Friday, March 26, 2010

My Endorsement for Tracy Greever-Rice, 4th Ward City Council Candidate

I’ve spent the last month or so volunteering on my friend’s city council campaign, and I’d like to share with you, my friends, my endorsement of Tracy Greever-Rice for the 4th Ward seat on the Columbia City Council. I’m not endorsing Tracy because she’s my friend, though indeed I feel very lucky to have her friendship. Rather, I’m endorsing her because she is an incredibly impressive candidate – knowledgeable, experienced, smart, dependable, hard-working, and – most importantly – her values and her vision for the city are ones I embrace whole-heartedly.

I attended a mayoral debate last Monday, an event hosted by the Missourian newspaper, and couldn’t help thinking that Tracy could debate circles around all of the mayoral candidates. I didn’t get to stay for the Fourth Ward debate, but I’ve seen Tracy in action, and I’ve seen video footage of a forum for the four candidates, as well as video clips of the other candidates put up online by the Missourian. My overall impression is that Tracy is more knowledgeable than anyone else about the details, intricacies and complexities of city government and public policy.

Here’s one example: In the mayoral debate, candidates were asked about whether under the current and future economic constraints, Columbia should continue to fund social services. I had heard Tracy address the same question the previous day, and she pointed out that the money that the city spends on social services is used to leverage funding from state and national sources, and without the city’s allocation, we would not have access to the outside funding that provides three or four times as much funding, ultimately, for the city’s most vulnerable members.

The depth and breadth of Tracy’s grasp of complex questions have impressed just about everyone who has met her. Her knowledge is in large part a function of her educational and professional background. She has a PhD in rural sociology, and is the Associate Director for Community and Economic Development-related initiatives at OSEDA (the Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis at the University of Missouri). In this capacity, Tracy has worked with dozens of communities throughout the state of Missouri, including Columbia. She has analyzed the data on funding of social services, which is why she knows so much about it. The local Chamber of Commerce often call Tracy’s office (including Tracy herself) to get needed information about the city. (I think it’s utterly ridiculous that the Chamber endorsed a candidate, Daryl Dudley, who has none of the sorts of skills that Tracy brings to the table.)

Although I have described Tracy as a progressive, Tracy makes a point of saying that she takes seriously her responsibility (should she be elected) to represent and work for ALL members of the community. Although one of her opponents is running on the claim of being able to facilitate communication and help people on different sides of an issue to reach agreement, I am confident that Tracy has all of these skills too. She has served on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission as well as other boards and commissions, all of which require the ability to communicate and work well with others. She is highly professional, respectful of others and able to command their respect. She is a kind, understanding, and empathetic person, which I think goes a long way towards being able to work with people whose viewpoints are different from hers.

This election is critical to Columbia's future, because the city council will soon begin work on a new long-range comprehensive land use plan for the city, the impact of which will be felt for the next 10 or 20 years. It's important to elect a council that will stand up for the welfare of all members of the community, with council members who understand the complexities of public policy and its impacts on people.

What I want to say to all of my friends who are voters in Columbia’s 4th ward is this: to vote for anyone other than Tracy would be a mistake; and if Tracy does not win this election on April 6, it would be a real loss for the city of Columbia. It would be a lost opportunity to have a council member who brings to the table an incredible skill set, and a vast background in the kind of community involvement that will make for a highly effective council member. This is an issue of fundamental importance to us all; the election is not a popularity contest, it's about real issues and will have profound and lasting effects on what happens in our community. You owe it to us all to vote for the most qualified candidate for the job.

Tracy has been endorsed by the Sierra Club.

I was interviewed for and quoted in this Profile on Tracy for the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Update, March 28, 2010:

Tracy has just picked up another endorsement, this one from the Boone County Smart Growth Coalition.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Hiding Behind Anonymity

In earlier times, such as 18th-century England, political censorship forced many writers to publish anonymously for fear of imprisonment. In the absence of freedom of speech, anyone who spoke out against the government was taking a dangerous risk, as were their publishers. Well, today, “Anonymous” is making a come-back, but for the most part these are not courageous political activists and revolutionaries. Anonymous comments have become the stock-in-trade of the ignorant, petty, and just plain vicious – people who are ashamed to be associated with their own stupid or hateful comments.

All you have to do is read the “Comments” section online on your local newspaper, on blogs, or other websites. I never worried too much about this until recently, when I was targeted through this blog by a couple of losers who are unwilling to own up to their own comments by using their real names.

