Monday, January 25, 2016

2nd Toledo International Film Festival: Promoting Global Awareness and Understanding

The second Toledo International Film Festival opened this weekend at the historic Ohio Theatre with two thought-provoking movies: the 2014 award-winning Timbuktu, by incredible French-Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmase Sissako, and Dancing in Jaffa, a documentary by Hilla Medalia. 
A cattle herder, Kihane, his wife and daughter,
were played so beautifully I didn't think they
were actors. A palpable anxiety rises up from
the moment we meet them. 

Timbuktu is visually breathtaking and emotionally devastating.  The opening scene sets the stage: A group of men riding in a fast-moving truck, bearing jihadist black flags and automatic weapons, are chasing a gazelle over the sweeping sand dunes of the Sahara desert, to tire out the animal we hear them say. The beauty and the terror of this scene, the ominous undertones, the dread and anxiety, remain throughout the film to the end, when the terrified runner is not a gazelle but an orphaned child whose loving parents were killed by the same group of men.  

I learned after the movie, doing a bit of research, that Timbuktu was briefly occupied in September 2012 by an Al-Quaeda group known as Ansar Dine, and that the public stoning of an unmarried couple influenced the film.  Sissako incorporates this stoning in a horrifying and unforgettable scene in the movie. The death of the human spirit.

Sissako's film juxtaposes the lanquid pace of the desert with the blasphemous violence and unfathomable behavior of the Jihadists occupiers, who boom Sharia Law pronouncements from loudspeakers or at the barrel of a gun, with a rising sense of surrealism and terror.  

"Roll up your pants, it's the new law," an armed occupier yells at a man.  The man shrugs and walks away.  "Wear gloves," another orders a woman selling fish.  She replies with disdain that it's absurd to wear gloves and handle fish, and she later pays for her honesty. A cleric objects to a group of men entering a mosque with weapons.  He cites the Koran.  They defy him. The local Iman tries calmly to curb the excesses of the fanatical Jihadists, to no avail.  Learning, scholarship, reason do not make a dent in the rigid ideology of the murderous ISIS-like men yelling orders, monitoring daily life, demeaning women, banning music, sports, and ordinary social interactions, violating all standards of human decency.  

Soccer banned? The passion of millions, against Sharia Law? Sissako captures the absurdity in a moving scene where a group of young men play soccer with an imaginary ball.  The young men look like dancers, ethereal, floating across the undulating dunes of the desert like the gazelle chased in the opening scene. Such grace in the face of such violence.  

The people of Timbuktu view the Jihadists as absurd, as fools and ignoramuses. The banality of evil comes to mind, embodied as well in the lone Jihadist, an ordinary man, who administers Sharia Law, the sole judge and jury, without substance or moral authority. He takes meaningless notes, then pronounces his judgment stemming from some invisible source, not the rule of law. He is a pretender.  All he knows is a list of activities he claims are banned by Sharia Law. Punishment by lashing, stoning or firing squad is inevitable.  

How ridiculous, how totally insane.  It's the same with the lengths to which the Islamists go to find and punish the sources of music they hear from time to time. The juxtaposition of a few peaceful people playing guitars, singing and enjoying music with the stealth assault of the Jihadist creeping up on them from rooftops in the dark of night with automatic weapons, as if approaching an enemy army, is absurd in the extreme.  The musicians are rounded up like criminals and the woman who was singing a lovely lilting love song was sentenced to 40 lashes, painful to watch.   
After this masterful film, so timely and so disturbing, it was a relief to see Dancing in Jaffa.  Not that the subject isn't as serious. This delightful documentary by Hilla Medalia features the efforts of renowned ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine to use dance as a way to promote mutual respect between Israeli Arab and Jewish children living in the political cauldron and turmoil of today's Israel.  

With ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine
 in the background, a Palestinian boy &
 an Israeli girl learn how to dance together,
and in the process become friends.
Jaffa is the city of Dulaine's birth. The classrooms at the five schools where he teaches become a microcosm of the Middle East's violent divisions and endless tension.  Dulaine is committed, energetic, and a gentleman to the core, and the children, at first apprehensive, respond, eventually, with enthusiasm.  One young Muslim girl, Noor, who mourns for her dead father, evolves from "a closed flower" (in a teacher's words) to a confident girl. That flowering is Dulaine's purpose, the essence of his mission, and it shines throughout the film.  I think it's also noteworthy that the parents come around, too. The documentary shows how art can transform lives, how enemies can become friends, how hope springs eternal.  For an hour or so, we could forget the poverty and oppression of the Palestinian people and the relentless war zone that is Israel.  

Dancing in Jaffa perfectly embodies the purpose of Toledo's International Film Festival (TIFF).  A report by Welcome TLC shows that while Toledo's population decreased by 12% between 2000 and 2014, its foreign-born population increased by 14.6%.  Toledo has gone to great lengths to welcome these newcomers, and they are contributing to our economy and social life.  The International Film Festival is part of the dedicated efforts that flow from the top down and the bottom up, an extraordinary synergy for social change and the celebration of our cultural diversity.  

