Friday, March 28, 2014

My Log 418 Mar 28 2014: Cinema Politica McGill screens stimulating film by Montrealers on global survival prospects

Montreal (Photo credit: Kristian20)
Reading (Photo credit: emilybean)
English: Roadside billboard of Deng Xiaoping i...
English: Roadside billboard of Deng Xiaoping in front of the city government of Qingdao (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The runaway, ever-changing technology of the twenty-first century is out of the control of the human beings who have invented it, who themselves have not changed in their basic characteristics for 50,000 years. This is the chilling conclusion that must be drawn from the stimulating, provoking film, Surviving Progress, first released in 2011, but re-screened this week to a mostly student audience by Cinema Politica McGill.
The film was made by a Montreal team of producers and directors, two of whom, Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, the co-directors who devoted six years to making the film, appeared after last night’s screening to be cross-examined by the student audience.These two men who appear to be completely au fait with what is happening in the modern world, gave generously of their time, but were unable to sound other than extremely worried (not to mention depressed) about our prospects of recovering from the present disastrous trend of the human race to eat ourselves out of house and home, and were certainly unable to satisfy the demand of at least some of the students for an uplifting, positive and hopeful ending.
This film is “inspired by” the 2004 book, A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright, a book that created such a stir when published that it won all sorts of awards, was transferred into the Massey lectures and created a sound basis for what seems to be the growing interest of people around the world in thinking about our problems from a global, rather than local, point of view.
Wright dealt with ancient civilizations and their collapse, which he said were caused when their inhabitants ran through their available natural resources. He wrote: “The lesson I read in the past is this: that the health of land and water – and of woods, which are the keepers of water – can be the only lasting basis for any civilization’s survival and success.”
We all know that we are not heeding this warning, but instead are destroying the very air, water and ecosystems on which our survival depends in the long term.
It is not mentioned in the film, but a similar message was delivered in 1986 by the globally-respected McGill archeologist and anthropologist Bruce Trigger, who in a lecture on archeology and the future , said we have entered a phase in human existence dominated by technology, that our current institutions and attitudes are incapable of dealing with the major issues, and that what would be required were the very qualities practised by paleo-hunters millenia ago --- such as tolerance, sharing, foresight, and the ability to participate in social groups and collective action.
This was prophetic, to judge by the lineup of “brilliant minds,” (as Mathieu Roy described them last night) who spoke in the film --- at least 20 of them from around the world and from every relevant scientific discipline.
They were interspersed with some wonderful images. In fact, the film’s opening was unforgettable: a huge chimpanzee with its baby came through a trapdoor into a small room where it tried to balance two simple L-shaped objects, one of which was skewed so that it would not stand up unless reversed. First of all, the image of these animals, their closeness to human beings, was rivetting: but when they failed to realise that they could have stood both objects up simply by turning the recalcitrant one upside down, the filmmakers were able to make an important point. One of their interlocutors, Daniel Povinelli, a Louisiana-based behavioural scientist,  said this experiment  indicated that only the human animal had ever had the capacity to ask,  why? And it was this capacity that led on to modern technology.  The next image was of a man walking in space as he worked on his space-station.
Some in the audience were obviously unhappy that the film was not more solutions-oriented, that it did not go into detail about how to solve the more urgent problems, like how to save the Amazon rainforest from destruction, or how to accommodate the growing demand of more than a billon Chinese that they should reach the level of consumption, and the standard of living of Western populations.  One of the men who spoke, Vaclav Smil,  a Czech-born, Manitoba-based  population scientist, said quite bluntly,”It is unlikely that the world can support one billion more people at the level of consumption of the United States.”
But there is no doubt that is what the Chinese are trying to do, and we are in no position, morally, to tell them to slow down, having done the same thing ourselves in the past.
Victor Gao, American-educated director the China Association of International Studies, rammed the point home by saying that from 1840 until 1978, China had suffered humiliation at the hands of other countries, when, he said, Deng Xiaoping had  put the country on “the right path” towards capitalism (a questionable conclusion, in my opinion.)
Much of the argument and explication was about debt and how it has been accumulated, the facts being that as countries were unable to pay even the interest on their Western-borrowed debts, so they found they had paid off far more than the original loan, but all of it in interest payments, none of it in capital, a treadmill to destruction.
(One of the few illustrations drawn from the past in this film showed that ancient Rome, when it got into debt, was one of the few civilizations that did not cancel its debts; instead it invaded, stripped and destroyed its neighbours until the Roman civilization itself collapsed under its own environmental destruction.
One of the implications of making this sort of globe-embracing film is that it leaves large areas of importance out of the reckoning. Or, perhaps to put it another way, it begs its audience to go further. Two areas that struck me were that of education: I felt like asking if the producers did not think we had too much education, which could have stimulated a probing debate on a different but related subject.
Also politics was virtually unexamined, only Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush having been chosen to deliver a clip of their notably short-sighted view of the world.
The conclusion in the film leaned heavily towards a moral resurgence of some kind, as an imposition into the current state of greed, consumption and faith in market forces, emphasizing the importance of a moral dimension that has disappeared as religions (for all the noise they make) have ceased to dominate the way the world is moving.
As readers can see, all these are big questions.