Initially they were just taunting me for a comment I made at a film screening; these comments were posted on my February 27 blog post on “True/False Film Festival 2010.”
I responded to their comments in my March 2 post on the film Colony (“Why I Didn’t Like Colony”), and received more negative comments which are posted there.

But what is not visible on my blog is additional comments that I received from “partoftheprecipitate” and “doublewordscore.” After those obnoxious comments that got posted, I had to take the unprecedented (for me) step of moderating comments. I received two more messages from “doublewordscore” and one from “partoftheprecipitate,” all highly insulting, and attacking my work as an educator.

Now this harassment wouldn’t be so alarming if, A, the cyber-attacks hadn’t continued over a period of several days rather than just a one-off incident; and, B, if these people weren’t hiding their identities. Someone suggested to me they were former students of mine. As far as I’m concerned this is no trivial matter. You really have to wonder about the psychological and emotional stability of someone who carries a grudge against a professor years after having taken a class in which the student got a grade he or she didn’t like. Given all the violence on college, university and high school campuses, from Columbine to Virginia Tech, our so-called “ivory tower” is anything but.

When folks are leaving anonymous comments on websites, it’s impossible for readers to know if they are just idiots blowing off steam, or if there’s actually a violent intent. Here’s an example: a wonderful woman, whom I knew personally, was murdered by her ex-husband over Thanksgiving; her two teen-age daughters and her grandmother were also slain by this misogynistic lunatic.

The husband / murderer, Kraig Kahler, was fired from his job with the City of Columbia in September, less than three months before he killed four members of his family. You should read the comments that were posted on the Columbia Daily Tribune’s website when the story of his firing was published – but you’d better have a strong stomach.
The vast majority of comments are verbally abusive to his wife and overly sympathetic to husband, seeing him as persecuted. Comments degenerated into wild and unfounded speculation about Karen Kahler’s character and behavior – comments posted by people who never even met her. Here are some examples:

Someone named “taylor100” wrote,

“Yes, we are still ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in the room due to the censorship our our comments. Let's see, she was well taken care of, had three great well adjusted kids, happily married for 25 years, and then she decides to try something new. Yes, this whole situation has been brought on due to her selfishness.

“Mr. Kahler was trying to save the marriage and the family and now they are all going to suffer for years to come. Eventually the truth will come out and everyone will understand. I will probably be censored again just like RationalThought.”

Then “detoito” responded with this:

“You spend your whole life building this career, and your angry wife claims you touched her against her will (Her words, not mine), and you are fired. It is going to be hard enough for Mr. Kahler to find anything in his field of expertise as it is, but to add being fired to the list would make it next to impossible.

“I think he chose the lesser of two evils.”

Someone named “crighton” wrote:

“Oh and by the way, the original arrest was just a setup. She was playing hardball with her attorney so she could get the most out of the divorce. Happens all of the time to good people.

Then there’s “fay_mccollom” who wrote:

“it was a bearhug and not a 'hit'. Its women like her that lose credibility for all true victims.”

All told there were 70 reader comments on this article (about a dozen of which were actually deleted by Tribune staff for being over-the-top offensive), the majority of them supporting Kraig – the eventual mass-murderer. Rumors I’ve heard (and suggested in the Tribune’s Comments section) suggest that Kraig himself was the author of many of those comments bashing his wife. After the murders happened, the Tribune reported on Kraig’s internet stalking of his wife.

I wonder, if people leaving comments on the Tribune’s page were required to give their real names, would there be even one-tenth of the irresponsible posting that we see nowadays?

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Final True/False Report

Let me begin by saying this is my one hundredth blog post. That's #100, yippee! There should be some kind of celebration; it will be a long time before I reach the next big milestone. I started my blog with the 2008 True/False Film Festival, so it's appropriate to be discussing the 2010 Festival at #100.

The Festival was great this year. After sitting through 13 films, I can report one more poultry slaughter (a turkey, in Those Who Remain) and a sheep slaughter (On the Other Side of Life). Combine that with the 16 bear paws (four bears worth) found in a Chinese dumpster (Disorder), and the two chicken slaughters I reported earlier, and the animals didn’t fare too well in this year’s documentary film selections.

But it was a great weekend. I packed in as much as I could, yet there is still a long list of films that my friends raved about that I didn’t get a chance to see. At a debriefing with friends on Sunday night, about 20 people talked about their two top films from the festival, and there was a wide variety of opinion. Here are the ones I missed but want to see:

The Red Chapel (dir. Mads Brügger, 87 min.), about two Korean-Danish comedians visiting North Korea, got rave reviews from everyone who saw it.