Next Saturday's films, January 30, 4:30: Instructions Not Included (Mexico) and Gabrielle (Canada).

Film Festival Sponsors:  The Ohio Theatre and United North and its partners, Lucas County Commissioners and Welcome TLC, LISCToledo, the Arts Commission, BCI, PNC Bank, and neighborhood, multicultural and interfaith nonprofit organizations working to assist newcomers and promote cultural diversity and acceptance. Thanks also to Peter Ujvagi, former Toledo Council member and Lucas County Administrator, who has been in the forefront of supporting Toledo's international cultural traditions and preserving its history. 

Note:  Timbuktu was once a prosperous center of trade and Islamic learning in western Africa, a legendary center of scholarship and culture, but today it is a poor desert town struggling to survive, most of its population gone. Its occupation by Ansar Dine spread disaster across an already doomed landscape. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ukrainian Identity and the Discordant Chords of Putin's War

The pastel country appendages of
Putin's vision of "Greater Russia" 
I met two women from Ukraine this weekend living here in the Toledo area.  One grew up in Kyiv and the other near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, where her parents still live under Russian-proxie rule in a continuing warzone.

Interestingly, both of the women I met seemed more Russian-identified than Ukrainian-identified. When I asked the woman from Kyiv about that, she thought a bit then said, "Actually, I consider myself multicultural and bilinqual," meaning she speaks both Russian and Ukrainian, very common in Ukraine. She also studied and speaks Spanish, and it's the language she teaches. Now that's multicultural! She's lived in the US a long time, including in California and Texas.She and her son are happy here.

I also met a teacher of English (or maybe it's ESL) from Donetsk. I was looking forward to meeting her because I feel such a special bond with the people of eastern Ukraine. She wore a black tee-shirt emblazoned with Россия (Russia) on it. While waiting for a lecture to start I walked over to a table displaying Russian matryoska dolls, painted art and embroidery, so familiar and nostalgic.The young woman came over and I commented on the beautiful work. I told her I had lived in eastern Ukraine, close to Lugansk, for two years, and had many friends there.

"It is horrible to see what has happened there," she said.
"Yes," I nodded in sympathy.
"The Ukrainians have slaughtered their own people, destroyed their homes, destroyed neighborhoods...My parents see it everyday. They tell me...My mother saw neighbors' houses blown up by Ukrainians....From Kyiv they are starving the people, preventing supplies, no electricity, no water, harming their own people."

The words went on, not verbatim perhaps but to this effect. Caught off guard by the nature and vehemence of her reply, I stood mute for a minute, looking directly at her, seeing her and hearing these words bashing the Ukrainian devils.

Not what I expected I guess. I mustered a weak voice. "No, I don't believe that's the way it is. Russsians should not be in Ukraine at all. My friends tell me..."

She interrupted. "There are no Russians in eastern Ukraine. Russia has nothing to do with it." Now I'm hearing the gist of what she is saying but losing the words.

"I see.  Well, we certainly do not agree about that."  She gave me a rather hard look. "We will not agree. I know the truth."

And so the brief exchange with the Ukrainian woman from the east, who seemed to think of eastern Ukraine as the Russian Donbas, started and stopped. It raised lots of questions, that's for sure.

I sit through the lecture, but my mind wanders. I hear my friend Olga from Starobelsk: "This is what we face daily, dear Fran....This is how we are mocked and taunted....This is how Russian propaganda has made it impossible to defend our country."

I hear Natalia and Tonya. "It is as if Ukraine does not exist," Tonya, born in the village of Medwin near Kyiv and living in rural Kuryacheka, says.

Me with master embroiderer
Marta in Starobelsk
Elena's art
"Ukrainian folk traditions, our cultural heritage, have been submerged," Natalia, a teacher of English, agrees. She talks about Taras Shevchenko and Ivano Franko, lists Ukrainian novelists, artists, poets, regales me with songs that all Ukrainian women know by heart and sing at the drop of a hat.

The art work of Elena pops up, an artist who studied and painted in the indigenous decorative arts tradition of Lugansk called "Arts Slobodskoy." So does the poetry of dearest Anton, who taught me about Ivan Savich and the tradition of local poets who loved and wrote in the Ukrainian language. Many ended up in Russian gulags because of it.

The enforced Russification of Ukrainian culture is a story few people know about (see blog links below).

Thinking of Ukrainian beauty and culture almost makes me sad nowadays. The deeply discordant chords of an ancient conflict, the ongoing denial of a unique Ukrainian identity, Putin's revival of imperial visions and the good old days of Stalin, envelop my spirit.

