Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Election Day

Misleading arguments, outright lies, vitriol, more lies and more vitriol... the 2012 campaign will be a good one to put behind us.  And it's not just the candidates.  I find myself mustering all sorts of criticism for the "other side"--likely spreading half-truths myself; condemning family, friends and strangers who think differently than I do; and (although I believe everyone should vote), secretly hoping only my candidate's supporters will show up at the polls today.   

I care deeply about equality and justice for all, how our foreign policy impacts the everyday lives of families in other countries, and what kind of economic and environmental policies my daughter will inherit.  But as I look at this short list, I realize other things I'm passionate about aren't even on it. 

The first amendment.  Other than partisan ramblings sparked by the anti-Muslim video, freedom of speech has not been a serious part of the election conversation.  You know why?  Because - like the right to vote - we take it for granted.  

Today's censored IHT in Pakistan.
Three days ago I read an article in the New York Times titled "Gays in Pakistan Move Cautiously To Gain Acceptance."  Today, when Pakistanis open up the International Herald Tribune, this is what they're finding;  a rectangular white out covering more than half the page where that same article is supposed to be.  

It's easy to say "Don't take things for granted," but harder to put into practice.  Even harder to realize too late that what you've taken for granted, you've now lost.  Freedom of speech isn't designed to protect what is inoffensive or benign.  The ideas that need protection are the ones that are most provocative and motivate others to take some action as a result of those views.  Haven't we been trying to be provocative with our recent political Facebook posts, twitter feeds, blog entries and emails?  

Today, "freedom of speech" and "the right to vote" sound like old rhetoric.  They aren't.  

Speak up and vote. 

Thursday, November 01, 2012

A Mother's Love

This cough-assist machine removes
secretions from Greer's lungs
(since she can't cough on her own),
and lowers the chances she'll develop
 a life-threatening respiratory infection.

There are moments in life when you meet someone who brings you to tears because of the beauty they offer to the world when the world has shown them such extraordinary hardship.  That's how I feel after meeting 4-year-old Greer and her mother, Kate.  

"It's not a sad life, but it will be a sad ending if a cure isn't found," says Kate.  She looks over her shoulder while she's talking to me.  Unable to stand on her own, Greer is strapped into a medieval-looking machine that keeps her upright.  

"I. Am. A. Ro. Bot." Greer repeated with a wide grin as her mom pulled the straps around her legs and waist.  Now, she's coloring on the tray in front of her and quietly chatting to herself - just like any other 4-year-old girl.

After a series of frustrating, inconclusive tests when Greer was two-years-old (and was still unable to lift her head off the ground), the diagnosis was finally made: spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).  SMA is a terminal and aggressive disease that affects young children.  It's the number one genetic killer of children under the age of two.  

No one - not her doctors, not her family -  expected Greer to survive long enough to celebrate her fourth birthday.  But celebrate it, she did.   Zooming around Hull's Paragon Carousel in her electric wheelchair ("She parallel parks better than her grandmother!" Kate jokes), Greer was the life of the party.  

Said the Pulitzer Prize journalist William Tammeus, "You don't really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around--and why his parents will always wave back."

Today, researchers at the Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research are working hard to find a cure.  In the meantime, Kate finds hope in the scientists' efforts, and is using her voice to inspire them to work harder, faster.  

"Most mothers tell their children about the world.  I'm telling the world about my child."  

Thursday, September 08, 2011

A Reminder

I just arrived at the Club Quarters Hotel overlooking Ground Zero in New York City. In about 12 hours, my husband, Dennis, and I will join 43 other bike riders for a 270-mile journey back to Boston to support Beyond the 11th, an organization borne out of the tragedy of 9/11 and focused on healing the wounds from that day.