To my mind, we are lucky to have people like Roy and Crooks who are concerned about these questions, and are willing to spend their time in opening young minds to alternative worlds.
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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

My Log 417 March 25 2014: Remarkable film captures the courage, humour and resilience of people who live beyond poverty in Salvador, Brazil

Readers who might like to get a sense of the settlement over the water featured in this really remarkable film can do so by watching the trailer for the film, by clicking here.

Last night I saw the most extraordinary documentary film I have ever seen. It was screened in CInema Politica Concordia’s estimable programme of films that runs through the academic year, and deal with an impoverished community of 200 black families who live in the most dire of circumstances on pathetic, crumbling shelters erected on stilts over the Bay of All Saints, in the city of Salvador, Brazil,  a bay from which the film takes its name.
What is remarkable about this film is that the American director, Annie Eastman, manages to ignore all the informational imperatives  that customarily dominate this kind of film, by concentrating on the character of the people who are her central subject.
In this way she has produced from this community living beyond poverty, beyond outside recognition, beyond hope for a better life, a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit that is not only inspiring, but full of humour, fragrant with the amazing variety of the human species and that somehow --- don’t ask me how she has done it --- transmits to those of us who live in better circumstances some sense of the beauty of  human beings and their unquenchable will to live.
Of course, it is possible to take a different message from such a revelation of the desperate conditions in  which some people are forced to live. One friend of ours kept muttering as we left the theatre, “I had no idea people had to live in such conditions --- talk about man’s inhumanity to man, how terrible.”
Of course, that is a viable message to take from this film, and perhaps one that Eastman intended to convey.
But the method she has eschews the customary methods of investigative documentary-making for a more personal and wrenching approach, that of showing the inhabitants, or some of them, in their full, contradictory totality.
Ms. Eastman has the advantage of more or less falling into this subject. In 1999 she went to Brazil  as part of a small arts organization to work among the people there. She lived and worked in the community of the so-called palafitas, the stilt homes teetering over the waters of the bay, travelling back and forth to her
home in the United States, and dabbling in filmmaking, which she approached by helping friends make some documentaries.
When she heard that the Brazilian government was proposing to displace the residents of the palafitas, to demolish the homes they had so laboriously built, and to move the people elsewhere, she decided she would make this film. Since her whole approach to her work had centred on women and children, she began filming some of the people she already knew. Her central figure is a middle-aged widow Donna Maria, who has 19 children and appears to be looking after several small children who otherwise would have been abandoned by their mothers. Young girls between the ages of 12 and 18 are always giving birth, and one of the girls that Donna Maria is looking after, Rafaela, became pregnant at the age of 15.  One of
Donna Maria’s grandchildren, Rebecca,  is an enchanting, quick-witted youngster, born of a 15-year-old girl who asked her mother if  she would take her. And Donna Maria, who herself had been given away as a child, after which she worked for 12 years in the home of a wealthy couple who mistreated her, kept a worried eye on Rebecca but nevertheless did not succeed in keeping her under control. Rebecca is asked whether she would like to go live with her mother, but she said she would never leave her grandmother, would rather stay on the palafitas so long as she was there. But eventually, as various inhabitants drift off from time to time in efforts to find shelter in a stable on-shore home, Rebecca, still a preteenager, disappears into the city, and no one can find her. She reappears some years later.
The movie begins in 2005, and the passing of each year is marked by a date written on the screen. In 2006 the Bahia state governor, Jacques Wagner, visits the community, promising they would be moved to stable on-land houses. But nothing happens. They were given to understand then that a provincial agency called CONDOR would be the instrument of their salvation, as it were, but money which the province were given to spend on the plight of the homeless never arrived to help them.
In 2007 they record that three houses fell into the water, and “this whole thing is nothing,” said one of the residents of the promised provincial help.
The settlement had been created over the years by the residents, having established their shelters on stilts, dropping bags of garbage into the sea, to be used as landfill. When mixed with sand, it did build up a piece of land that gave some of them a less than stable foundation for their houses, but it also provides a home for
rats that are easily able to chew their way into the rude shelters.
An attractive woman, called Geni, describes herself as beyond the pale of civilization: “I am an energy-stealer in invasion,” she said, of her status. Urged to become their spokesperson, she says she
could not, she lacked he confidence, but when, in fact, she is elected, she finds something that can only be called remarkable eloquence.
One noticeable fact is the absence of supportive men, a feature of slum life around the world. An exception is Norato, an electrician who fixes the fridges and the multiple illegal electrical connections. He was born in the community fifty years before, has always lived there, and became a confidante of the film-maker, who used him as her chief interlocutor. As presented in the film,  he is an amazing fellow, full of jokes, sly, teasing, sarcastic by turn, helpful and full of suggestions as to the future that might lie ahead of the community. His choice as the director’s right-arm came naturally to Ms. Eastman, as she described memorably in an interview she gave in April 2012 to a website called

