A Muslim student is asked to draw the Prophet in this short film set in France, a few days after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Jan 2015. See what he comes up with (5 min).
A film on the life and work of three Indian scientists: Satyendra Nath Bose, Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, and Meghnad Saha, "the significance of whose contributions are of vital importance even today in quantum physics, fibre optics, nuclear science or astrophysics." The film's biographical sketches are celebratory and tinged with patriotic pride, but it still furnishes an engaging overview of their life and work.
Check out "Aftershocks: The Rough Guide to Democracy", an engaging documentary film by Rakesh Sharma. Set in Kutch, Gujarat, it tells the story of people in two remote villages whose lives are plunged into upheaval by an earthquake, an apathetic state, corporate greed, religious myth, baseless optimism, and other human tragedies (64 mins, 2002). Sharma is better known for "The Final Solution", a really good film on the 2002 Gujarat riots. You'll find both films at his Vimeo channel.
For a change of pace, I offer three of my many longtime musical favorites for your enjoyment. Click to listen to them on YouTube.
1. To Tragoudi Ton Gyfton by Greek singer, Eleni Vitali. "Eleni was born into music ... Her father Takis was a gifted santur player and a composer who had given music for the most important singers of the time. Her mother Loucy Karageorgiou used to sing in festive events in the evenings, and in the mornings she cleaned houses. They were of gypsy origin, with the tradition of music full of sadness and joy". The music is beautiful enough but see the following "interpretation of this song (with some liberty taken for the sake of rhyming)".
"Leave me alone, leave me alone
You only care about your own
I dont belong, I must go alone
"And when our women dance
They put you in a trance
As their fragrances surround you
With their arms around you"
2. Mamo Marie Mamo by Maria Karafizieva, who has one of the most amazing voices you’ll ever hear. She was part of Ivo Papasov & His Orchestra, which is apparently well known in the Bulgarian Gypsy folk musical tradition.
3. Douha Alia by Cheb Mami. He sings Raï, "folk music that originated in Oran, Algeria from Bedouin shepherds, mixed with Spanish, French, African and Arabic musical forms, which dates back to the 1930s." Camus fans might recall Oran as the site of his novel, The Plague.
For the most part, mainstream history in the United States has little in common with this trenchant narrative from a leftist perspective — and not because this has any less truth or clarity (23 mins). (They could have chosen a better title for this film though. :-)
Saartjie (or Sarah) Baartman isn't a name that many will recognize, outside of her native South Africa. But her story seems to embody so much about historical (and modern) contradictions of race and gender, violence, fantasy, exploitation, and prejudice, that she's become an icon for many, such as the founders of the Saartjie Baartman Center for Women and Children in South Africa.
Baartman was a young Khoisan woman who traveled to England in 1810, when she was 20 years old, to become a performer. In England, she quickly became famous as the "Hottentot Venus," the main attraction of a popular Piccadilly freak show exhibit, in which she presented herself as a wild savage tamed by her keeper. Dressed in a revealing bodysuit and beaded ornaments, she swaggered and growled for the audience, and turned to let them closely examine her famously prominent buttocks. Between performances, she lived comfortably, dressing as a European woman and going freely about town. She also fell to heavy drinking and her health declined. After a few years of this in England, she was sent to France, where her exploitation deepened, including her presentation as a biological specimen studied by leading scientists eager to promote their theory of white racial superiority. In France, she died of one or more undetermined infections at the age of 25.
The fact that the cause of her death remains uncertain is curious, given that after her death her remains were carefully examined, measured, and preserved in pieces. Of particular interest to these men of science who dissected her were her genitalia, which were separated and kept in a jar that was displayed in France's National Museum until the late 20th century. In 2002, after calls from the South African government, her remains were finally repatriated and buried, surrounded by a great swell of national feeling and homage paid in speeches, song, and dance.
I recently stumbled across the 2010 film, Venus Noire, the story of Saartjie Baartman, by Lebanese-French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche. (Watch the trailer, here.) Unsurprisingly, the film, which runs 2:40 hours and includes a significant portion of subtitled dialog in Afrikaans and French, was never distributed in the US, beyond the film festival circuit. But it is a film worth watching, difficult and complex and surely controversial for portraying Baartman's life with unmitigated rawness. Without a soundtrack, the earthy, deeply inhabited performances of the actors and complexity of storytelling give the film a realism that deftly and vividly builds the world around Baartman, while leaving her own interior experience largely open for the viewers' interpretation and projection. Not only does this relieve the filmmakers from presuming too much about what she thought—many details of which remain unknowable or controversial—but it also gives the film the heft of a sledgehammer without ever preaching or pounding home any particular message; it removes the matter from the realm of the debatable and forces us to feel, to confront her humanity with our own.
