Category Archives: Film

Fighting to Get Back to the Sea

As it’s been just over one month since I flew home “for good,” I’ve started looking back on some of the adventures I’ve had and the people I’ve met over the last year and a half. I discovered this video that The United Church of Canada created from the video and interviews I did in Tamil Nadu last year, of the work of UCCan partner the Human Rights Advocacy and Research Foundation. It’s just one example of some of the amazing work I was privileged to witness along my journey. Take a look!

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An Easter Message from El Salvador

Now you can get a little taste of what I’ve been doing in my contracted work with The United Church of Canada while I’ve been travelling.

Last week, I spent the days leading up to Palm Sunday in El Salvador with a delegation from The United Church of Canada that included Moderator Jordan Cantwell and her partner Laura Fouhse (who are both awesome, in my humble opinion). Yesterday, the end product of some of my work was published on UCCan’s Youtube channel, and while I of course see places where I could improve, I think it’s pretty frickin good considering I was on my own doing everything from conception of B roll, filming, directing, photos, etc.

And for my French speaking friends/fans (you know who you are), here’s the video with French subtitles:

Happy Easter everyone!!

Selma: The Must-See Movie this Holiday Season

“I felt like God told me I would play this part,” David Oyelowo told a crowd of Torontonians at TIFF Bell Lightbox earlier this month. When he was 7 years old, he wrote an entry in his prayer diary that one day he would portray Martin Luther King Jr.

That dream became a reality with the production of Selma, Ava DuVernay’s latest film venture. The young director – tipped to be the first Black female director ever nominated for an Oscar – has only been making films for the past 5 years. “I’m just getting started,” she says.

And what a start – Selma is an ambitiously successful depiction of King’s vision of a civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.

“This film couldn’t be more relevant right now,” TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey said as he hosted a post-viewing Q&A.

A month after the 32-day shoot wrapped on Selma, Michael Brown was shot dead. It was a “cultural moment that echoed through the world,” DuVernay told the crowd. DuVernay sees similarities between the cultural moment of Selma and that of Ferguson. We say “Ferguson,” she explained, and not the name of the person killed (like we did with Rodney King or Trayvon Martin). Just like with Selma.

Oyelowo further made the parallels between 1965 and today. As the film portrays, Black people were unfairly judged by a jury of their “peers,” who were, in many places, all White because you had to be registered to vote to be on a jury and only White people could register to vote. Even after the law began to change, it was extremely difficult for Black people to register. In some jurisdictions, an already-registered voter (and all of them being White) had to vouch for you before you could vote.

Today, Oyelowo explained, we have a situation in which local prosecutors are supposed to be the people who indict the police officers accused of unlawfully shooting or restraining the Black men in these cases, and they’re not going to do that because that would discredit their past cases. “We need to press the issue that there needs to be change,” he said.

DuVernay said that she feels like there’s a reason there hasn’t been a film centred on Martin Luther King Jr in the fifty years since the march from Selma to Montgomery occurred.

“The time is now. It feels like the right time,” she explained.

It nearly wasn’t like that. As both Oyelowo and DuVernay attested, the original script was much more focused on President Lyndon B. Johnson, portrayed by the amazing Tom Wilkinson. As usual, the story was told through White eyes, Oyelowo sighed. “I love White people, by the way,” he jokingly assured the audience. “It’s ok.”

But this film is not about White people, nor should it be – we have enough of those. It’s about Black people, told by Black people.

“Watching the film, there were moments when I couldn’t breathe,” a member of the audience told Oyelowo and DuVernay, referring to both the filmmaking and the story. For the film doesn’t shy away from the more brutal aspects of the civil rights movement – one of the first scenes depicts the infamous moment that four little girls were killed by a bomb in a Birmingham Church. It’s horrifically beautiful – the cinematography by Bradford Young, mesmerising.

This style was very purposeful. A Phantom Camera – high speed, super slow motion – was used in four scenes throughout the film, at a point of high emotional impact. DuVernay chose this style to make the audience really watch what was happening. “It was very intentional, to force you to look at this,” she explained. Rather than when, in real life, the horrors of the world can get so overwhelming that we tune them out.

This isn’t the first time Oyelowo and DuVernay have worked together. Nor, does it seem, will it be their last. Bailey brought up the idea of a muse, with DuVernay agreeing that that is exactly what Oyelowo is to her.

“A muse doesn’t just have to be an older gentleman and a hot young blonde,” she quipped.

Selma opens in limited release on Christmas Day before opening wider on January 9. Go see it.