Holy Wars (dir. Stephen Marshall, 81 min.) followed a Muslim extremist and a Christian extremist in their proselytizing efforts; the filmmaker set up a debate between them, and the outcome was remarkable.

GasLand (dir. Josh Fox, 86 min.) – everyone who saw this film said it was unbelievable and disturbing; one of my students said she cried through half of it. It’s about natural gas, Halliburton, and groundwater pollution.

Cowboys in India (dir. Simon Chambers, 78 min.), the plot of which I still haven’t figured out, sounds great and got lots of thumbs up.

The Mirror (dir. David Christensen, 85 min.) is set in the Italian Alps and explores the attempts by a small-town mayor to build a giant mirror to bring sunlight to his village. Some monkish Germans are also involved.

My husband liked Circo (dir. Aaron Schock, 78 min.) a lot, which was one of two Mexican circus films, the other being The Tightrope (dir. Núria Ibáñez, 80 min.) (which neither of us saw).

Waste Land (dir. Lucy Walker, 98 min.) is about artist Vik Muniz, whose art uses trash from the Rio de Janeiro landfill. People loved it.

Clearly, the True/False Film Festival needs to be about two days longer if a person's going to get to see everything they're interested in seeing.

Why I Didn't Like Colony

Colony, dir. Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell

When my friend’s son leaned over to me and sternly warned me “Colony is bad, don’t see it,” I should have known something was up; but earlier that day a colleague had told me he thought it was good. I decided to take my chances and judge for myself. After all, I’m interested in and concerned about Colony Collapse Disorder, a thus-far unexplained phenomenon in which whole colonies of bees are dying and/or disappearing. I heard about this on NPR a couple years ago. It’s very alarming, because for one thing noone knows why it’s happening, and for another thing – most importantly – if there are no bees, there’s no food, right?

Directors Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell add to that another big concern: the demise of the beekeepers – small, independent business owners whose livelihoods are being devastated by the loss of their colonies. Let me add, too, that I’m a big fan of documentaries about American agriculture, like Food Inc. and King Corn (see my post on King Corn on August 20, 2008). Early on in my viewing of Colony I was feeling confident about this being another film in that vein; beautiful cinematography of golden fields and gray-green almond trees; authoritative-sounding “experts,” and a concern for public interest all seemed to be at the heart of this film. But then things began to go terribly wrong...

You see, it’s not just a film about bees and beekeepers and Colony Collapse Disorder. The film’s “split personality,” as I would call it, takes us on an intimate exploration of family dynamics among the Seppi family, new to the beekeeping business, whose economic situation seems very dire. But these directors, Gunn and McDonnell, focus a great deal of attention on the religious beliefs of this family, in a way that I found quite puzzling. Were they holding up the Seppis to be admired? to be ridiculed? I really don’t think the film made that clear, which is why I asked McDonnell in the Q&A “how do you position yourself with regard to the religious aspect of the film?" and "What do the Ten Commandments have to do with beekeeping?”

Let me explain what I mean. Colony begins with a clip from an old documentary on bee colonies, which describes the colonies as perfectly operating systems in which “there is no individualism,” and “the state controls everything.” The colony operates as one brain, this old film tells us; it is ruthless. Bees practice population control based on environmental conditions. The colony is completely efficient. The voice-over narration goes on and one, inviting comparison to human societies in which humans don’t look very successful after all.

Then we meet the Seppi family, beginning with the two sons, a pair of entrepreneurial young men who lead the family’s farming and beekeeping efforts. They are by far the youngest beekeepers in this industry, and their involvement is promising to those who recognize that the beekeepers are sort of a dying breed. (The average age of beekeepers is around 60 years old, according to McDonnell.) So far, so good, they totally have my support.

But then we meet the rest of the family, and learn (primarily from the mother) about how the parents have structured their family and have decided to pour all of their resources into this business for the benefit of the two sons’ beekeeping operation. All of the kids – there are seven of them, from what I could tell – have to work in the beekeeping business; and in the film it becomes apparent that the family is organized like a hive. All nine people in the family have to work towards this same goal. At their head is the real “queen bee,” Mom, who habitually berates her eldest son for his poor decisions and poor financial acumen. She beats him up (figuratively) with verbal attacks like “how are you going to support your wife and your kids?” (a frequent harangue). The son is like 19 or 20 years old, mind you, and is not even married, let alone with kids.