“He's been a good friend of mine the entire time that I've lived in the neighbourhood,” she said.  “He was the first person I talked to when I had the idea to make this film. I said, ‘Do you think it's even possible to have a camera back there, in terms of crime?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I think we can do it.’ He went ahead and let everybody know that I was coming with a camera and that it wasn’t really something that they should concern themselves with--they should just let me go by. He was by my side every second of the production….You know, sure, I’m fluent in the language….. But there’s still no comparison between my language skills and his…. especially in terms of talking to the people in his own neighbourhood. The dynamic he has with these women and everyone in the neighbourhood, it’s so authentic. What was of more interest to me than anything was seeing the way he reacted to them.
“He's such a natural documentarian in a way. He's the type of person who's friends with everyone. He gets into everybody's business. He talks to the prostitutes, he talks to the drug traffickers, he talks to the extremely religious folks. He speaks to everyone in the neighbourhood. There’s something very disarming about him. He loves to ridicule people but he does it in a disarming way. He may tell you that you don’t know how to dance or that your clothes are ugly, but you also feel that he would never humiliate you. He has such a talent for building rapport. That in and of itself was very interesting for me to document.”

In 2008 Rebecca was eventually picked up by Child Welfare and returned to the palafitas, back to granny. A glimpse of the outside world is provided by a visit from an aspiring politician Ze Beem, a man who, so someone said, was voted for later by the inhabitants, although obviously he is a man lacking in sincerity about what he said of their problems. Geni she soon found she was not being invited to the meetings held by CONDOR. Three more houses fell into the sea, the sticks began to rot and were not replaced, and the
outsiders from whom the residents normally bought wood for their miserable shelters would no longer sell to them any more.
In 2009 Donna Marie surprises everyone by beginning to take literacy classes. In 2010 finally CONDOR puts some of the people from the sticks into rental apartments, but word soon comes through that the agency is one or two months late with the rents, leaving the residents faced with paying, or being evicted.
As a result, others who go looking for apartments are refused because the landlords cannot expect to receive their rents.  A sawmill nearby to the parasitas had long been closed and CONDOR had promised
to use the lands to build homes for the water dwellers.  But when the residents break a small hole in the surrounding wall, they find plenty of empty land, that unfortunately had been infected by dengue
mosquitoes. A street demonstration brings the people behind such slogans as “the people united will never
be defeated,”  but when, eventually they are admitted to the presence of CONDOR officials, there is no explanation offered for the years since 2005 when they had first received money to solve these problems, but nothing has been done. That meeting ends with officials saying they had just received word that the money was being received the next day. In 2011, six months later, still nothing has been done.  The homes they had built are still disintegrating, perhaps even more than ever because they had been invaded by
rising seas, because, as one of the residents said, “the sea has been denied its place” by the new landfills.
The film ends on shots of bulldozers clearing land and creating more landfill on which supposedly new housing is to be built for the residents. But a screen trailer records that in seven years nothing has been built, that 137 families have been placed in rental accommodation (none of it in great shape, according to what we
saw), and 56 families have been moved to the outskirts of the city. Some 60 families are still living over the water including Donna Marie, who had memorably said earlier in the film that, having built her own house she had believed it was hers, something she owned, but she had since found it was not so.
It is worth noting, perhaps, that Luiz ‘Lula’ da Silva, of the Workers’ Party,  a left-wing, anti-capitalist party, was president of Brazil from 2002 to 2011, while all of the events in this film were taking place.
Ms. Eastman said in her interview that the main characters in the film were table to attend screenings of the film in Rio, “which was something I had dreamt about for years—the idea of bringing them to ‘the big  city’ outside of Salvador and having them to answer questions at the end and talk to the audience.” They
had been able to raise money for this trip, and  “it was truly one of the best weeks of all of our lives. It was  their first time not only on an airplane, but also talking to a broader audience about the situation they’d been living in. It was very rewarding.” Only two of the main characters, including Rafaela, were unable to make the 

trip…  Rebeca spoke and helped answer questions. (She) was just at the right age to get a lot out of it. It was a really exciting moment.”