I had a pleasant exchange recently with Dr. Michael Yorke, British anthropologist, filmmaker, and Senior Tutor of Ethnographic Film, University College London. In the course of a discussion that began with my Kumbh Mela film, Michael pointed me to the Adivasi Arts Trust, "an organisation that promotes awareness of Indian tribal culture, and works with the tribes involving them in digital media projects to make their arts more widely accessible." AAT works with some of the nearly 400 Adivasi communities that survive in various parts of India.
Googling then led me to Michael's short film on the art of the Gond people of Central India and a workshop in Bhopal where "a group of Pardhan Gond artists worked with Leslie MacKenzie and Tara Douglas to create an animated cartoon of their own folkstory" (parts one, two). Read more about the remarkable Gond Animation Workshop, participating Gond artists, some Gond folktales, and samples of their music and dance. Other folk stories covered include those of the indigenous people of Nagaland and neighboring states.
Folks, it turns out that River of Faith has done well, amassing 27K views on YouTube in its first 3 weeks [and 75K at the end of 6 weeks]. Which means it has even bested a whole lot of cat videos! Furthermore, I've been persuaded to offer it on Amazon.com for those who like DVDs, including institutions. Check out the DVD cover below (sans barcode and DVD logo). This should be up on Amazon in early April and ready to ship within days (I'll announce when it is). Also, for the first time ever, a magazine introduced me last week as "a documentary filmmaker". Watch out, you documentary filmmakers! :)
Update (25 April, 2013): The DVD on Amazon is now shipping!
Last night I saw an absorbing film made in 1999 on the life and times of BR Ambedkar that is now on YouTube (in English, 3 hrs). It provides a good biographical sketch of an extraordinary and inspiring man who prevailed over some breathtaking odds. This movie shows why in terms of sheer intellect, critical scholarship, and humanistic vision, Ambedkar was head and shoulders above the better known leaders of the Indian nationalist pantheon, including Gandhi and Nehru. The movie also won several National Film Awards in 1999.
Also check out the 20 Aug, 2012 issue of Outlook India magazine that is dedicated to analyzing Ambedkar and his legacy.
Ecce Homo, a fresco painting on a wall of a Roman Catholic church in Zaragoza, Spain, is in the news lately. It is being called "the worst art restoration projects of all time", done by an elderly woman of the flock (the "restored" version is on the right). I have to disagree though! I mean, think about what Ecce Homo means. It means "behold the man". Had you visited the church, you would have walked right past the peeling fresco of Jesus. The "restored" version however captures your attention; you behold the man indeed, even if it is accompanied by a shaking of the head and the thought, "What happened?! How can someone screw it up so badly?" The bottom line though is that she was super successful in making the painting live up to its name. We are compelled to behold the man!
The "restored" image also prompted this thought for me: what if Jesus did actually look like that? Would anyone have listened to him? :)
HumaneMyth.org is a site dedicated to exploding the myth of "humane" farming of animals for food. It is run by animal activists who not only recognize factory farming of animals for the massive barbarism that it is (thanks to people like us), but go beyond and argue that it is not "possible to use and kill animals in a manner that can be fairly described as respectful or compassionate or humane." These activists desire a "peaceful transformation of our society that fully respects the inherent dignity and worth of animals and people alike."
Revisiting the site recently, I came across a documentary film, Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home. Below is a blurb and the trailer. Also check out the video excerpts of the bonus features on the DVD at the film website (one, two, three, four) and award ceremonies (one, two). It's just out on DVD and I've ordered my copy.
Peaceable Kingdom: The Journey Home explores the powerful struggle of conscience experienced by several people from traditional farming backgrounds who come to question the basic assumptions of their way of life. A riveting story of transformation and healing, the documentary portrays the farmers' sometimes amazing connections with the animals under their care, while also providing insight into the complex web of social, psychological and economic forces that have led to their inner conflict. Interwoven with the farmers' stories is the dramatic animal rescue work of a newly-trained humane police officer whose sense of justice puts her at odds with the law she is charged to uphold. With strikingly honest interviews and rare footage demonstrating the emotional lives and intense family bonds of animals most often viewed as living commodities, this groundbreaking documentary shatters stereotypical notions of farmers, farm life, and perhaps most surprisingly, farm animals themselves. Directed by Jenny Stein. Produced by James LaVeck.