At the source of the family’s dysfunction is a religious mania which loosely passes as Christianity, but it’s no Christian sect that I’m familiar with. It advocates an extreme form of patriarchy, in which the interests and the futures of the female children are neglected, and women have no place in public life at all (except to go to church. The mom is always telling her son how to negotiate with the farmers, but when he says to her, “Why don’t YOU tell them?” she replies “That’s not my job, that’s your job.” As if only men are supposed to transact business? I don’t get it.

One of the daughters is interviewed, and she tells us, “I didn’t really want to be a beekeeper, but ‘honor thy father,’ right? If it’s what Dad wants to do, I should go along with it to honor him.” When the same girl describes bee society she explains that it’s a matriarchy, “but they couldn’t do it without the males. Feminists need to be reminded of that.” Poor child, I suspect she’s never even met a feminist; and she’s incapable of seeing that the patriarchy in which she lives (through no fault of her own) does not have her interests at heart.

Their religion lulls them into a certain naivete, too; at one mealtime prayer, one of the daughters asks God “to give John Boy a business education this year.” God doesn’t give a business education, business schools give a business education. And after a tough telephone negotiation over price, the young man indignantly exclaims, “and he’s a Christian!,” as if he expects Christians somehow to behave differently with regard to their economic interests than other people do.

Somehow I suspect that the filmmakers have set these people up to look like a freak show; but when I asked McDonnell about that, he of course completely disavowed anything but admiration and respect for the Seppis. Predictably, he proudly asserted that “these people deserve to have their story told!,” but he did not answer my question, “what do the Ten Commandments have to do with beekeeping?” (At a certain point in the film we see a video lecture on the Ten Commandments play on the television while John Boy is asleep on the sofa. What I gather from the Q&A is that McDonnell and Gunn did set up that scene, which was part of a videotape they found at the Seppis’ church; it didn't belong to the Seppis and wasn’t their normal viewing material.)

At this point in reading my blog post, can you still remember what the film ostensibly set out to do? Colony Collapse Disorder? The expert talking heads? I can barely remember it myself, I’m so wearied by slogging through the Seppis’ religious ideology. This is the problem with the film: these two halves don’t really work well together, in my opinion. I signed up to see a documentary about bees, not a documentary about religious fanatics. And further, if I HAD signed up to see a documentary about religious fanatics like the Seppis, there are a lot more questions I would have, that the filmmakers failed to address, such as what planet are they from, anyway? What cult do they belong to? And what kind of future do they envision for their daughters, the ones who seem to be completely neglected in this whole family enterprise? The parents lose $20,000 per year on the business, so why don’t they use that money to send John Boy and the other kids to college instead?

My question to the director was not well received by the audience, who seemed to expect the festival’s usual worshipful attitude towards visiting directors. When I left the theater, I overheard a young woman talking about me, complaining to her friends about “this woman”; so I went and talked to her. She was outraged – indignant – about my question to the director. She said that just because the film was badly edited was no reason for me to be angry. So I asked her, “what do the Ten Commandments have to do with beekeeping?” and she said “probably nothing,” but that I shouldn’t have to asked the director a question like that “in front of the whole documentary audience.” I admit that my comments went on a little too long, but I never said I was angry, I said I was “uncomfortable.” I also find it somewhat amusing that young people in Missouri (the age of our students) are themselves so embarrassed by any kind of conflict or public disagreement that they “feel sorry” for the director! Like I said to this young woman, “he can handle it.” People don’t become film directors and put their work “out there” if they can’t handle criticism from one measly film viewer.

Then there was a comment on my blog from an anonymous individual, as follows:

Word on the street is that one of your questions at a post-movie debriefing made Twitter:

If you're reluctant to click through, I'll ctrl+v it:

"Why would you film them? I don't like them. You must like them." Worst question I've heard at a q&a. Have you never seen a doc film?

Since the item reported on Twitter has nothing to do with my actual question, and the person who posted it on my blog evidently wasn’t even present at the screening (probably doesn’t even know which film it was!), I can only conclude that Twitter is the last refuge of people unable to listen, think, or analyze information. (Other evidence further suggests it’s also the last refuge of people unable to spell or to write.) There’s no point in expecting they will read my side of the story, because this blog post probably exceeds their attention span capabilities.

True/False Films from China and Mexico

Disorder, dir. Huang Weikai, China, 66 min.

