Thursday, February 25, 2016

Jamala's Song

Jamala sings 1944 at Ukraine Eurovision Song Contest, and wins!
Yahoo image. 
Jamala's song, 1944, supposedly "contentious" because Putin's Russia doesn't like it, is a simple song about the loss of the Crimean Tatar's homeland.  It's about heartache and hope. It tells a real story, about Stalin's purge of the Tatars in 1944, expresses a real dream, hauntingly revived after the Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014. Jamala was chosen to represent Ukraine at the 2016 Eurovision music contest, which will be held in Stockholm in May. http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2016/02/22/world/europe/22reuters-ukraine-tatars-eurovision.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0

I hope Jamala wins lots of prizes for putting the spotlight on Crimea and helping to keep it on the world's freedom agenda.  How many people know the significance of the year 1944 in Tatar history? Not many.  But Jamala remembers a family story of how her great-grandmother died enroute to southern Russia, and was then tossed off a wagon "like she was garbage," while Jamala's mother watched in horror, weak from starvation, helpless. You never forget those memories.  Every Tatar family has them.  At least half of  the Tatars who were forced to make this hazardous journey died. How many people know this story?

The New York Times reported that an estimated 120 million viewers are expected to watch this 59th annual Eurovision Song Contest.  I hope so.

Tragedy etched in Dzhemilev's face and in his heart.
For the same reason, I hope the Crimean Tatar freedom-fighter Mustafa Dzhemilev is nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize. Like Jamala's family, he was among the more than 300,000 Tatars, just a young boy, deported from Crimea by Stalin's 1944 orders. When Stalin forced the Tatar people out, en masse, he sent in thousands of Russians to replace them and ensure Russian hegemony over the Tatar's indigenous homeland. This is the history of oppression, enforced Russification, and murder we must remember, like we remember the Holocaust.

Dzhemilev grew up in Uzbekistan and returned to his homeland in 1989 along with thousands of other Tatars, to rebuild their homes, their communities, their social and cultural institutions. It remains a heroic effort, now cut short.  I witnessed it when I visited Crimea as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2009-11. Beautiful people, brilliant, talented, hard-working, tolerant, international in outlook, rebuilding their historic community on a beautiful land.

Imagine their horror at Putin's takeover of Crimea in 2014, by stealth, violence, and a pumped-up propaganda campaign, a shocking reminder of 1944.  The pain is etched on the Tatars' faces.  A nightmare beyond words.

Seventy years after their enforced deportation, the Tatar are once again under an oppressive Russian rule on the land of their ancestors. Their homes; their governing body, the Majlis; the famed Kapinksy Library, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that preserved the Tatar language, literature and culture; Tatar media outlets; all destroyed or taken over by Russian occupiers.

Putin taking a bite out of Ukraine,
invading Crimea.
Human rights abuses are rampant. Thousands of Tartar have "disappeared," been jailed or killed. Over 3,000 have been forced to flee their homes. Mustafa Dzhemilev is banned from returning to Crimea, a rerun of the Stalinist era.

Putin has "swallowed the souls" of a peace-loving people. as Jamala sings.  I wonder how the ethnic Russian population, who supposedly welcomed Russian rule, feel about what's happening to the Tatar. They were friends and neighbors, living in harmony. How can they condone it? How can they accept it? How can they go along with what's happening to Crimea, being Stalinized, militarized, exploited, their communities in shambles, businesses gone, tourism gone. It's incomprehensible to me.

Meanwhile, although it seldom makes the news headlines, resistance to Putin's illegal takeover of Crimea continues.  A new Deoccupy Crimea movement is on a roll.  It will go on until the Crimean Tatar, the indigenous people, are masters of their homeland.  The world must not forget Crimea, must not abandon the Tatar, must stop Putin's criminal aggression.

"We can build a future, where people are free..."  This is the song of Jamala.  This is the dream of Mustafa Dzhemilev.



http://lyricstranslate.com/en/jamala-1944-lyrics.html#ixzz416cIKS7o

1944
When strangers are coming...
They come to your house,
They kill you all
and say,
We’re not guilty
not guilty.
Where is your mind?
Humanity cries.
You think you are gods.
But everyone dies.
Don't swallow my soul.
Our souls
We could build a future
Where people are free
to live and love.
The happiest time.
Where is your heart?
Humanity rise.
You think you are gods
But everyone dies.
Don't swallow my soul.
Our soul.

Listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1yzjoNTokk

Monday, February 15, 2016

DE-OCCUPY CRIMEA: End Russian Occupation, Restore Crimean Tatar Republic



Remember Crimea
A Crimean Tatar protest against Russian occupation of Crimea.
 The sign reads: "We are on our own land." 
A new organization, De-Occupy Crimea, has been formed to help end the illegal Russian occupation of Crimea and restore the "Crimean Tatar Autonomous Republic" within an independent Ukraine.  Sound like a dream? It won't be easy. It will take time. But given the history of the Crimean Tatar people, out of sheer force of will, they will one day be masters of their indigenous homeland. 