Towering near the hotel is One WTC -- a structure that continues to climb 84 floors. Below, construction vehicles buzz around the haunting crater where the World Trade Center towers once stood. I can hear the jackhammers and loader engines in my room as I catch up on emails: forms for fiscal sponsorship need filling out; a meeting for our Executive Producer at the Toronto Film Festival needs confirming; licensing fees need to be worked out with Brazil's largest TV network. Everything needed. Needed now. Distracting me from connecting with this moment, and the reasons I have chosen to be here.

And then I open an email - one of the most beautiful I've ever received - from Bonnie Pedota of Ontario who has just watched our film BEYOND BELIEF. This is it in its entirety:

I am a mother and wife (most importantly, but among other things) living in Brooklin, Ontario, Canada, just outside of Toronto. I borrowed Beyond Belief from my public library.

Just wanted to share how blown away I was by this film.

I was crying so many times watching the moving stories about Susan, Patti, and all of the women of Afghanistan that were featured. What brave and strong women, to create something so beautiful out of their deep mourning at losing their husbands. What brave and strong women are these widows of Afghanistan, to keep moving forward, despite so many cards against them.

What struck me most was the prosperity of our North American lives, and the relative poverty of their Afghan lives at so many levels, especially regarding human rights. I had the same “aha” moment as Susan when she was crying in embarrassment at her relative wealth after one of the women suggested she send photos of her home in Boston to Afghanistan.

As a mother, this film make my heart bleed for the Afghan mothers who can often not supply the basic necessities of life to their children, sometimes even losing them to starvation.

When I became I mother just five years ago, I feel as though I became a mother to all the world’s children. As a mother now, I so deeply feel the pain of mothers who cannot feed their children. Your film left me asking myself what more I can do.

Congratulations on an outstanding project and film.

Bonnie Pedota

Thank you, Bonnie, for reminding me how much what is happening outside my window right now is connected to the rest of our world.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Principle Voices: Alyssa and her passion for film

I was a really big theater geek in high school, and have always been into still photography. At some point during my senior year, I realized that film was a great way to combine these two passions. The ability to tell someone’s story through film appealed to me and I really liked the artistic aspect of filmmaking. So I decided that I wanted to pursue filmmaking at Boston University, and eventually I realized that documentaries appeal to me the most.

I spent about a year and a half in Chicago and moved back to my hometown of Plymouth about two years ago. That same week my alumni high school director told me about a producer at a documentary production company right in downtown Plymouth who was looking for interns. I contacted Sean, sent him my resume, went in for an interview and within two weeks I was interning at Principle Pictures. Six months later the internship turned into a paid job.

My primary position at the office is Beth’s executive assistant. Shadowing a documentary filmmaker has been a fantastic learning process for me. I’m able to see exactly what her job involves on a day-to-day basis.

I ‘m really excited about taking on some more creative roles with the company. We’re trying hard to increase the number of still photos we take while on shoots, which can be difficult when you only have a two person crew. I'm eager to help out with this effort- not only with taking photos, but also editing them and using them for social media purposes. I'm learning Adobe InDesign and Photoshop, and I'm super excited to try my hand at designing some of our press and promotional materials. I'm also hoping to make the time to teach myself how to edit this summer.

My favorite experience I’ve had so far is the trip I took to California to shoot for THE LIST. Beth called me at 11pm to see if I could fly out the next morning. I cleared my schedule, got coverage for my other job, flew out seven hours later and suddenly found myself in the San Jose airport in California. This was my first on-location shoot. I was Sean's production assistant and also helped with the logistics during our trip.

We spend five days with an amazing family from Kurdistan who treated us like family and cooked us an enormous meal when we first arrived. We all hung out and danced around. I had a really great time.
And with the happy moments there were some really tough moments too. Anna, the Iraqi refugee we were filming, visited her mother’s grave for the first time- a very emotional experience.

The trip gave me a sense of what it’s like in the field and showed me that I may have a knack for field producing, where you get to be on location and help with organization and logistics; one of my strongest skills. It would be a great way to combine and use my skills well.