For people who believe Ukraine is not a real country with legitimate borders and a distinct heritage, the conflict in eastern Ukraine is a Civil War.  "The Ukraine," as it used to be called (still is sometimes, in error) is considered an appendage of Russia, the Slavic breadbasket that belongs to Russia, like Crimea. The "rebels" are fighting the "fascists" in Kyiv who support the Maidan revolt and self-determination. The Ukrainians have brought the disaster on themselves.

left and right images,
S, Plokhy's histories. 
For those who believe, as I do, that Ukraine is a country with legitimate internationally recognized borders, the Russians are aggressors. They have violated the territorial integrity of a sovereign nation. It is NOT a civil war. It is a war that Putin planned. It is Russian policy, directed from Moscow. Putin's war is accompanied by a virulent propaganda campaign, exemplified in the orchestrated build-up and takeover of Crimea by those "little green men" without insignia who were Russian special ops, mercenaries and thugs. Ukraine is fighting for its life against the rapacious force of Russia.

This new investigative report documents extensive
human rights violations in Eastern Ukraine.
"There are no Russians in Ukraine." Really? I wanted to retort: "It is well documented that Russia has sent arms and men to eastern Ukraine; it provided the BUK that took down MH-17; its soldiers and proxies, trained by Russia, have destroyed great swaths of Lugansk and Donetsk (my old stomping grounds), decimating its airports, train stations,infrastructure; it has violated international humanitarian laws. Through subterfuge and weapons of war that are no match for a weak Ukrainian army, Russia has invaded Ukraine and continues deliberately to destablize it. Russian soldiers and mercenaries are there, boots on the ground, in the Donbas. And they are seeking ever more territory, looking to Mariupol, Odessa, the Black Sea."

I was still mulling all this stuff over when I woke up the next morning.  As I browsed the news online, a headline caught my eye: "Are Russians and Ukrainians the Same People?"  It stood out like a neon light in a dark night. Did someone overhear our conversations? The same issue I encountered on Saturday was a banner headline on Yahoo news on Sunday morning.

The headline turned out to be an article written by award-winning Harvard historian and Ukraine expert Sergii Plokhy, who recently published "The Gates of Europe," a history of Ukraine, and a year before that "The Last Empire,"  about the fall of the Soviet Union and its aftermath.
I poured myself a cup of coffee and read the article. It was fascinating. Yes, Plokhy explains, Putin has once again stirred up an hysterical nationalist fervor over "Greater Russia."  Yes, that's his justification for taking over Crimea and going into eastern Ukraine. It's a  revivial of imperial nationalism that threatens not only the East Slavic states of Ukraine and Belarus but also other post-Soviet republics with Russian-speaking populations, Estonia, Latvia and Kazahkstan.

There are, of course, problems with Putin's vision and the equation of the Russian language with Russian nationality, Plokhy argues:
    "While ethnic Russians are a majority of the population in Crimea and make up large minorities in parts of the Donbas, most of the population of the projected New Russia consists of ethnic Ukrainians. While separatist propaganda appeals to some, most have refused to identify themselves with Russia or exclusive Russian ethnicity even as they continue to use the Russian language.That was one of the main reasons for the failure to create a buffer state by extending rebel holdings from Donbas to Odesa and Khargiv." [Note: Russia's still trying. Putin wants Odessa as much as he wanted Crimea.] 

Indeed, the majority of ethnic Russians, who comprise only 17% of  Ukraine's total population, do not support the invasion of the Donbas and generally oppose Russian interference in Ukraine affairs, according to a poll Plokhy cites. They give their identity as both Russian and Ukrainian, like the woman I just met who grew up in Kyiv. At least the woman from Donetsk is in the minority, I thought.

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Plokhy concludes, brings to the fore a critical contemporary issue with deep roots: "The unfinished process of building not only a Ukrainian but also a Russian modern nation."

I turn to my dearest friend Natalia in Starobelsk. I tell her my little story and send her the link to Plokhy's article.  She immediately emailed me back. She had read the article right away.
Fran, we are not Russians, but we belong to the family of Slavic people. We are closely tied geographically and historically. But the question is not who is or who isn't Russian, or which nation is better. The fact is that Ukraine started its painful way towards democratic development while Russia has not yet. I fully agree with the author that "The solution to the Russian Question lies not in territorial expansion but in the formation of a law-based democratic society capable of living in harmony with its neighbors and playing a positive role in the modern world.
Natalia got to the heart of the matter. As Plokhy concluded, the solution lies in building strong, modern 21st-century states--self-determined, meeting the needs of their people, playing positive roles in our shared world. Not war, not archaic imperial visions, not old ways of thinking.  But the impetus for modern nation building must come from within, and it doesn't look very hopeful at the moment. The discordant chords of Putin's war, jarring, incessant, casts a pall over hope. There is such a long, painful road ahead into the future.

Blogs on Ukrainian Culture:

Some books:
1) Tim Judah, "In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine."

2) Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe  and The Last Empire.

3) Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands, about eastern Europe
between Hitler and Stalin during WWII, its devastating impact, and the ongoing consequences to this day.

4) Serhy Yekelchyk, "The Conflict in Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know."

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