"We have the legal status of being the indigenous population of Crimea and we need to act on its behalf," the Majlis Congress declared in August 2015 in Ankara, and again at its congress in December 2015 in Kyiv.  "The right to self-determination belongs to the indigenous Crimean Tatar people."  (Paul A. Goble, "New Organization Formed," euromaidenpress.com, 4 Dec. 2015.) 

Crimean Tatars, a peaceful and long-suffering people,
mourn the 2014 Russian takeover of their homeland. 
After heroic efforts to return to Crimea & rebuild their
homes and communities, they find theselves once again
under the genocidal thumb of Russia. 
De-Occupy Crimea has been registered as a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Ukraine and plans to work with international organizations and the Ukrainian government to make its case.   It is calling on national and world leaders and the international community to recognize its claims as indigenous people.  It also seeks international recognition that "the actions of Russia in Crimea are a genocide, beginning from the moment of the inclusion of the peninsula in the Russian Empire in 1783 up to the present day."  Over that period "more than a million and a half Crimean Tatars were forced to leave their motherland," and half of those deported in 1944 by Stalin died as a result."

Concerned about the continued suffering of the Crimean people, the death and disappearance of hundreds of Tatar, the human rights abuses, and the seeming indifference of Ukrainian authorities "despite bold words," De-Occupy Crimea is dedicated to increasing efforts to make sure that "Crimea is not forgotten."
Crimean Tatars form De-Occupy Crimea 
As Eurasian specialist Paul Goble noted after the recent World Congress:
“The Crimean Tatars for the last 300 years have developed their own immunity to the kind of difficulties they face now because they survived both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.....They will survive Putin’s Russia, and help bring to an end the illegal Russian anschluss of their homeland." (euromaidenpress.com, 12/2015)  

My Peace Corps friend Jud Dolphin, now serving in Skopje, Macedonia, reminded me, in an article he wrote for the Street newspaper he works with, of a wonderful quote by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing worth doing is complete in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope.....Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love." 

TO WATCH FOR: A new documentary is coming out in March 2016 in Washington, DC: "A Struggle for Home: The Crimean Tatar," by filmmaker Christina Paschyn. Link:   http://astruggleforhome.com/ to learn more about this film and to see a trailer.

See also blog on Mustafa Dzhemilev, a long-time fighter for the rights of the Crimean Tatar:  http://francurrocaryblog.blogspot.com/2014/12/next-nobel-prize-winner-mustafa.html

http://www.iccrimea.org/

Readings on the Crimean Tatars: Blog post from my PCV friend Barb Wieser.  A SHORT BIBLIOGRAPHY 

Sometimes people ask me where they can read more about the history of Crimean Tatars and their struggles. I always first point them to the website of the American diaspora organization, International Committee for Crimea (iccrimea.org) which is filled with informative, well researched articles. 

Unfortunately,  there are very few English language books about the Crimean Tatars, and with one exception, they are all academic books and not readily available or easily accessible for the average reader. However, if you do wish some in depth reading, here is a list of books that you can perhaps find in your library or order from the internet or your local bookstore.
The haunting cover of the French
edition of Lily Hyde's Dream Land.

1.       Dream Land: One girl’s struggle to find her true home by Lily Hyde (Walker Children’s Paperbacks, 2008)
This young adult novel—the only work of fiction that I know of in English that tells the story of the Crimean Tatar’s return to Crimea—seems to be well researched and does a good job of  showing actual events through the eyes of a young Crimean Tatar girl. 

2.       The Crimean Tatars by Alan W. Fisher (Hoover Institution Press, 1978)
This is the only comprehensive history book about the Crimean Tatars and includes much information about the time of the Crimean Khanate (14th-18th centuries). It was published before the Crimean Tatars began to return to Crimea so their current history is not included in the book. However, the fact that The Crimean Tatarsremains in print and is also now available in a kindle edition, attests to the continuing value of this work.

3.       The Tatars of Crimea: Return to the Homeland, edited by Edward A. Allworth (Duke University Press, revised edition, 1998)
This is an update of Allworth’s original book published in 1988. It is a collection of essays by different  scholars of the region—almost half of whom are Crimean Tatar—that discusses Crimean Tatar identity, politics of Crimea, life in exile, and return to their homeland. It also has a great deal of information about Ismail Gasprinskiy and his importance in Crimean Tatar history.

4.       The Crimean Tatars: The Diaspora Experience and the Forging of a Nation by Brian Glynn Williams (Brill Academic Publishers, 2001)
Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to read this volume because the library does not own a copy, but I wanted to list it as one of the very few books concerning the Crimean Tatar experience.