Friday, March 21, 2014

My Log 416 March 21 2014: Diana Buttu tells Montreal audience the straight facts about the plight of Palestinians: holds out small hope from negotiations

Map of Israel, the Palestinian territories (We...
Map of Israel, the Palestinian territories (West Bank and Gaza Strip), the Golan Heights, and portions of neighbouring countries. Also United Nations deployment areas in countries adjoining Israel or Israeli-held territory, as of January 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Dam, 17 Mei 2008 During the 1948 war with the ...
Dam, 17 Mei 2008 During the 1948 war with the nascent state of Israel it is estimated that around half of the 1.4 million Palestinian Arabs were driven from their homes or fled, to neighboring Arab states. This period of Palestinian history has come to be known as al-Nakba, ‘the catastrophe’. Of the 750,000 displaced Palestinians, approximately 110,000 (mostly from northern Palestine) sought refuge in Lebanon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin,...
English: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. president Bill Clinton, and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It has occurred more by happenstance than design but in recent weeks much of my world seems to have been concentrated on the Israel/Palestinian dilemma. I have reported in this column on a couple of excellent recent films or TV programmes that have dealt intelligently with the issue.  And this week I attended a speech by the estimable Canadian-Palestinian activist Diana Buttu, who has been on a Canadian tour which brought her to McGill University under the auspices of the effective pressure group, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.
A week or two ago I heard her say, as part of an AlJazeera discussion, that the single state, which is increasingly posited as the most likely long-term solution to the issue, “already exists,” which means that the main issue now is “apartheid.”
That apartheid undoubtedly exists in the area administered by Israel can no longer be doubted, a melancholy development in a state that began its existence with such high hopes.
I should probably pause here to qualify that statement: after all, Israel was founded on the territory of an ancient people who had occupied the land for countless generations, so I suppose the problems that have persisted throughout its history were built-in to the original concept.
Ms Buttu, who apparently lives and works in Ramallah, on the West Bank, and who was for some years an adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, said emphatically in Montreal this week that she has always believed in the one-state solution. But she didn’t suggest its establishment is likely in any foreseeable future, or perhaps I should say she realistically faces the obstacles to creation of any single, democratic and acceptable state at least in the next decade.
Her account of the current situation rings true, and is depressingly negative (except that she still places great hope in the resilience and determination of Palestinians, which has kept them plugging away in their efforts to regain their place on the lands that Israel has, literally, stolen from them.)
She said that even within the borders of the state of Israel, at least 50 laws have been passed that discriminate against non-Jewish people, the majority of whom happen to be Palestinian Arabs. And her description of the situation in the West Bank showed that in terms of international law, everything has been turned  on its head. For example, in international law, the onus on a nation that occupies another nation is to guarantee the security of the occupied people. But in Israel, in the mindset of Western governments apparently it is the occupied people that are being called on to guarantee the security of the occupiers.
On the question of Israel’s recognition as a Jewish state, a similar onus is placed on the occupied people. In not one of the treaties, agreements or accords that Israel has signed with other countries has the other country been called on to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, she said. Yet now, said Ms. Buttu, that demand is being made of the people whose lands Israel now occupies --- illegally, according to international law --- a situation which, it  seems, is  very much akin to demanding of them that they shoot themselves in the foot (or, perhaps more appropriately, the heart.). The meaning of Israel as a Jewish state, she said, was perfectly clear: one race or religion would be given priority over the other, in other words, one race would be discriminated against to the advantage of the other.  No other construction could be put on this demand.
Ms. Buttu also spoke against the Palestinians having always to think of getting rid of the settlers  --- 550,000 of them at last count --- now living in their lands. Israel, unique among modern states, apparently has no clearly defined borders. And, as Ms. Buttu spoke,  I was reminded of a moment in the AlJazeera programme, Head to Head, when former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami was being pressed to say what percentage of non-Jewish population would be acceptable to him. He appeared confused by this questioning, said something like “I don’t know….20 per cent.”  How about 51 per cent, asked his interviewer.  “I suppose so,” he said, and added vaguely that the Jewish majority would have to be preserved.
If the two-state solution which is the objective of all Western-world negotiating on the issue is as dead  as most observers seem to think it is, then either Israel has to get busy making itself over into a really modern, democratic state, or it will have to confront hostility from a growing number of its neighbours and countries around the world.
Either suggestion at the moment seems far off. But the more likely to see the light of day, if you ask me, would be the second of these two choices.

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