Another one of my favorite films from this year’s festival was the Chinese film Disorder. Director Huang Weikai weaves together 26 “little stories,” themselves the works of amateur videographers, which Weikai collected during 2007 and 2008. Together they provide a glimpse of everyday life in China’s overcrowded cities. The initial montage combines films shot at night, and the second part of the film (the majority of it) are scenes shot in the daytime. All were shot in grainy black-and-white digital media, and all capture the chaos to which the film’s title refers.

In the Q&A following the film, the director talked about China’s rapid urban growth at the expense of the environment, and “all the ridiculous things that are happening,” which the film captures. He said that Chinese viewers of the film find its images very familiar, because “these are things that happen in everyday life that you see all around you” – scenes like an abandoned baby, which the camera spends a great deal of time on, but whom none of the bystanders pick up and rescue from its surroundings, which are covered with litter. The baby is regarded as so much trash – a human being abandoned in a throw-away world.

Not much less disturbing is the man lying in the middle of a busy road at night, while the driver and passenger of a car that ostensibly hit him alternately berate him and offer him money to leave. They insist his “injuries” are an act, that they didn’t hit him, and that they’ve seen this scam before. We don’t know the truth – the camera didn’t capture the initial incident – and like the crowd that eventually gathers, we have to decide whom to believe. For an American viewer, the driver seems callous and heartless; but in the later montage we see an apparently homeless man wandering through traffic, as if waiting to get hit by a car so he can, perhaps, extort money from some unfortunate driver.

Human interaction with nature (such as it is) – with the river, with animals – struck me as odd and jarring much of the time. The spectacle of a truckload of pigs that have escaped onto a highway, with truckers and police trying to capture them and reload them, would surely create a major traffic disturbance anywhere in the world. Bear paws in a dumpster, a pangolin in a cage, are both quite puzzling. A man trying to fish in a sewage ditch seems to have a futile task, but eventually he does catch some fish. The poverty, hunger, and environmental degradation have created extremely dire circumstances for many, like the people whose entire neighborhood (both houses and streets) has flooded because of poor drainage, so that they have to walk down the street in knee-deep water. A crocodile has been found in the city, and it attracts a large crowd as men capture and remove it; it attracts much more attention than the abandoned infant.

Many scenes represent interactions with the police; initially the police seem like a benign, though often ineffective, force; they feed the homeless man who’s been wandering on the highway, they advocate for better treatment for the pigs; they try to negotiate a fair resolution to a dispute over money. But at the end of the film we see a demonstration of police brutality towards an individual, which leads to a near-riot as onlookers get involved and object to the police’s actions. What amazed me the most was the courage of those bystanders willing to get involved, which must be especially difficult under an authoritarian regime. Add to that the courage of the amateur videographers to capture these events on film; and the courage of Huang Weikai to put his name to it and take it around China to film festivals and universities.

Like It Felt Like a Kiss, Disorder involved some pretty amazing film editing work. If anything, Disorder is even more experimental and avant-garde than It Felt Like a Kiss because there is no overarching narrative – no voice-over and no subtitles – to tie it together. The audience has no help from the director in making sense of this seemingly random “found footage.”

Last Train Home, dir. Lixin Fan, China, 87 min.

Also from China, Last Train Home focuses on the economic desperation of families separated by the parents’ need to earn money working in urban factories, while their children stay home in the country with their grandmother. I missed the first half hour of this film, so I’m not in a position to write a review of it, but what I did see was pretty amazing. The train ride home is a nightmarish ordeal, in which seemingly hundreds of thousands of people crowd into a train station where they wait for days to board the train. The children of these poor uneducated workers suffer emotionally from the absence of their parents, and the parents suffer too, but are willing to sacrifice so much so that their children can have a better life. Yet the parents’ constant pressure takes its toll on the children; the older one rebels and quits school; the younger one brings home his school report and the parents say “Fifth in the class? That’s not good enough; last year you were third.”

Those Who Remain, dir. Juan Carlos Rulfo and Carlos Hagerman, Mexico, 96 min.

Poverty’s devastating effect on families is also seen in Those Who Remain, a sweet and poignant film about the families left behind by husbands and fathers who leave Mexico to work in the United States, often for years at a time. The film interweaves the stories of 11 families from all over Mexico. Some men have benefitted substantially from their economic gains, while others have paid with their lives. But in nearly all cases, the fathers’ absences leave the children very sad. We get to know these families, all of whom the filmmakers treat with compassion and respect. The film takes its time, and as American viewers we see a very different aspect of Mexican culture that undermines all the anti-immigrant rhetoric that we are unfortunately bombarded with in our own political climate.