5.       Beyond Memory: The Crimean Tatars’ Deportation and Return by Greta Lynn Fehling (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
Beyond Memory is the most recent of the academic books written about the Crimean Tatars and I found it the most interesting, especially Uehling’s exploration of what kept alive the desire to return through the years of exile. It is filled with interviews by the author with Crimean Tatars directly involved in the national movement to return and the often violent protests that marked the Tatars’ return to Crimea.


Saturday, February 13, 2016

Jesus Christ Superstar: Still a Great Rock Opera

Jesus, Judas and the apostles on stage at the Maumee Theater


Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1970s rock opera, is now on stage at the Maumee Theater, and it's a wonderful production (by the 3B productions company). The actors, the voices, the simple set and contemporary costumes, the staging of the various ensembles that respond like Greek choruses to the unfolding drama, and the orchestra, with a great piano player, are all outstanding. The dissonence of the overture's score at the opening sets the tone, from the first act to the Gethesame and Cruxifiction scenes at the end. It's exciting.  


I left the theater singing the music. The tunes are still playing in my mind as I write.  I've always loved Andrew Lloyd Webber's music and Tim Rice's lyrics.  I don't remember the details of the 1970s production I saw I think in Ann Arbor, but this staging at the Maumee Theater has its own vibe. 

Mary Magdalene's Song

I don't know how to love him
What to do, how to move him
I've been changed, yes really 
changed. In these past few days
When I've seen myself
I seem like someone else

The relationship between Judas and Jesus rocks, in more ways than one, as each expresses his doubts and beliefs and worries, and a full range of human emotions.  In fact this secular version of the Jesus story, at least that's what I would call it, has a way of pulling you in and raising all kinds of questions. Is Jesus an ordinary man, like Judas, or a Messiah? This question remains to the tragic or triumphant end, however one interprets it.  More than anything else, I think this is the main point of the Webber and Rice opera that morphed from a concept album into a hit Broadway show. 

From time to time I'd lean over to ask my daughter if this or that was actually in the Bible. "In Matthrew, Mark, Luke or John?" I'd whisper. Mostly she said "Well no, it's not," or "No, it's different."   At one point she leaned over and whispered, "That's in."  Judas' suicide. Wow, I had forgotten that story.  "Why did you pick me to betray you," Judas asks in anquish, as the moaning and groaning of the dark ensemble closes in on him, stilling his voice.  

So many doubts.  This is the fascinating aspect of Webber's opera, teaming with dissonence and intentional anachronisms, from jubilant or writhing ensembles to screaming falsetto, the anquished cries of Judas and Jesus, the slapjack vaudeville scenes, and then to a finale that still leaves us full of questions.   

It's a long way from the 1970s to today, and in some ways seeing Jesus Christ Superstar in our contemporary context embodies the distance.   On the other hand, it still raises eternal questions about faith and doubt. It still resonates.       


Friday, February 12, 2016

On the Road with Gloria Steinem

I just finished reading Gloria Steinem's memoir, My Life on the Road. It brings me full circle to my days teaching women's history at the University of Toledo. It was the first women studies course at UT and among the first in NW Ohio at the time. There weren't many resources available in the mid-1970s, and not much scholarship. Nor had I had any women's history courses at Wisconsin (they didn't have them), or any women professors for that matter. I was one of a handful of female graduate students in history, kind of a rare bird, when I arrived in Madison in 1962.

So even though I was out of my comfort zone, I enjoyed the challenge of putting the women's history course together from scratch. I learned as I went, class by class, along with my students, who were patient and kind, always curious and fantastic, everyone of them.

I admired Steinem's work as a journalist, feminist, and founder of MS magazine. My students liked talking about the efforts of the emerging modern women's movement in the context of our history.  It was really a rebirth.  In what way? What was the same, what was different?

We would have had some great discussions of My Life on the Road, because
Steinem's book focuses on her role as a writer and an organizer "in the great tradition of abolitionists and suffagists who traveled by horse-drawn carriage and train to meetings in parlors, townhall, churches, school houses, granges, and barns." (p.136)

Steinem knows her women's history.  We explored that very tradition thoughtfully and thoroughly in class, with the help of our main text, Eleanor Flexner's Century of Struggle. It is still one of the best histories ever, by the way, and I wish every college student and every U.S. citizen would read it.

Steinem's memoir picks up the unfinished story of the women's movement of the 1960s, like the threads of a multicolored quilt.  In a wide-ranging narrative that intertwines her own story with her commitment to equality, Steinem highlights the importance of the modern movement for a generation that has forgotten its history.  The rebirth of feminism, like the early 19th-century women's rights movement from which it sprang, had many layers, many points of view, many disagreements over tactics and strategies, some failures, many triumphs. Steinem's experiences and views give us new insights into the nature and significance of the ongoing struggle for women's rights and against patriarchal privilege.

