Category Archives: documentary

Theatre Review: “Brimful of Asha” Brings You Home to the Theatre

Ravi Jain and Asha Jain in "A Brimful of Asha"

Ravi Jain and Asha Jain in “A Brimful of Asha”

Toronto’s Ravi Jain is at home in the theatre, and with A Brimful of Asha, at Soulpepper till Saturday during its national tour, he and his mom, Asha, make everyone feel at home, greeting each audience member with a fresh samosa and a “Thank you for coming!” Are they getting into character or just being themselves? “I’m not an actor,” begins Asha. What they present, with more reality than The Bachelor, is “not a play” but “a dispute” over the attempt to arrange Ravi’s marriage.

Asha and Ravi give contrasting perspectives on what happened when Ravi, at age 27, went to his parents’ homeland India to give an acting workshop in 2007 and they decided to come along to find him a bride. On each side of the generational and cultural divide, the question seems so clear cut whether it is for the parents to choose when and to whom their child will be married. But there are points to be made on both sides. As Apu says on the Simpsons, “Mother, come on, you know that 1 in 25 arranged marriages ends in divorce.”

Asha wears a vibrant fuchsia sari; her son wears a traditional Indian shirt with jeans and sneakers. No costume designer is credited, as the two are surely wearing their own clothes. The simple, homey set is a dining table and two chairs on a rug-covered platform, framed by a curtain in the centre of which is a wide-screen monitor where Jain periodically refers to family photos, maps, and video clips (set designer, Julie Fox; lighting and video designer, Beth Kates).

Ravi Jain is the director of this show he created with his mother primarily through improvisation, and he is an experienced, thoroughly trained actor and award-winning director (2012 Pauline McGibbon Award; founding artistic director of Why Not Theatre; an artist in residence at Soulpepper Theatre Company; inaugural artistic director in residence at The Theatre Centre), but while it is sometimes evident that Ravi is stepping in to keep a scene on track, it is untrained Asha, a self-described “dedicated housewife and abused mother”, who steals scene after scene. This is the role Asha was born to play.

Although the duo has performed this show many times in many cities since its premiere at Tarragon in 2012, it does not feel over-rehearsed, in fact it feels perpetually spontaneous, and it probably is a little different every night. The show is primarily humorous but with an undercurrent of tension always ready to pull you in. There is little by way of overt action and the simple production looks easy, an occasionally heated conversation as mother and son sit at the table drinking tea, but the story they tell is a rollercoaster ride, a contentious and intimate conversation to which they welcome us as witnesses. Asha very much seems to be enjoying being herself, and yet the two of them are going over a lot of emotionally charged memories and it must be a taxing experience to relive such painful and personal conflict in front of a packed audience night after night.

As early as age five, Ravi regularly entertained the “extended family” that was his community by mimicking India’s legendary film actor Amitabh Bachchan. Asha teases that, by pursuing a life in the theatre, Ravi is not allowing himself to move on from the first of life’s four stages, establishing a “real” profession, onto the next stage of finding a wife. The debate is real, but so is the love. At least in the context of the Jain family, the intent of arranged marriage is not to dictate but to ensure a secure and happy future for the child. Fittingly, the name Asha means “hope”.

 

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Filed under cross cultural understanding, documentary, family and relationships, perspective, theatre, theatre reviews, tradition

Premiere Turns Out to Be 71st Anniversary

A chilling discovery in my ongoing research for my play “Father Hero Traitor Son” which is to premiere in a few hours, on August 21.

My play refers to an escape attempt by four Canadian POWs; and while drafting a dedication I was looking up their full names, and discovered the date of their ill-fated escape attempt.

“On Friday, August 21st, 1942, four members of our group escaped from North Point including Sgt. John Payne H6016, L/Cpl. George Berzenski H6700, Pte. John Adams H6294 and Pte. Percy Ellis H6771 .” http://www.hkvca.ca/historical/accounts/williambell/chapter5.htm

Seventy-one years to the day. Let us remember them.