Satyamev Jayate ("Truth Alone Prevails") is a brand new but long overdue talk show on Indian TV. Produced, "conceived and created" by Aamir Khan, a rare Bollywood star with a social conscience, it takes a refreshingly candid, data-packed, and emotionally powerful look at a range of social ills that plague Indian society. The first five episodes took on female foeticide, child sexual abuse, dowry, medical malpractice, and honor killings. The format mixes interviews with victims, prevalence estimates, cost to society, expert testimony, and potential solutions. I haven't seen them all but the one below on female foeticide impressed me greatly (Hindi only). Looks like it's also ruffling more than a few feathers. I hope it'll spark more discussion and commentary. All weekly episodes can be found on the show's YouTube channel.
A friend pointed me to this wonderful 1989 film on the life and times of Bismillah Khan (1916-2006), a musician as great as any that India has produced. It reveals Khan's enduring sense of place, his syncretic faith, his modesty and egalitarianism, and his extraordinary talent and devotion to music. The film presents many vanishing old world values, stories, and traditions of musical learning, with footage of the narrow alleys of Varanasi and its ghats by the Ganga, which Khan loved and missed on his travels. Though a pious Muslim, he also revered the Goddess Saraswati and often played at the famous Vishwanath temple on the ghats of Varanasi. (90 min, Hindi, no subtitles.)
It so happens that Bismillah Khan presided over the union that made my existence possible in the world! He played at my parents wedding in 1959, when he was a rising star, as a favor to my maternal grandfather who was a pretty senior official in the UP state bureaucracy. The photos on the right are from that occasion.
Here is an excellent BBC documentary, Ganges, on the river's Himalayan birth and descent, its journey through the plains, and its end in the Bay of Bengal in what is the largest river delta in the world. The series focuses on the natural history and human life along the river's course. The three episodes embedded below (one hour each) are: (1) Daughter of the Mountains, (2) River of Life, (3) Waterland. One critique I have is that by concentrating the most beautiful and the rarest nature and wildlife footage, the series encourages the highly misguided impression that the environment along the river's course is robust and thriving.
Alva Noë on what neuroaesthetics—a field that studies art through the insights of neuroscience—can never tell us about art:
What is art? What does art reveal about human nature? The trend these days is to approach such questions in the key of neuroscience. “Neuroaesthetics” is a term that has been coined to refer to the project of studying art using the methods of neuroscience. It would be fair to say that neuroaesthetics has become a hot field. It is not unusual for leading scientists and distinguished theorists of art to collaborate on papers that find their way into top scientific journals. ...
... Neuroaesthetics, like the neuroscience of consciousness itself, is still in its infancy. Is there any reason to doubt that progress will be made? Is there any principled reason to be skeptical that there can be a valuable study of art making use of the methods and tools of neuroscience? I think the answer to these questions must be yes, but not because there is no value in bringing art and empirical science into contact, and not because art does not reflect our human biology.
(Cross-posted on 3 Quarks Daily, where it has received many comments.)
Why the Bhagavad Gita is an overrated text with a deplorable morality at its core. This is part one of a two-part critique. (Part 1 is the appetizer with the Gita’s historical and literary context. Part 2 is the main course with the textual critique).
In mid-first millennium BCE, a great spiritual awakening was underway in areas around the middle Ganga. People were moving away from the old Vedic religion—which revolved around rituals, animal sacrifices, and nature gods—to more abstract, inner-directed, and contemplative ideas. They now asked about the nature of the self and consciousness, thought and perception. They asked if virtue and vice were absolute or mere social conventions. Personal spiritual quests, aided by meditation and renunciation of material gain, had slowly gathered pace. From this churn arose new ideas like karma and dharma, non-dualism, and the unity of an individual’s soul (atman) with the universal soul (Brahman)—all pivotal ideas in Brahmanical Hinduism.
Some of these innovations in thought soon made their way into the texts we now know as the Upanishads, setting them qualitatively apart from the earlier Vedas. All of this occurred in the context of great sociopolitical and economic changes, marked by the rise of cities, trade and commerce, social mobility, public debates, new institutions of state, and even some early republics. This was also the world of the Buddha, Mahavira, and Carvaka.