I wasn't aware, for example, that Steinem's life on the road encompassed so many multicultural adventures, beginning with time in India as a recent college graduate; extensive work with working women and women of color; and incredible efforts, especially the 1977 Houston Women's Convention, to push issues of gender, class, ethnicity and race across the land. These, I learned, were her top priorities and are her greatest accomplishments.

Steinem's My Life On the Road adds to some classic women's history books. 
My women's history course at UT ended in 1985, when I moved to Washington, DC.  At that time Steinem was leading the pioneering MS Magazine.  She campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), first introduced in Congress by the intrepid Alice Paul in 1923, and for equal pay for equal work, first introduced by working women in the early 20th century. She also continued the efforts begun in Houston for a more inclusive women's rights movement.

At the time that meant challenging Betty Friedan's emphasis on white suburban women. I admit to feeling uncomfortable at Friedan's attacking style. Friedan was such a heroine to me and my generation of women on the cusp of the 1950s and '60s. The Feminine Mystique (1963) is still a classic, especially in the philosophical tradition that framed the arguments for women's rights.  And the founding of NOW (the National Organization for Women) ranks right up there with Susan B. Anthony's and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's founding of the National Women's Suffrage Association in 1869.  But Friedan found it hard to support efforts to open wide the tent of women's rights. Maybe this is why, when I would meet her in Washington on various occasions or at the home of mutual friends, she was withdrawn and unfriendly. Too many battle scars, perhaps. I longed to have a conversation with her, but she was unapproachable.  It never happened.

Steinem talks about the conflict in the women's movement with some admirable restraint as well as pride for her role in forcing the issue.  Her work on behalf of the American Indian and Alaskan Native Caucus at the Houston conference, incredibly moving as she tells it, had a profound impact on her.  "For me it was a glimpse of a way of life in which the circle, not a hierarchy, was the goal." It was natural, she writes, that the caucus should call on "Mother Earth and the Great Spirit" to honor women's efforts to fight for equality and justice for all people.

The divisions in the modern movement that Steinem describes reminded me of those in the women's suffrage movement 100 years earlier, right after the Civil War. Then the great schism occured over the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting former slaves the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were the first to lash out at the wording, which included the word "male."   If passed, they immediately saw, the amendment would give former male slaves the vote but keep black women disenfranchised along with all women. It would, moreover, require a FEDERAL amendment to get the word male out of the Constitution.  Visions of the enormous effort it would require, and the decades it would take, pushed Stanton and Anthony, who had done plenty of grassroots campaigning for women's legal rights, to the wall. Their timing was off, most women abolitionists like Lucy Stone and Lucretia Mott, supported the amendment, but their fears and gloomy forecasts were right.

The 19th amendment granting women the right to vote didn't pass until 1920, a furious struggle to the very last Congressional vote and the very last state to ratify it. Carrie Catt, the brilliant strategist and leader of the National American Women's Suffrage Association who led the final battle, summed it up:
"To get the world 'male' out of the Constitution cost the women of the country fifty-years of pauseless campaign....During that time they were forced to conduct fifty-six campaigns of referenda to male voters, 480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit sufferage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get State constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms; and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses." (quoted in Flexner, p. 165)
Anyone who has done this kind of political work will know what an enormous effort it was. Steinem is one of them.  She took up the mantle where the early suffragists, exhausted from their labors,  left off, fighting step by step, inch by inch, as they did, to complete the broad women's agenda formulated by the courageous women of Seneca Falls in 1848.

As Steinem reflects on her life at the end of the book, she recalls the native American women who served on the board of the MS foundation and continued to inform and inspire her life work.   "Feminism is memory," Rayna Green, Cherokee folklorist and anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, believed. "The root of oppression is the loss of memory."  It's a lesson we need to hear today, and a lesson for the future.

Life on the Road is more than personal history. It is women's history. It is American history. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Closing Night at the Toledo International Film Festival: Amazing films and some questions

Koichi and Ryo in I Wish, played wonderfully by two real-life brothers.

What I love about International Film Festivals is the opportunity to see movies from around the world made by directors from different countries exploring life events, new viewpoints, or social and geopolitical issues in different cultural contexts. Such films offer both a sense of place and universal themes.  Sense of place is critical. They might be Indies (independent films), documentaries, dramas, fact or fiction or a mix of both, and also a mix of genres, like the fabulous four films that opened the 2016 Toledo International Film Festival (TIFF): Timbukto, Dancing in Jaffa, Gabrielle, Instructions not Included.  

These four films, so different from one another but each beautifully crafted, gave us a glimpse into the human dilemmas, profound challenges, daily struggles, and the loves, hopes and fears of people living in the African Sahara near Mali and Mauritania, in Israel, partly in Mexico, and in Quebec, Canada.  They were rooted in a strong sense of place and at the same time showed us the connective power of universal human emotions that transcends differences. These films took us on cultural journeys, helped us explore new worlds, opened doors into the human condition of our global family.