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Drop That Banana! Doleful Story of Corporate Malice and Control of Media

Bananas!* (2009) is a documentary about Dole food company being found liable, in an LA courtroom in 2007, for malice and misconduct. No surprise, they got that reversed. (Yeah, like a group of poisoned banana farmers from Nicaragua could win against a billion dollar multinational. Disney puts all the happy endings in their movies, not in their news programs.)

Bananas!* At Any Cost?

Just as Bananas!* was set to open at the LA Film Festival, Dole threatened to sue everyone involved in the production and presentation of the film. Plucky Swedish filmmaker Fredrik Gertten decided that, if they were going to sue him and try to silence his film, he would capture it all on film. The result is the nail-biting and inspiring new film Big Boys Go Bananas!* (2011).

Big Boys Go Bananas!*

As I sat down to watch my reviewer’s copy of the film, a friend offered me a banana. “Is it Dole?” She thought it might be Chiquita. I lamented (whined, blew hot air), “That’s no better.” I prefer my banana growers unpoisoned and fairly paid. As described in the film Big Boys Go Bananas!*, (and reminiscent of stories of corporate news-hijacking discussed in another fine new doc, Shadows of Liberty) Chiquita got an apology from the Cincinnati Enquirer for its 18-page 1998 exposé of how “Chiquita exposed entire communities to dangerous U.S.-banned pesticides, forced the eviction of an entire Honduran village at gunpoint, suppressed unions and paid a fortune to U.S. politicians to influence trade policy.”

Dan Koeppel, journalist and author of Banana: The Fate of The Fruit That Changed The World, says in Big Boys Go Bananas!* “We have an astounding lack of curiosity, the journalism community in the US; a lack of skepticism.”

During the Hot Docs film festival earlier this month, I interviewed the unassuming Gertten. I asked him what he made of this lack of curiosity. Gertten told me his Canadian producer of Bananas!*, Bart Simpson (also of The Corporation), “couldn’t get people interested in this story. [People thought it was]…too heavy… too much …Maybe it’s too dangerous.”

What has changed since Bananas!* [the first film] came out?

In my own country they say that Fair Trade bananas has more than doubled. In that sense, the Fair Trade farmers have better conditions than before. The conventional bananas are produced as they have always been produced, under a cloud of chemicals—one third of the production costs of conventional bananas is for chemicals. So my film, in that sense, hasn’t changed anything for the banana workers. What I did for the banana workers in Nicaragua is, they have fought for a long time to tell their stories to the world. I told their story.

Are things like the Occupy movement and Fair Trade making an impact?

The people who created the financial crisis are still in power…My new film is partly about the PR industry…When a big corporation has a PR crisis, they do everything they can to turn the story around. Can you imagine how much the banks are spending on PR over the last five years! And you can’t follow that money. Because, you read an op-ed in a big newspaper here in Toronto signed by some professor; that op-ed could be written by some PR company and paid for by a bank. And everybody’s hunting away with their microphones to interview the professor, but he’s actually just sending out a paid message from the most powerful people in the nation. And if we could follow that money, if the PR business was transparent, we could see, “OK yeah, but you’re talking—these guys are paying you.” Then we would listen to him in a different way. And that doesn’t happen. So, in these times when journalists are losing self-confidence and losing jobs, and the PR industry is growing and making more money than ever, I think we need to legislate about transparency. If they don’t want to be transparent by free will, then we have to ask for it.

Both films are playing in Toronto this week at Bloor Cinema.

For more information on the films, see http://www.bananasthemovie.com/ and http://www.bigboysgonebananas.com/about

Please read the published portion of my interview for more about why Gertten thinks a documentary about a banana company might be considered “dangerous”. Post City www.postcity.com/Eat-Shop-Do/Do/May-2012/Now-playing-Indie-filmmaker-Fredrik-Gertten-takes-on-food-giant-Dole-He-tells-us-why/

Now go enjoy a Fair Trade banana.