My Favorite True/False Films

It Felt Like a Kiss, dir. Adam Curtis, 67 min.

Adam Curtis, whose earlier True/False Film Festival entry was The Power of Nightmares (2005), this time has brought a film he describes as much more experimental than his usual style: It Felt Like a Kiss is a frenetic, hour-long nonstop montage of historical footage, pop music, and social, cultural and political critique of America and its role in the world in the 1950s and ‘60s. Rock Hudson and Doris Day frame this story of America’s national psychosis: at home, misogyny, domestic violence, homophobia; abroad, CIA-sponsored coups, the effects of which have been felt most strongly decades later. Curtis’ premise is that every day, thousands of events happen to thousands of people; at the time they may appear meaningless, but later we tell the stories. History looks very different in retrospect.

The film has no voice-over narration; instead there are some (very crucial) subtitles, but the images mainly stand on their own. Curtis uses the montage technique to great effect, with radical juxtapositions: shocking footage of a child receiving electroshock therapy, followed by footage of Andy Warhol joking with a cameraman. The child receiving electroshock was one of the most horrific images I’ve seen in a film – it’s practically like watching a snuff film. The idea that parents would subject their child to such treatment – which was prescribed to him as a cure for “homosexual feelings” – is unimaginable. That American society was so barbaric as to permit this treatment is tragic. This is part of the meaning behind Rock Hudson appearing so prominently in the film, à la Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (the queer reading of Rock). We are then told that Lou Reed, future lead singer of the Velvet Undergrounds, received electroshock therapy at age 17 for just such a “sickness;” he reported that it left him unable to feel empathy.

Here’s another shocking secret about American culture: the title of Curtis’ film is taken from the title of a song by Carole King, which was written about her babysitter Eva who was being regularly beaten by her boyfriend. “He hit me…and it felt like a kiss.” The song is about domestic violence as an expression of love. Eva became “Little Eva” and had her own hit song, “The Locomotion.” And Tina Turner wanted to have a hit song so she could have a solo career and escape being beaten by her husband. The film is interspersed with scenes from the Miss America pageant, cosmetics ads, a woman talking about “sex appeal,” women reacting to simulated violence, and repeated imagery of a little girl (4 or 5 years old) strutting back and forth as if practicing for a beauty pageant while Mom smiles on (and Dad is presumably behind the camera).

The Manson family, Richard Nixon, and Enos the Chimp – the first chimp to orbit the earth – are all tied in as well. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys admitted to hearing “loud shrieking screams” in his head, which he could only drown out by writing happy songs; and Nixon admitted to seeking psycho therapy to treat “feelings of doom.” The director of CIA’s covert operations went mad and killed himself. All the stigma against mental illness and those who seek help was, perhaps, a contributing factor in America’s insane foreign policy of the Vietnam years. I felt a great deal of empathy for Nixon, believe it or not, as I watched this film.

All this montage is held together with an upbeat soundtrack of rock, folk, and pop music, including songs from Motown, Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Frank Sinatra, Roy Orbison, the Beach Boys, and Peggy Lee. As strange as the song "It Felt Like a Kiss" is, Peggy Lee's song "Is That All There Is?" is even more bizarre; it captures the extreme psychological detachment of this period "right before the hippies came in," as Curtis likes to say. This was one of my favorite films at this year’s True/False Film Festival, and I liked it so much that I watched it twice. But don’t look for this film to get distributed; Curtis made is as part of an enormous art installation that was put on in Manchester, England, where it was at the center of an interactive art exhibition / “experience” that sounds pretty wild. (Curtis described it to the audience before each screening here in Columbia.) The installation belonged to the genre he calls “immersive theater.” He also said that he made the film “for his own amusement,” and I heard that he has not sought permission to use any of the music. It’s a shame, but this probably won’t be shown much in the U.S.; in fact, this festival appearance was the first time it’s been shown outside of Manchester.

And Everything Is Going Fine, dir. Steven Soderbergh, 89 min.

My favorite film at the festival was And Everything Is Going Fine, the documentary about monologist and actor Spalding Gray, who committed suicide in January 2004, two years after a serious car accident left him in a state of permanent physical and mental pain. According to his wife, Kathy Russo, he had attempted suicide 8 times in those two years. The film does not focus on the tragedy of his life’s end, but rather on the brilliant life and career of this amazing individual.