The third and final night of the film festival featured I Wish (2011), directed by Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, a lovely film about the bewildering complexities of family life in modern Japan, and White God (2015), by Hungarian filmmaker Kornel Mandruczo, a noir film about extreme cruelty to animals and the  revenge of a pack of dogs that takes place mostly on the streets of Budapest.  I Wish hit the mark of  the Toledo International Film Festival's purpose, but I'm not sure about White God.

I Wish is about loss and hope, the loss of family unity when parents separate and the hope young children have for reuniting. Koichi, a sweet and energetic 12 year old, and his younger brother Ryu, enchanting and irrepressible, are now living apart, Koichi with his mother and grandparents in Kagoshimi, near the Sakurjima volcano, and Ryu with his father in far away Oksaka.

For Koichi, the active volcano is ever-present and, in his eyes, ever-ominous.  He can't understand why the townspeople are so nonchalant about it, as if it wasn't really there. The volcano could, afterall, erupt at any moment, covering the town in lava and ash and causing everyone to run.  "I don't get it," he says.

Actually, there are lots of things about grown-ups' behavior that Koichi doesn't
get. Understandably. Yes, we can see it. The movie follows Koichi, Ryu and their friends as they try to figure it out.  It's the time of the new "bullet" trains in Japan that can connect far away cities faster than ever, and connect families, too. When Koichi hears that two trains passing each other at high speeds create a magical energy field that makes wishes come true, he hatches a scheme for his brother and their friends to meet at that very place.

We share Koichi's high hopes, as well as his subsequent doubts. Will the wishes he, Ryu and their friends shout at the passing trains, explosive and powerful, come true?  It's like the volcano down the street that no one talks about, and the one he draws--red, black and dramatic--and posts on the wall of his room. A volcano of emotions. Will it explode, blow its top?

We sense after the scene with the passing trains that reality has started to set in and mute Koichi's wish. He's not sure.  He wonders. He might chose "the world" over family.  Life's like the volcano. You never know what will happen, when it might erupt. Maybe Koichi's wish will continue to simmer below the surface, but thankfully it seems that nothing will diminish his energetic spirit and his positive attitude toward life. It's the same with Ryu, who watches with delight as his vegetable garden sprouts from seeds he planted.

The last film of the festival, White God, filled me with mixed emotions. It's an amazing movie, but is it right for the TIFF? In this horror movie, Lili, a talented young trumpet player whose parents are divorced, looks desperately for her lost dog Hagen after her unfeeling father, a slaughterhouse inspector of all things, forces the dog out of  their car and then speeds off.  Like the opening scene showing in every gory detail the evisceration of a dead cow, guts are spilled and blood is running down the streets of Budapest.  The music of Wagner's Tannhauser, which Lili's high school orchestra is practicing under the direction of a dictatorial conductor, adds to the gloomy images and sense of impending doom.

Against this bleak backdrop, noir to the bone, Hagen tries to find Lili while she is also searching for him. They both fail. Lili slides into despair and worse, and the dog Hagen falls victim to such unspeakable extreme cruelty that he comes to lead a pack of dogs in a canine revolt againt their human abusers. The dogs, threatened by overly-enthusiastic dog catchers who take pleasure in capturing them and delivering them to their deaths, will have their revenge.

The subtext of this film is obviously the Nazi and Soviet terrorism that once ruled over Hungary.  The dog catchers are like Gestapo terrorists. The holding places where these mixed-breed dogs end up are like concentration camps. We feel like we're in Auschwitz. Old ladies act like the purported babushkas of Soviet times who spied on their neighbors and reported to the KGB.  Adults are not to be trusted, acting like "white gods" who rule and abuse without conscience. In this film, a "White God" is further embodied in a vicious dogfighting trainer who violently conditions dogs to become mad beasts in a subculture of survival of the meanest and most vicious. It happens to Hagen.  I can see why one reviewer called the film "a Hungarian revenge fantasy."

But for me the revenge fantasy focuses too long and in too much excruciating gory detail on the most vicious behavior toward animals that I have ever witnessed, to the point I couldn't take it and needed to come up for air.  A graphic step-by-step guide on how to torture a dog and turn him into a raving maniac fighting machine, or for that matter how to torture a human being and turn him into a monster, is more than I can bear.

Mandruczo's film takes place in Budapest, one of my favorite cities, but it really doesn't matter so much. The Budapest we see from these harmed and hunted dogs' point of view, through their eyes, is a nightmare landscape of subhuman terrorism, torture and cruelty. The Parliament, St. Stephens Basilica, the grand Opera house and other familiar sights, the Danube River and the beautiful bridges, are merely dark shadowy illusions in the dogs' struggle for survival and revenge.