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Filed under communication and media, conscious consumption, documentary, fair trade, film reviews

Deaf Jam: the Poetry of ASL

Deaf Jam

Deaf Jam documentary (USA 2011)

Deaf Jam, a documentary which celebrates American Sign Language poetry, is screening on the afternoon of May 10th at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. People unfamiliar with sign language may find it difficult to conceive of ASL poetry. “Like, how does it rhyme?” Poetry in any language is about more than the sounds of the words and sentences; it is about creative ways of expressing ideas and emotions. And ASL is at no disadvantage in that department.

Whereas a word in English is made of syllables and letters, a sign in ASL has the following five components:

  1. Orientation (which way the palm is facing)
  2. Location (of hand(s) in relation to head/body)
  3. Hand shape(s)
  4. Movement (of hands/head/body)
  5. Facial expression

By manipulating these elements, an ASL speaker can express simple and complex thoughts in amazing, innovative ways. Sign language is equal to spoken language in emotional and intellectual range, and, just as English does, ASL uses metaphor, connotation, wordplay, and all manner of poetic devises. ASL is handy with puns and can be flat out ironic. English poetry can make patterns of word sounds; ASL poetry can make patterns of sign shapes. Signs can be shuffled, pulled apart, and reconfigured in ways parallel to how words can be in English and other languages.

ASL does not differ from spoken languages in its boundless capacity to convey even the most nuanced and subtle concepts and feelings. The difference is that, whereas a spoken language is, for a hearing person, an auditory experience—even when read silently—, sign language is visual (except for the Deaf-blind, for whom sign language is tactile), and although it can be transcribed for academic purposes, ASL is not written and read communicatively. Therefore, ASL poetry is not written and read; ASL poetry is performed.

Remembering the observation that, Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,I will not try to describe ASL poetry, but for a hint about the sorts of things involved, consider this scene from the film.

In Deaf Jam, Aneta Brodski,* a student at Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, NYC, is participating in an extra-curricular poetry program.

When Aneta introduces herself, she fingerspells her name (lightning fast) as one normally does, but when she performs (“raps”) her name, she signs each letter (designated by shape) with movement/location that incorporates the meaning of another sign so that her name becomes a story:

A + “dress up”; N + “look at me”; E + “I’m cool”; T + “walking in high heels”; A + “stumble”.

There is a lot more to ASL poetry than that; it’s really something you have to see. And the same goes for Deaf Jam, so if you can, go see the Canadian premiere on May 10th at 3:30pm, Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor Street West, Toronto. If not, find out more at http://www.deafjam.org/ or PBS.

*Aneta, like her parents, was born deaf. Her language, and the language of her family, is ASL. Statistically, this is uncommon. The typically hearing parents of Deaf children have to—or should!—learn signing as a second language.

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Shadows of Liberty: The Real News is on the Comedy Network

What’s the news?

If you had wanted to know what dirty deals Conrad Black was up to a decade ago, would you have wanted to rely on information from a newspaper he owned  (National Post – Canada, The Daily Telegraph – UK, Chicago Sun Times – US, Jerusalem Post – Israel, and hundreds of community newspapers in North America)? That’s what you do when you believe the daily headlines and the evening news. The vast majority of the “news” we are marinating in is owned by five corporations, one of which is Disney. Does it make sense to get your news from Disneyland? Not that every word is a lie; even the devil sometimes speaks the truth. But one is advised to seek better sources.

On the weekend I had the privilege of speaking with Jeff Cohen, journalist, media critic, and founder of Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR). (He will be familiar to those who have seen Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.) Cohen was in town for Hot Docs, the documentary film festival, for the world premiere of a documentary in which he appears, Shadows of Liberty. This stylish and important film, written, directed and produced by UK-based expat Quebecer Jean-Philippe Tremblay, takes its title from Thomas Paine

“When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.”

Evan: When “the news” is filled with celebrity scandals and sports, what does the word “news” even mean any more?

Cohen: News is changing in so many ways. It’s shrunk in terms of how much of it is about information we need [in order] to be informed citizens in a democracy. In [the US], one of the few bright spots that really has people thinking more critically is Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and Colbert Report. It does the kind of feisty reporting that news is supposed to do. In my country, you can’t say that stuff unless you’re a comedian. Since they don’t pretend to be journalists, they can get away with journalism. 