If you are a Spalding Gray fan, you have to see this film; it’s amazing. We see Spalding Gray “up close and personal,” as they say, telling us the story of his life, in his own words and in his own inimitable style. The film combines clips from his performances as well as interviews conducted for the film. We learn about this shy, awkward kid, middle son of a loving but repressed family, and the mother’s tragic struggle with mental illness. For that reason the film resonated for me with It Felt Like a Kiss; the tragedy of our culture’s inability to understand and care for depression and mental illness has had such tragic effects. For Spalding Gray, this meant he spent the rest of his life trying to make sense of his mother’s emotional detachment and suicide; we see his obsession with suicide in these interviews. Gray made a career based on revealing and exploring his own neuroses, which he succeeds in making compelling to others, primarily through his humor.

For me, And Everything Is Going Fine also resonated with other films at the festival, particularly Enemies of the People, the Cambodian documentary about the genocide of 1975-1979, because Gray acted in the film The Killing Fields (dir. Roland Joffe, 1984), and in one of his monologues, Swimming to Cambodia (dir. Jonathan Demme, 1987), Gray described his experiences making the film.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

True/False Film Festival 2010

It’s here again, the 7th annual True/False Festival of documentary filmmaking, which is surely the highlight of life in Columbia, Missouri. It may be the one event that draws people from out of town and out of state who are NOT Mizzou alumni coming to watch a football game. Every year I think about how I should try to convince my out-of-town friends to come next time, but then I never remember to do so; so if you’re reading this blog entry, consider yourself invited for 2011.

The first two films I saw in the festival included scenes of chickens being slaughtered – first in Cambodia, and then in Iraq. Coincidence? I have now sat through nine films so far, and there haven’t been any more chicken slaughters. Tomorrow I’m going to see four more films, and I’ll let you know what happens.

Enemies of the People, dir. Thet Sambath and Rob Lemkin, 93 min.

One common theme among documentary films is heroism. Filmmakers choose a heroic subject – or are themselves heroic – and reveal to us over an hour and a half or two hours what this person has done that is extraordinary. The first such film I saw was Enemies of the People, which documented the one-man peace-and-reconciliation program that Thet Sambath has undertaken in Cambodia. Sambath, a Cambodian journalist, has devoted some 10 years of his life to finding the killers from Cambodia’s “Killing Fields” under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime. His own father died in the Killing Fields; his mother was then forced to marry a Khmer Rouge soldier, and his brother was taken away by them and never seen again. Sambath befriended these men, gained their trust by treating them with respect, and elicited their stories in their own words. He poured all his weekends and all his resources into this project; at one point he said, “my wife has no money for food this week because it’s all going into the project.”

Sambath became friends with Nuon Chea, the top surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge; Pol Pot was known as “Brother Number One,” and Nuon Chea as “Brother Number Two.” From this man, as well as from Communist party members at the bottom of the chain of authority, the audience gets confessions, expressions of remorse, and apologies. It is very moving.

Rob Lemkin is a British journalist who went to Cambodia to cover the U.N. trial of Nuon Chea; he discovered Sambath and his project, and became involved in it himself. The crowd on Thursday night gave Sambath a standing ovation for the important work he’s been conducting. Enemies of the People is the True/Life Fund Film for this year’s True/False Film Festival, meaning that the festival collects money from festival-goers to donate to the subject of the film.

My Country, My Country, dir. Laura Poitras, 90 min.

The next film on my festival agenda was My Country, My Country, the 2007 film directed by Laura Poitras, winner of this year’s True Vision Award from the True/False gang. Her new film, The Oath, I got to see on Saturday night, but on Friday I got to go to the much more intimate screening of the first film in her trilogy about “America after 9/11.” My Country, My Country is set in Baghdad and chronicles the life of Dr. Riyadh and his family in the time leading up to the January 2005 Iraqi elections (two years after the U.S. invasion). As Poitras describes it, the film is about “civilians paying the price for the United States occupation.” But Dr. Riyadh is not just an ordinary person; he’s a medical doctor who volunteers at a free clinic, and he was on the ballot in those elections.

Laura Poitras herself is also a hero in my eyes. She was an embedded reporter in Iraq, but spent a lot of time “unembedded,” outside the American “Green Zone” following the story of Dr. Riyadh. She lived at the Riyadh’s home, and became close to the family – Mrs. Riyadh and their six children – and was able to film intimate family life.