Freedom is like religion to us
Justice is juxtaposition in us
Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
One son died, his spirit is revisitin’ us
Truant livin’ livin’ in us, resistance is us
That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down” and we stand up
Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up
King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up

One day, when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
Oh, one day, when the war is won
We will be sure, we will be here sure
Oh, glory, glory
Oh, glory, glory glory

– Lyrics from the song “Glory” by John Legend and Common (who also appears in the film), which plays over Selma‘s end credits

Hot Docs: Bintou

It’s never a good sign when the Q&A is exponentially more interesting than the actual movie. On Friday, the first movie I saw was Bintou, a film about a young seamstress in Burkina Faso who works mainly for white ex-pats.

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The poster for the movie

I was interested in this movie because I, as a white Westerner, have gone to Africa and had clothing made for pretty cheap prices. I recognized myself in parts of the movie.White people don’t haggle over prices, for example, Bintou explains. No, we don’t, because they’re so much cheaper than what we’re used to.

But the movie itself fell fairly flat. The director, Simone Catharina Gaul, said they’d shot about 80 hours of footage and edited it down to this one hour. It was basically about Bintou’s life, the unusual living situation with her daughter, and the “secret” around her daughter’s birth, which is never fully revealed. What I would’ve wanted – and this is what I saw in most of the excellent movies at Hot Docs I saw this year – was the social commentary.

When I was in Zambia, I bought a bunch of fabric in the local market (my host, my former boss who has retired back to her homeland of Zambia, actually told me to stop buying fabric at one point, half-jokingly. But it was all just so beautiful). Then we went to a seamstress that my host and her family used quite often, and who they bring tourists to, and I had a few outfits made. And they’re beautiful. But I don’t know anything about this woman except for, really, her name. Margaret.

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My suitcase of clothes made by Margaret

During the Q&A, Gaul spoke about the white ex-pats who go to seamstresses like Bintou and don’t seem to be interested in the people who make these clothes. The Westerners are just going to get a dress for $6, as she puts it. They wanted to give Bintou a voice – which is why they gave her her own video camera to shoot her own footage, which also appears in the film.

Gaul also spoke about some of the difficulties of filming in the country. In West Africa, she explained, people are suspicious of WHite people taking photos or videos because of previous bad experiences. They’ve experienced people taking photos and then suddenly when they go back to their home countries and need something to illustrate “HIV in Africa” or “starvation in Africa,” any photo with Black people in it will do.

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Fabric in a Lusaka market

But none of these very important issues came through in the film. It was a nice little story about a young woman in Burkina Faso, but there was no “oomph”; it wasn’t compelling. And from what I heard on my way out of the theatre, others agreed with me.

Oh well. They can’t all be gems.

Verdict: 3/5

Hot Docs: Watchers of the Sky

On Tuesday night, I saw an amazing documentary called Watchers of the Sky. It was about the history of genocide and pays particular attention to Raphael Lemkin, the “unsung hero” who coined the term “genocide” and pushed for it to be recognized as a global crime by the United Nations.

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The director, Edet Belzbeg, approached the film from the perspective of four main characters – Samantha Power, US ambassador to the United Nations; Luis Moreno Ocampo, former Chief Prosecutor with the International Criminal Court; Benjamin Ferencz, a prosecutor at Nuremberg; and Emmanuel Uwurukundo, a Rwandan UN refugee officer working in Chad. The fifth character, who has inspired them all and knits the narrative together, is Raphael Lemkin.

It was a movie that had a lot of resonance for me. I’d been to Butare in Rwanda, where some of the scenes with Emmanuel Uwurukundo were filmed. While working for Aegis Trust in London, UK, one of the alleged war criminals we “tracked” was Ratko Mladić, who was largely responsible for the massacre at Srebrenica and who features in this film in archival footage. And of course, I’ve loved Samantha Power’s book, A Problem from Hell, which was the inspiration for this film.

Technically, there was one thing that distracted me in the film – the use of subtitles for people speaking English (who had accents), but not consistently. Sometimes the subtitles would only be used for parts of the sentence, for example. It was a bit weird.

But another technical element that did impress me was the use of original archival footage, including a lot of footage that I’d never seen before, especially from the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

This film raised a lot of questions for me in a mind that hasn’t had a lot of opportunity lately to delve into this kind of content and intellectual activity. One thing that struck me while watching the film is when Ocampo speaks about the disappearances in Argentina and how “the numbers weren’t there for genocide.”