This nightmare of unmitigated cruelty, filmed with extreme realism at the eye-level of the dogs, every bloody detail, an amazing work of art, actually could have taken place anywhere, in any country, in any city, in Toledo, Ohio, itself. The sense of place, glimpses into Hungarian culture and traditions, the experiences and views of ordinary people in a distinctive cultural context, are absent, not relevant to the greater moral purpose of this movie. This is why I wish another film had ended the 2016 festival, a film that continued our journey into diverse cultures and helped us understand them.  Should I stand at a place where two trains speed past each other and shout my wish? I think Koichi would ask me to think about it!

Of course I want to emphasize that my view in no way detracts from the outstanding work of the TIFF, its organizers, workers and volunteers, its generous sponsors and community partners.  I am a huge fan.  This was a fantastic event in a wonderful venue. I look forward to next year's International Film Festival, and I welcome other points of view.

Promoting International Understanding and the 2016 Toledo International Film Festival


Brothers Koichi and Ryu in I Wish

What I love about International Film Festivals is the opportunity to see movies from around the world made by directors from different countries exploring life events, new viewpoints, or social and geopolitical issues in different cultural contexts. Such films offer both a sense of place and universal themes.  Sense of place is critical. They might be Indies (independent films), documentaries, dramas, fact or fiction or a mix of both, and also a mix of genres, like the fabulous four films that opened the 2016 Toledo International Film Festival (TIFF): Timbukto, Dancing in Jaffa, Gabrielle, Instructions not Included.  

These four films, so different from one another but each beautifully crafted, gave us a glimpse into the human dilemmas, profound challenges, daily struggles, and the loves, hopes and fears of people living in the African Sahara near Mali and Mauritania, in Israel, partly in Mexico, and in Quebec, Canada.  They were rooted in a strong sense of place and at the same time showed us the connective power of universal human emotions that transcends differences. These films took us on cultural journeys, helped us explore new worlds, opened doors into the human condition of our global family.

The third and final night of the film festival featured I Wish (2011), directed by Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, a lovely film about the bewildering complexities of family life in modern Japan, and White God (2015), by Hungarian filmmaker Kornel Mandruczo, a noir film about extreme cruelty to animals and the  revenge of a pack of dogs that takes place mostly on the streets of Budapest.  I Wish hit the mark of  the Toledo International Film Festival's purpose, but I'm not sure about White God.
 
I Wish is about loss and hope, the loss of family unity when parents separate and the hope young children have for reuniting. Koichi, a sweet and energetic 12 year old, and his younger brother Ryu, enchanting and irrepressible, are now living apart, Koichi with his mother and grandparents in Kagoshimi, near the Sakurjima volcano, and Ryu with his father in far away Oksaka.

For Koichi, the active volcano is ever-present and, in his eyes, ever-ominous.  He can't understand why the townspeople are so nonchalant about it, as if it wasn't really there. The volcano could, afterall, erupt at any moment, covering the town in lava and ash and causing everyone to run.  "I don't get it," he says.

Actually, there are lots of things about grown-ups' behavior that Koichi doesn't
get. Understandably. Yes, we can see it. The movie follows Koichi, Ryu and their friends as they try to figure it out.  It's the time of the new "bullet" trains in Japan that can connect far away cities faster than ever, and connect families, too. When Koichi hears that two trains passing each other at high speeds create a magical energy field that makes wishes come true, he hatches a scheme for his brother and their friends to meet at that very place.

We share Koichi's high hopes, as well as his subsequent doubts. Will the wishes he, Ryu and their friends shout at the passing trains, explosive and powerful, come true?  It's like the volcano down the street that no one talks about, and the one he draws--red, black and dramatic--and posts on the wall of his room. A volcano of emotions. Will it explode, blow its top?

We sense after the scene with the passing trains that reality has started to set in and mute Koichi's wish. He's not sure.  He wonders. He might chose "the world" over family.  Life's like the volcano. You never know what will happen, when it might erupt. Maybe Koichi's wish will continue to simmer below the surface, like a volcano, but thankfully it seems that nothing will diminish his energetic spirit and his positive attitude toward life. It's the same with Ryu, who watches with delight as his vegetable garden sprouts from seeds he planted.

The last film of the festival, White God, filled me with mixed emotions. It's an amazing movie, but is it right for the TIFF? In this horror movie, Lili, a talented young trumpet player whose parents are divorced, looks desperately for her lost dog Hagen after her unfeeling father, a slaughterhouse inspector of all things, forces the dog out of  their car and then speeds off.  Like the opening scene showing in every gory detail the evisceration of a dead cow, guts are spilled and blood is running down the streets of Budapest.  The music of Wagner's Tannhauser, which Lili's high school orchestra is practicing under the direction of a dictatorial conductor, adds to the gloomy images and sense of impending doom.