I loved this film. It’s too bad there was only one screening at the festival, because more people should have seen it, but the festival’s focus is on showing new documentaries. Each year, the festival shows one older film by the winner of the True Vision Award in addition to that person’s new work.

The Oath, dir. Laura Poitras, 95 min.

Unlike My Country, My Country, the second film in Poitras’ trilogy, The Oath, does not feature a hero, but rather one of America’s enemies. Abu Jandal is the former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, now living in Yemen with his family and driving a taxi. He recruited his brother in-law to join Al Qaeda, and his brother in-law spent seven years in Guatanamo Bay prison, after Abu Jandal named him in FBI interrogation conducted at the Yemeni prison where Abu Jandal was imprisoned for two years on suspicion of the terrorist attack on the USS Cole.

Poitras said she set out to make a film about Guantanamo, but this film is shot primarily in Yemen. It is an exceptional film – as Poitras said in the Q&A, we are living in complicated times, and we need to have more complex conversations. In The Oath, Poitras really does a remarkable job of recording this man’s vast knowledge of the Al Qaeda operation as well as his thoughts on terrorism – which he rejects. He says he does not believe in taking innocent life, and did not participate in any terrorist operations, though he clearly sympathizes with their political views. In Yemen’s prison system, Abu Jandal participated in a program called The Dialogue Project, which was intended to reprogram Islamic jihadist. Using dialogue and talking about the Koran, workers in The Dialogue Project convince these men – apparently successfully – that violent political acts committed in the name of religion are, in fact, NOT condoned under Islam. I was surprised to learn that Yemen has such a program. In fact, the program helps these men find jobs after prison, and they gave Abu Jandal the money he needed to buy a taxi.

The film also followed the trial of Abu Jandal’s brother in-law, who won a landmark Supreme Court case, and who was eventually returned to Yemen. He refused to be interviewed for the film, and we never meet him, but we do meet his heroic attorney, and it is good to see the efforts of some Americans to preserve justice in a period in history when there’s so much injustice. Now I’m eager for Laura Poitras’ next film; if it's as good at My Country, My Country and The Oath, we're going to learn a lot from it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Battle Between Lent and Mardi Gras

The battle between Carême (Lent) and Mardi Gras (from a 17th-century print).
Source: Larousse Gastronomique, 1961

I found a copy of the Larousse Gastronomique at my grandmother's house in Woodstock when I was visiting last month, and she generously gave it to me. I am in love with this book! My favorite genre of books (one of them, anyway) is books pertaining to food, which includes cookbooks and reference books on the subject. The Larousse Gastronomique is one of the most wide-ranging encyclopedias on food, food history, and food preparation ever published. I love it because reading about food is really reading about culture. Imagine 20 encyclopedia pages on "Offal" -- every type of "variety meats" and how to prepare them.

Since Mardi Gras is almost upon us, I bring you this entry on Lent from the Larousse Gastronomique:

Forty days fast imposed by the Catholic religion, from Ash Wednesday till Easter. This period of fasting in the early Church had excellent physical effects by imposing on the digestive system, worn out by gastronomic excess during the winter season, a salutary rest.

Brillat-Savarin tells us that towards the middle of the eighteenth century the normal regime in bourgeois families consisted of four meals:

Breakfast, taking place before nine in the morning, consisting of bread, cheese, fruit, sometimes a pâté or cold meat. (The habit of drinking coffee had not yet penetrated into provincial life.)

Dinner, which took place between twelve and one, with soup, the boiled meat of the pot-au-feu, with vegetable accompaniments according to the season.

Around four o'clock there was a light meal enjoyed as a rule by the ladies of the household and the children.

Supper was at eight o'clock, with entree, roast, side dishes, salad and dessert.

During Lent breakfast was suppressed, meat was excluded from the menu at dinner, and in the evening supper was replaced by a meal which contained no eggs, butter, or anything of a live nature.

The real test of culinary art was, according to this genial gastronome, to create a rigorously apostolic meal which had all the appearance of an excellent supper.

Little by little, the Church relaxed its original severity and permitted the use of butter and eggs and, later, the flesh of 'cold-blooded' animals, such as fish and, still later, certain aquatic game considered to be cold-blooded , such as the spoon-bill, scoter-duck, moorhen, coot, teal, water-rail, curlew, heron, godwit and sand-piper.

A Lenten meal could also include an impressive list of sumptuous removes, entrees, and roasts.

Understood in these terms the Lenten diet does not differ from normal diet, from the health point of view.