But do the numbers really matter?

This reminded me of the time I met Stephen Lewis after an event honouring his wife, the incredible journalist Michele Landsberg. We got to talking about Rwanda, and I told him about the research I did for my Masters dissertation, on the rights of children conceived through rape during the Rwandan genocide. At one point we started talking numbers – number of children, etc –  and I said something like, “Well, some NGOs estimate that if about 250,000 women were raped during the genocide…”

He interrupted me to ask, “Do you really believe that number?”

I was taken aback by this question. I hadn’t really thought about it before; I’d just taken it for granted. Yes, of course we should question numbers and try to get truthful statistics. But at the same time, does it matter what the numbers were? Is 25,000 women raped not enough? What about 5,000? What about 1? In terms of defining something as a genocide, the numbers don’t matter. It is about the intent to destroy, “in whole or in part,” a particular group of people.

Numbers don’t mean anything to the individual human beings on the ground, living through these situations.

In the same vein, it doesn’t necessarily matter to the victims if what they are experiencing is termed a genocide, or ethnic cleansing, or war crimes, or crimes against humanity. Or all of the above. Or none of the above.

Still, Raphael Lemkin worked so hard to have the concept of the crime of genocide codified in international law. And that is not insignificant. Sadly, he died alone, waiting for a bus, from a heart attack. Less than a dozen people attended his funeral. Nowadays, everyone knows the term “genocide,” yet we are often bogged down in semantics, arguing what is or is not a genocide. Often so that we – or our country – doesn’t have any obligation to intervene.

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My worn copy of “A Problem from Hell”

There were shortcomings in this film. I would’ve liked to see a more nuanced perspective regarding the International Criminal Court. Following the Lubanga trial, for example, a few years ago, I saw what I interpreted to be blatant incompetence on the part of Ocampo and his colleagues on two separate occasions (perhaps that’s a story for another post). But a film can’t show everything – it needs to have a narrative, and it’s purpose is to make an argument.

This film was about connecting the dots. About making connections and seeing patterns, so that we can perhaps stop similar atrocities from taking place in the future. Lemkin knew how to recognize these patterns – the film speaks about his obsession with learning about historical acts of genocide, starting with the Armenian genocide. When things started getting bad in Europe, Lemkin went to warn his parents, begging them to leave with him for the United States (he arrived in 1941). But they refused to leave – not seeing that a government or army would want anything to do with them, this elderly couple in the Polish countryside. In the end, Lemkin lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust.

There was a beautiful narrative arch in this film – from Raphael Lemkin and his persistent attempts to have the UN recognize the crime of genocide to that of a modern day Lemkin, Benjamin Ferencz (the former prosecutor at Nuremberg) who is now similarly lobbying countries at the UN to recognize the crime of aggression in terms of war.

The film ends with Ferencz tearing up as he tells the story of an astronomer years ago who “watched the sky.” He spent 25 years observing the stars, trying to find the secret of the universe, and he didn’t. Someone asks him why he keeps doing it – when he will stop. After all, he already has 90 logbooks full of his observations. “I’ll stop when I hit 100,” he replies. “Why? What for? What are you achieving?” the inquirer asks. “We build on top of each others’ work. Maybe,” he explains, “I’m saving someone down the line 25 years of work.”

That, my friends, is the stuff of legends.

Verdict: 4.5/5.0

Hot Docs: Children 404

I feel I am human.

– Justin/Pasha on living in Toronto for the past 6 months

Child 404 Logo; source: Wikimedia Commons

Children 404 Logo; source: Wikimedia Commons

The second movie I saw yesterday was Children 404. Another heavy movie, but one well worth the watch. A film by Pavel Loparev and Askold Kurov, and co-presented by Cinema Politica, Children 404 tells the story of LGBTQ youth in Russia, a population made even more invisible by the country’s recent “gay propaganda” law. The film focuses on the stories told through the Children 404 project – an online community started by Elena Klimova, a Russian journalist who wrote a series of articles on LGBTQ youth in Russia last March. It is called Children 404 after the “Error 404 – Page Not Found” on the Internet, the idea being that these children are invisible in Russia, that some people don’t believe they even exist. So they are reclaiming their identity – bolding proclaiming “We’re here and we’re queer” (though maybe not in so many words).

In these months after the Sochi Olympics, the situation of LGBTQ rights in Russia has fallen somewhat off the radar. Even when it was on the international agenda, rarely did LGBTQ-identified youth have a voice in the mainstream media. And so it was incredibly interesting and important to hear from these youth themselves. We heard from a boy who lives in Sochi and describes it as a very homophobic city, who is humiliated every day and had to move from his mother’s house to another district where no one knew him. According to the directors, he doesn’t think anything has changed since the Olympics.