The Great War of Yore
By this time, versions of a Mahabharata story had been circulating for centuries. Perhaps inspired by a war that took place c. 950 BCE around modern Delhi (the date is tentative), the story, through oral transmission, took on a life of its own. In The Hindus: An Alternative History (2009), Wendy Doniger writes that the earliest bards who told the Mahabharata story came from a caste of charioteers, who served as drivers, confidantes, and bodyguards to the Kshatriya warrior-castes. While on military campaigns, they recited stories around campfires. (No wonder God is a charioteer in the epic! Even Karna is raised by a charioteer.) In later ages and in times of peace, many bards took their performance art to lay audiences in villages and folk festivals. The story also came to be recited during royal sacrifices, where the Brahmins slowly took over its delivery and evolution, eventually writing it down in Sanskrit. Its "final form" dates from 300 BCE-300 CE and ranges from 75K to 100K verses, seven to ten times the Iliad and the Odyssey combined. (Read an outline of the story here.)
The position of the colonizer's language within the changing culture of its former colony is always a fraught one, and the difficulty of the matter is severely compounded in a country like India, whose citizens never shared a common language prior to their colonization. Lack of a common language must be one reason why English persisted in India after Independence, despite the fact that it had little penetrated the colonial population. Although it's still far from being a language of the masses, English is more widely spoken in India today than it was in colonial times.
English remains a first language of the uppermost classes, and it's increasingly gaining traction as a lingua franca, the language of the modern office place. Yet Indian novelists who write in English have been taken to task for their choice of language, and questions regularly arise as to the "authenticity" of their works. These are matters worth discussing, but we can acknowledge that the answers will never be neat or straightforward.
In The Caravan, Trisha Gupta has added to this conversation by describing the surprisingly complex relationship of the Hindi language to Hindi cinema, suggesting a relationship that's always been difficult, if not contrived. Gupta describes the changing registers of filmic Hindi, and how, as Hindi filmmakers increasingly come from English-speaking households, and as more and more of their films are actually depictions of the Indian English-speaking world, this messy relationship continues with new challenges and artifices.
The Hindi film industry, [Shyam Benegal] argues, has its origins in a hybrid, cosmopolitan mix of people and languages. “If you go back to the 1930s and think about a studio like Bombay Talkies, you’ll find that the producer was Himanshu Rai, a Bengali; the main director was Franz Osten, a German; and the star actress was Devika Rani, whose Hindi wasn’t something to write home about!” Benegal says. “But in any case, directors, technicians—how does it matter if they can’t speak Hindi for peanuts? Actors, well, they can get language coaches. The only thing that makes a difference is the writer.”
So let’s talk about the writers, then. From the 1930s right up to the 1970s, Bombay cinema was famously a vehicle for accomplished writers in Urdu and Hindi. “Whether it was Pandit Mukhram Sharma, who wrote so many socially conscious films for BR Chopra, or men like Kamal Amrohi, KA Abbas or Wajahat Mirza, the writers of the ’50s and ’60s had a connection to the language,” says 51-year-old Anjum Rajabali, himself a well-known scriptwriter (Drohkaal, Ghulam, Rajneeti) and someone who has helped institute scriptwriting courses at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune and the Whistling Woods International film academy in Mumbai. Rajabali points out that even as late as the 1970s, most of Hindi cinema’s scripts were written in Urdu. Javed Akhtar—one-half of what is probably Hindi cinema’s most successful scriptwriting team, Salim-Javed—wrote in Urdu, which was then transliterated into Devanagari for the benefit of those who couldn’t read the Urdu script.
Partly for this reason, Hindi cinema may be unique in the world in requiring the services of a "dialogue writer" for each film, a writer who is credited separately from both the script writer and the director.
So why did Hindi cinema need the specialised ‘dialogue writer’? Was it because, as Rajabali argues, the film went directly from the story stage to the shooting stage—steered by a forceful director—and then all that was needed was dialogue for each scene as it came along? Or was it because, as Javed Akhtar points out, Hindi cinema—unlike Tamil or Malayalam or Bengali cinema—did not emerge in a region where Hindi, or rather Hindustani, was the spoken language? The roots of Hindi cinema lie in Pune, Calcutta, Lahore and Bombay. “Bengalis, Marathis and Parsis, who were great screenplay writers, were not necessarily conversant with spoken Hindi/Hindustani. So they needed dialogue writers who were,” says Akhtar.
