan out the pieces and test ideas, which gave her more of a clear vision of what the sculpture would look like in the end. She started her work with a clear floor plan that gave some idea of what was to come, but “Nolli’s Order” retained mysteries even as she moved ahead on it.
“This one looks a lot different, it’s a lot more improvisational, a little bit more painted,” Al-Hadid said. “It’s a different kind of painting. This one’s little more like an expressionistic painting, while the last one’s more like a modernist painting in terms of the organizing principle, in terms of the surfacing.”
“This one started out a little more like groping in the dark. I’ve often had some kind of key to how to make the first move on a sculpture, and I really haven’t done that on the last year’s worth of work and it’s totally changed how I work. “ The long process is part of what makes “Nolli’s Order” different from previous works. Al-Hadid juggled four other commissions during the period of time she created it, but the lead-up to the Mass MoCA show offered her the excuse for full concentration and the ammunition to bring it to full fruition with spontaneity. It was a change of process that will affect all works to come “It was really hard to return to and give it the full attention after a year of not working on it one hundred percent,” she said. “It was like it had been at this stage fro a real long time and I have to change it completely and really fast, and it changed completely and really fast. In a month. I dealt with the problems.”