What effect will Shadows of Liberty have on audiences, and what can they do?

I think they will walk out saying “I can’t trust corporate news.” I think that’s the first thing. A lot of people in the movie have organizations and websites. Amy Goodman hosts Democracy Now!. John Nichols writes for The Nation. Hopefully people will leave the movie critical, not trusting, and they’ll search the internet. And as long as we maintain a free internet, they’ll be able to find alternatives, and those alternatives will keep growing if we can protect the internet.

Read more of what I heard from the director and Cohen at http://www.postcity.com/Eat-Shop-Do/Do/May-2012/Hot-docs-interview-why-you-shouldnt-believe-anything-you-read/

And for another spectacular example of corporate control of media, see what happens to Fredrik Gertten when dares to make a documentary about food conglomerate Dole. http://www.bigboysgonebananas.com/

My interview with that filmmaker will appear next week. [Now available http://www.postcity.com/Eat-Shop-Do/Do/May-2012/Now-playing-Indie-filmmaker-Fredrik-Gertten-takes-on-food-giant-Dole-He-tells-us-why/ Also see GoodEvaning post "Drop That Banana!"]

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Hot Docs 2012, Stranger than Hollywood

The Mechanical Bride

The Mechanical Bride

Hot Docs is the biggest documentary film festival in North America and, this being its 19th year, it’s old enough to drink. Cheers!

Although Hollywood films can include facts, and documentaries can include spin, amongst the 189 films at Hot Docs this year you cannot help finding some that entertain you, some than inform you, some that terrify you, and many which will do all that and more.

Films from all over the world that will shock, delight, enrage, inspire, or drive you to get involved in this astonishing world which continues to host the virus that is the human race.

I squeezed mentions of a dozen into my latest article at postcity.com and I wanted to post photos from a dozen more here, but I guess (considering the one photo I did manage to upload) it’s all too scandalous and tantalizing for this platform to handle.

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Water WAnTER: Waste Not Want Not

Water: Think Globally, Drink Locally

Whenever I think about what’s important, water comes to mind. Nothing does a body more good than water. I fill myself with water, I immerse myself in water. The closer I live to water, the happier is my life.

UN Water World Water Day

UN Water World Water Day

Water is it.

I would not claim that I use less water than others, but I think about how I use water, and I appreciate water. We use water the way we use the word “it“, without thinking about it, without considering what it means or where it came from or how we would get by without it. It’s crazy how it is always there for us.

Will water always be there for everyone?

If you don’t know what happened in 2000 when an American corporation bought all the water in [Cochabamba,] Bolivia, including the rainwater, then you have not yet seen the most important film so far this century The Corporation (2003).

Another film that should interest all fresh-water drinkers is Blue Gold: World Water Wars (2008), just one of the films being shown at the Ecologos free Thursday evening film series Water Docs in Toronto from March 22 World Water Day until April 22 Earth Day.

If documentaries aren’t your thing, consider the political weight of Canada’s water as examined in the dramatic Paul Gross mini-series H2O(2004).

Paul Gross mini-series H2O

What can one person do?

Appreciate your water. http://www.davidsuzuki.org/issues/freshwater/

Let others have their water. http://www.blueplanetproject.net/Involvement/index.html

Don’t stop bathing, but think about how much goes down the drain. Here are a couple of habits I’ve acquired:

  1. When running the water till is gets cold/hot, I collect that “waste water” in a pitcher and save it for my plants.
  2. BYOTW. I almost always bring a bottle of tap water whenever I leave the house. I’ve rarely had a day when I didn’t wish I had some water, so I try to always have some with me. (The only time to buy bottled water is when travelling in regions where the local water system carries little beasties my gut is not accustomed to and the other options are dehydration or dysentery. I’ve learned to go for sparkling water to make sure it is not bottled tap water).
UN Water World Water Day, How Much Water Is Needed For That

How Much Water Is Needed For That?