Against this bleak backdrop, noir to the bone, Hagen tries to find Lili while she is also searching for him. They both fail. Lili slides into despair and worse, and the dog Hagen falls victim to such unspeakable extreme cruelty that he comes to lead a pack of dogs in a canine revolt againt their human abusers. The dogs, threatened by overly-enthusiastic dog catchers who take pleasure in capturing them and delivering them to their deaths, will have their revenge.

The subtext of this film is obviously the Nazi and Soviet terrorism that once ruled over Hungary.  The dog catchers are like Gestapo terrorists. The holding places where these mixed-breed dogs end up are like concentration camps. We feel like we're in Auschwitz. Old ladies act like the purported babushkas of Soviet times who spied on their neighbors and reported to the KGB.  Adults are not to be trusted, acting like "white gods" who rule and abuse without conscience. In this film, a "White God" is further embodied in a vicious dogfighting trainer who violently conditions dogs to become mad beasts in a subculture of survival of the meanest and most vicious. It happens to Hagen.  I can see why one reviewer called the film "a Hungarian revenge fantasy."

But for me the revenge fantasy focuses too long and in too much excruciating gory detail on the most vicious behavior toward animals that I have ever witnessed, to the point I couldn't take it and needed to come up for air.  A graphic step-by-step guide on how to torture a dog and turn him into a raving maniac fighting machine, or for that matter how to torture a human being and turn him into a monster, is more than I can bear.

Mandruczo's film takes place in Budapest, one of my favorite cities, but it really doesn't matter so much. The Budapest we see from these harmed and hunted dogs' point of view, through their eyes, is a nightmare landscape of subhuman terrorism, torture and cruelty. The Parliament, St. Stephens Basilica, the grand Opera house and other familiar sights, the Danube River and the beautiful bridges, are merely dark shadowy illusions in the dogs' struggle for survival and revenge.

This nightmare of unmitigated cruelty, filmed with extreme realism at the eye-level of the dogs, every bloody detail, actually could have taken place anywhere, in any country, in any city, in Toledo, Ohio, itself. The sense of place, glimpses into Hungarian culture and traditions, the experiences and views of ordinary people in a distinctive cultural context, are absent, not relevant to the greater moral purpose of this movie. This is why I wish another film had ended the 2016 festival, a film that continued our journey into diverse cultures and helped us understand them.  Should I stand at a place where two trains speed past each other and shout my wish? I think Koichi would ask me to think about it!

Of course I want to emphasize that my view in no way detracts from the outstanding work of the TIFF, its organizers, workers and volunteers, its generous sponsors and community partners.  I am a huge fan.  This was a fantastic event in a wonderful venue. I look forward to next year's International Film Festival, and I welcome other points of view.





Monday, February 1, 2016

Love Stories at the Toledo International Film Festival

Love stories on film come in many different styles, genres and contexts, and that certainly is the case with the two films, one from Mexico, the other from Canada, featured on the second night of the Toledo International Film Festival (TIFF) at the historic Ohio Theatre. These enjoyable films took an enthusiastic audience from "magic realism" to a sensuous authenticity rare in contemporary movies and Hollywood blockbusters.

Instructions Not Included (2013), co-written, directed by, and starring Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez, is the love story of Valentin Bravo, a Don Juan from Acapulco turned unlikely father, and the lovely baby girl thrust into his arms by a former lover, Julie, who claimed the child was his.  Accidental events and serendipitous encounters, with an overlay of magic realism and pathos, continue throughout the movie to the surprising and heavenly end. Life does not come with instructions.

When I think of magic realism I think of Latin American writers and artists.  I think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his richly woven "One Hundred Years of Solitude," and Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate," one of my favorite movies of all time.  My friend Teddy thinks the tradition goes back to Cervantes' "Don Quixote," which makes sense and also brings to mind all kinds of fabulous images.

In Instructions not Included, the magic realism arises from the character of Valentin, who creates a fantastical world for his daughter. Instead of a normal residence, their home is a colorful, over-the-top playground, with a tall red door for Valentin and a shorter red door for Maggie. Enter the Magic Kingdom, Maggie's world.

Colorful riffs splice through Maggie's daily life like oversized Diego Rivera murals or outlandish but loveable cartoons. Father and daughter romp in identical flannel pjs, climb mountains, slide down chutes, race in toy cars, play all kinds of fun games. Valentin's fathering style seems extravagant, over indulgent. The staid principal of Maggie's school, concerned about her attendance and unusual interests, voices the sentiment.

It helps that Valentin is not only an accidental father, but also an accidental stuntman. He is discovered by casting director Frank, who pushes him to become one of Hollywood's top stuntmen. This turn of the screw makes it possible for Valentin to support his daughter in LA style. It also creates opportunities for Maggie to develop her own fantasies and her own world of supermen heroes. Her father's stunts are terrifying, death-defying, like those his father forced on him in his brutal efforts to rid his son of fear and instill courage. Frank the casting director is Valentin's father, the famed Johnny Bravo, writ large!