Here is a clip from Peter Brook’s brilliant adaptation of the Mahabharata (1989). It contains the film’s rendition of the Bhagavad Gita. I am rereading the Gita now and plan to write a review soon. I’ll argue that given the catastrophic destruction of life by the war’s end, a more reasonable response to the Gita is to question, rather than admire, Krishna’s "wisdom", and to see Arjuna’s straightforward doubts about the war as more genuine and human. In my estimation, the arguments that Krishna employs to convince Arjuna to fight are not very convincing, and are often pernicious. By extension, I think the Gita is not a worthy guide to life (or the ‘inner battlefield’), at least not in terms of moral reasoning. It seems to me that Krishna, using a dazzling array of abstract ideas and psychology, brainwashes Arjuna into thinking that he has penetrated his illusions to understand ‘ultimate reality’, from which vantage point the great warrior is able to overcome all his moral doubts: hardly a commendable state.
My critique will be hard to dismiss as an example of Western/Eurocentric bias (especially by irate Indian readers, some of whom did just that with Wendy Doniger’s take on the Gita), for I intend to amplify a critique of the Gita’s philosophical worldview that was extant within India even two millennia ago, in the thought of the Buddha himself and then Nagarjuna. (To be continued...)
This talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie is not to be missed. I think it's worth the time for anyone interested in stories, language, reading and writing, not to mention class, politics, history, cultural and imperial hegemony, mental colonization, and so much more.
An interview with Nina Hartley, humanist, proud atheist, vocal feminist, and a pornstar with 600+ adult films to her credit:
NH: The widespread notion that legal porn production is a sink hole of abuse and coercion that takes advantage of poor, innocent women, is the biggest smack leveled against the business. It’s almost entirely a function or projection of people’s fears and discomfort about women, gender relations, sex, sexuality and the graphic depiction of sexual acts. The idea that a woman could choose, on purpose, to perform in pornographic videos for her own reasons still goes deeply against the notion that women are somehow victims of male sexuality, that they’re delicate flowers who need the protection of a good man, or the law.
The best protection for women everywhere, especially in the sex trades, is full decriminalization of all consensual sex work. Porn is legal to shoot in California. We pay taxes, buy permits, and the like. Any woman can pick up her phone and call her agent, or the police, and get full support if anything happens on a set. My biggest complaint these days is how the anti-sex work camp has, for the purpose of public confusion, conflated legal, consensual sex work, specifically pornography, with illegal, non-consensual trafficking of women for forced labor (some of it of a sexual nature). There is no connection between the legal material we make here in California and any trafficking of women. Full stop.
Are there some directors or agents with less-than-stellar reputations? Of course. This is not a business of selfless do-gooders (of course, the entire entertainment business is not run by selfless do-gooders). But the world can’t be made a child-safe day nursery. We either accept that performers are adults making their own choices (no matter how we may feel about those choices), or we go back to pre-Women’s Liberation days, when women couldn’t get credit in their own names, obtain birth control without their husband’s permission, or wear pants in the work place. Do we really want those days back?
But that's only part of the story. For a complementary viewpoint, on the impact of porn on men and women, read this by Naomi Wolf.
"In a remote corner of Arnhem Land in central northern Australia, the Aborigines left paintings chronicling 15,000 years of their history. One site in particular, Djulirri ... contains thousands of individual paintings in 20 discernable layers. In this video series [total ~15 mins], Paul S. C. Taçon, an archaeologist, cultural anthropologist, and rock art expert from Griffith University in Queensland, takes ARCHAEOLOGY on a tour of some of the most interesting and unusual paintings—depicting everything from cruise ships to dugong hunts to arrogant Europeans—from Djulirri's encyclopedic central panel." [—Samir S. Patel, senior editor, ARCHAEOLOGY.]
Last night I saw Status Anxiety, an intelligent and entertaining two-hour British documentary (2004) written by Swiss author Alain de Botton. It looks at our ideas of success and failure, the anxiety we feel over our careers, the envy our peers evoke in us, and why it's harder now to feel calm than ever before. Is success always earned? Is failure? What role does snobbery and envy play in our lives? What is the flip side of equality, individualism, and meritocracy? Where do our goals and ambitions really come from? And finally, how to get beyond all this. It's based on the book by Botton with the same name, Status Anxiety. If you only have time for a condensed TED talk, see it here.