There were stories of youth being thrown out of their homes, of mothers telling their children that they wished they’d miscarried rather than give birth to a sick monster like them. There were stories of social workers and therapists blaming the LGBTQ youth for their own harassment – telling them, for example, that it is because they hate the homophobes that the homophobes hate them back. And that if they loved them, they would receive love in return <insert collective groan from the audience>. Elena and her partner share a bit of their story as well, and about how they were both fired from their job when their relationship became known.

The film also follows Pasha, a 19-year-old young man who is planning to move to Toronto to learn English, become a journalist, and realize his dream of having a family with a male partner. The scene where he sings the Canadian national anthem in his broken English (“We stand on guard for free!!” he sings joyously) inside Lenin’s Mausoleum is one of my favourites.

Pasha’s family is one of the only supportive ones we see in the film. His mother is incredibly loving and protective, and even his somewhat racist (they talk about him having “black children” with a “black woman” in Toronto, who they will then take fishing, etc) grandparents know about his sexuality and actively love him just the same. It made me tear up. A lot made me tear up.

But what really got me was when the Q&A reached its second or third question and it was revealed that Pasha was in the audience, as many of us suspected and hoped. As he came up to the stage, he received a long standing ovation. It was powerful.

He now somewhat jokingly goes by “Justin” as well, an homage to Justin Bieber (who Pasha mournfully refers to as “straight” in the film).

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The Directors with Justin/Pasha (second from the left) during the Q&A

The words “fag” and “faggot” are used quite liberally throughout the film, as we witness the harassment taking place firsthand. It’s a jarring word, and one that I don’t usually encounter in everyday life. One of the most incredible things Pasha does during the film is create a poster regarding a social living index (I’m unsure which one he uses) that reads something along the lines of “Russia is 66th and you can’t be gay here. Canada is 2nd and gays can get married. Maybe we should start focusing on the important things?” He then stands in what I believe is the Red Square in Moscow, enduring the ensuing taunts. One man spits on him and calls him that horrible F word; both are brought to the police station and both are eventually released, Pasha believes, because the police did not want to deal with the other guy.

Many of the questions during the Q&A involved what we could do, here in Toronto, for LGBTQ youth in Russia. All three men – the directors and Justin/Pasha – said that talking about this issue is the most important thing we can do. “You can help us by talking about it,” Justin/Pasha explains. “The problem of children 404 is that society wants to pretend they don’t exist, so we need to bring them out into the open.”

Justin/Pasha will be at World Pride this summer. He is one of the lucky ones, able to get out of Russia. As he repeatedly tells the audience, it’s impossible for 99% of these teenagers to move to a country like Canada. They need money, they need a visa. He hopes that the Canadian government will learn about the issues facing Children 101 and will begin to support them in immigrating.

Last night was the international premier; it was an honour to be one of the first audiences to see this impressive documentary. It did have a small showing in Moscow earlier, the directors told us. It must’ve been only days ago, as they also said they finished the film only the week before. As the screening in Moscow was about to start, Orthodox activists broke into the room with weapons and police, trying to find minors and accuse the non-minors there of gay propaganda. The police checked everyone’s documents; there were no minors there, and the audience chanted “We want to see the film” while the search went on. The directors don’t know what the repercussions will be for having produced this film; they don’t know if it will become banned in Russia. Children 404 became available online last night in Russia, after the screening took place in Toronto. Hopefully many Russians will see it; hopefully it will have an impact.

As Elena said in the film, changes in society’s viewpoints are inevitable. 60 years ago, things were much different in the USA, she says, referring to racial segregation in the South. “And what is 60 years? Only 2 generations!” she exclaims. Elena sees a future as an elderly woman, when children will wonder in amazement at the idea that gay people were discriminated against in her country. Her hope is inspiring – I too believe it is inevitable, but for the sake of the Russian youth struggling today, I pray it comes sooner rather than later.

Verdict: 5.0/5.0

Check it out – there’s three more screenings!

in other news…

Check out the video I created about the connection between fossil fuels and human rights, when I was working at KAIROS this summer. Of course, I just strung together the many years worth of research given to me by the ever-fabulous KAIROS staff!! (I was but a tiny cog in the KAIROS wheel…lol)

(and a shout-out to Noelle for the music!!)