But water is wasted everywhere you look, and it’s not just about tap water and bottled water. Water is inextricable from agriculture, food security, the oil sands, etc., etc., etc. Water is everywhere wasted.

Happy World Water Day!

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Neverbloomers: In Search of Grownuphood

There are early bloomers, there are late bloomers, and there are adults who don’t feel in touch with their inner grownup.

Sharon Hyman, a 40-something from Montreal, started making “auto-documentaries” (her term) decades before YouTube came along. Like so many people I know, myself especially, she found as she was approaching 40 that she didn’t wear the badges of a grownup life. No house, no spouse (not even of the ex- variety), no kids, no definitive job title, not so much as a driver’s licence, “still waiting for [her] grownup life to kick in”. So she went on a filmic quest for that unicorn, the holy grail of identity, grownuphood.

Neverbloomers

Neverbloomers

Neverbloomers: The Search for Grownuphood (2011), a lighthearted but thoughtful 52 minute doc which will have its world broadcast premiere on Monday 27 February at 20h00 (8pm) ET/PT on CBC’s Documentary channel, is an investigation into a phenomenon memorably addressed in the Seinfeld (episode 1, season 7 “The Engagement”) “We’re like children; we’re not men!

We neverbloomers ask ourselves, “What should I have accomplished by now? What is expected of me?”

Tom Lehrer was once sobered by his observation that, “when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years. (Later in life Lehrer remarked, “I went from adolescence to senility hoping to bypass maturity.)

Neverbloomers gets a substantial boost from the onscreen presence of Canada’s sardonic star documentarian Peter Wintonick who made a film you would have to be ashamed not to have seen (yet), Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. And Wintonick is just one of a wide range of individuals – family, peers, neighbours, strangers, academics, spiritual leaders, mentors, medical professionals and, of course, a punk rocker turned banker – contributing jibes and insights throughout the film.

Hyman told me by email she wanted to interview “people who had the ‘external trappings’ that I lacked, to determine whether they did, in fact, make you feel more like a grownup…I definitely wanted to speak to a diverse range of voices – different cultural backgrounds, ages, etc…But these really are the people in my life.” She did about 50 hours of interviewing for the film, which she has been working on for 10 years.

Neverbloomers Sharon Hyman

Neverbloomers, Sharon Hyman

There is certainly a degree of narcissism in Neverbloomers, perhaps hard to avoid in a film that is essentially autobiographical, but Hyman is examining a phenomenon of which she is merely one example, presenting herself as a case study. In fact, maybe self-obsession (which has become status quo since the advent of YouTube anyway) is part of being a neverbloomer. I ask her whether neverblooming is a symptom of our times, or a cultural, generational, or economic thing.

“Sometimes I think this is the era of the Neverbloomer,” she says. “[Things] have changed – people marrying later, if at all (and then ending up divorced), the percentage of women who never have children has doubled in the last few decades, there are few cradle-to-grave jobs anymore, those sorts of things. And then there’s the lifestyle changes…[M]y parents had cocktail parties and belonged to the synagogue and actually went out of the house several nights a week! Our generation has TV and Facebook. Very isolating.”

She also tells me about the vanishing delineation between childhood and adulthood, “which leaves many of us wondering how adulthood can now be defined”. Some would argue that the distinction between childhood and adulthood – whereby children are coddled like babies until they are in their mid-teens or mid-30s – is an invention of the modern world of affluence. What once might have been deemed “work that the kids can help with” could now fall under the label of “child labour”. In some parts of the world people still marry before they would be old enough to drive in this country, because, when life expectancy is short, you don’t put off till 40 what you can do when you’re 14.

But the questions that are asked in Hyman’s film – When did or will you start to feel like a grownup? Why would you want to be a grownup? What is a grownup? – yield no uniform answers. Kids can feel grownup and grownups can feel like kids. So maybe neverblooming has always been around and maybe it always will be. Maybe this is simply the first time someone has given it a name – and made a film about it.

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