Valentin not only creates a playworld for Maggie, he also creates a mother in the absence of the real thing. Intended to mute his daughter's fears of abandonment, he keeps the wolves of fear at bay, an image from his own childhood, by creating a magical mom: Julie the world traveler, adventurer, hero of the downtrodden, working with famous people, engaged in such noble work it's hard for her to visit Maggie even though she wants to, and will one day.

After six years, the poignantly anticipated encounter between mother and daughter happens, but without any magic. It bogs down instead in ugly realism: a nasty divorce trial, a DNA test, hurt feelings, white lies exposed, and Valentin's loss of custody. The reality runs counter to everything Valentin has created for his daughter's world.

So Valentin decides to sneak away with Maggie. They hitchhike back to Acapulco in the same way they had come to Los Angeles six years before.  A similar huge truck, smuggling immigrants from the border, picks them up. But Valentin returns to his hometown as a loving father with a new perspective on life, and a secret we learn only at the end of the story in a lovely Acapulco beach scene at golden sunset.

It's a secret that led us to believe Valentin was dying of an illness for which there was no cure. "The treatments are not working," we hear a doctor tell him. "There's not much time left."  We don't learn until the very end--because Valentin cannot bear to speak of it, because it is his greatest fear of all--that it is Maggie, not Valentin, who is dying of a genetic heart condition.  No instructions came with this tragic twist of fate, but we are glad for Maggie, who dies peacefully in her father's arms, her mother present, that this was so.

Where the love story in Instructions Not Included romps in magic realism, in Gabrielle (2013), written and directed by French-Canadian filmmaker Louise Archambault, it is steeped in the complex lives of adults with developmental disabilities and ends with a love scene pure and erotic. Authenticity without artifice, without elaborate glamour, costumes and sets, without the overhyped drama and computer-generated graphics of Hollywood movies.

Gabrielle explores the sexual awakening of a young women with Williams Syndrome, played by a women (Gabrielle Martin-Rivard) who actually has the genetic developmental disorder. The movie is sensuous, from the opening image of Gabrielle floating in blue undulating water, slowly, peacefully, to her longing to be with Martin, to the tender closing love scene.

Gaby, as she is called, lives in a group home with other developmentally disabled adults and is a member of a choir, the Muse, to which they all belong and where she meets and falls in love with Martin.  Martin is played convincingly by award-winning professional actor Alexandre Landry. The choir is preparing for a concert singing back-up vocals for the widely popular French-Canadian singer Robert Charlebois, a huge name in the Quebec music scene since the 1960s. Charlebois plays himself in a low-key charming way that highlights his talent and compassion.

Archambault's use of  nonprofessional and professional actors must have been challenging, but it created a unique chemistry between and among the characters that lends authenticity and depth to the story. The members of the choir are real and wonderful.  All the professional supporting actors are brilliant: Remi, the patient choir director; the gentle and empathetic manager of the home where Gaby lives; Gaby's loving sister Sophie and their mom; Sophie's boyfriend in India who works with poor children; Martin's overprotective mother.

Gabrielle is a love story beautifully told. Archambault perfectly captures the heart of the story in the image of a glowing Gabrielle and a joyful Martin at the movie's end.  Love conquers all.  The authenticity warms your heart.    

NOTE:
I had to look up Williams Syndrome.  I thought it was like Asperger's Syndrome, and there is some overlap that reminds me of my beloved brother Loren. Williams Syndrome is a little different but it too is a genetic or chromosomal disorder. It's characterized by mild to moderate learning disabilities and difficulty with abstract reasoning, spacial relations, and processing social cues, along with strong verbal abilities, "overly-friendly," even theatrical, personalities without boundaries and, interestingly, an afffinity for music. People with Williams Syndrome also share similar facial features,as well as a host of physical problems such as cardiovascular disease.  In retrospect I think this is what Gabrielle suffered when she got lost looking for Martin. Williams Syndrome seems to be rarer than Asperger's, which is on the autism spectrum, or perhaps it is under-diagnosed.  Living independent lives, as Gaby and Martin longed to do, is difficult, a constant struggle between wanting to be self-sufficient and a self-awareness of  your own limitations. It's frustrating, and can be depressing. With sensitive and loving intervention, however, there is help and hope. Archambault captures the struggle and the intervention in a beautiful way. See https://williams-syndrome.org/what-is-williams-syndrome  and 
http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/williams-syndrome

Take a listen to Robert Charlebois' Ordinaire with the Muse Choir in Gabrielle.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNWFOA2w6N4www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNWFOA2w6N4

Thanks to all partners, on this night ABLE, Toledo Public Library and Adelante, with great entertainment at intermission and great food from Mi Hacienda.

Final night of TIFF: Saturday, February 6
4:30  I Wish (Japan)
7:00 White God (Hungarian)