To go from multiple part-time jobs which aren’t very stimulating, to working for this production company that does a thousand things at once, all of which are really important, has been a whirlwind experience. And all in the best way possible, because I’m learning everything at once and I get to figure out where I fit in and where my passion lies. It has been awesome!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Uganda's Justin Bieber

Alex Ssekweyama lives in the western Ugandan village of Kakumiro. His family's status in the community comes from his mother's success - people walk far distances to visit her drug shop where she doesn't only dispense life-saving medications, she also confirms diagnoses, makes referrals to hospitals and always shares a kind word and gentle touch. The family home is the only gated one on the street, and the property is packed with prized mango, banana and orange trees.

Life here serves as the inspiration for Alex's singing and songwriting. When he heard we were coming to visit, he put on his best suit - a dark, over-sized jacket with pants that nearly matched.

He was beaming when he greeted us.

My name is Rioman. Well, that's what I call myself when I sing, he grinned. And I want to be Justin Bieber.

He could hardly contain himself while his three sisters introduced themselves to us. When the youngest girl--a dimpled 7-year-old--was finished speaking, Rioman stepped forward to perform.

As we were leaving, he handed us a couple light blue air mail envelopes with this message inside:

Dear my friend, I am so grateful and happy that you have visited our home... Although I am still an upcoming artist to start my music and acting talent in 2013, I see it as my task to make your friends, relatives and parents my friends as well. As you go back to your respective homelands, tell them that Rioman Ssekweyama Alex loves them so much...

So there it is, my friends. A young man from Uganda who has talent, a dream, and the charisma to be discovered.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

What a Bat Reveals

As our car zig-zagged to avoid pothole after pothole on a poorly paved road in Eastern Uganda, we caught glimpses of life: a motorcycle passed carrying two men and a cow (the dead animal was on the very back and the passenger held its legs around his waist); locals dined at a restaurant called God is Good Pork Joint; and two men ambled down the road holding an enormous bat—an outstretched wing in each man’s hand gave the mammal a 4-foot wingspan.

We were in a hurry, but never has there been a better reason for a U-turn. We approached the men to get a close-up look and find out what they planned to do with it. “We’re going to eat it,” they laughed.

It’s true. Ugandans do eat bats. But Lilian, the health worker traveling with us, wasn’t convinced that’s what these men had in mind.

There is a common practice here in which bats are burned and the ashes mixed with lotions and vaseline to perform “genital stretching.” And it’s exactly that. Caustic herbs and lotions are used while the labia is pulled and pulled in an attempt to stretch it to the length a middle finger.

In Lugandan the ritual ceremony involving labia elongation is known as okukialira ensiko which literally means “visiting the forest,” and it’s believed – among men and women – to be a form of genital enhancement that’s necessary for marriage. It’s agonizingly painful and can cause permanent disfigurement. While it’s being done (up to 45 minutes a day for weeks at a time), the area becomes painful and swollen, making it difficult to walk and urinate. Some women who are not stretching “properly” are forced to wear a belt with weights attached to their genitals so that there is a constant tugging.

The goal, Lilian tells us, is to make sex better for men. That’s why she addresses the topic early on in any relationship. “This isn’t something just for people in the village. My male and female friends from university think it’s the right thing to do.”

She remembers the first time she heard about it. “I was fifteen, and my friend told me she was planning to do it. She said if I didn’t, then I couldn’t be a woman.”

Worried, she asked her aunt (Lilian is an AIDS orphan) who told her that the choice was hers. Grateful then, and even more grateful eight years later, Lilan decided against it. And now she’s become an outspoken advocate against “pulling.” Her friends were stunned when she wrote an op-ed against the practice, and even more surprised, she says, that she actually practices what she preaches.

“It’s hard because people in my tribe and in my clan want it to be secret. They don’t want it to get all the attention that ‘cutting’ gets.”

Unlike other forms of female genital mutilation in which the genitals are cut off, “pulling” is a practice that doesn’t carry the same international condemnation. But it’s something that plagues women their entire lives – starting as teens and often continuing through menopause.

Until it ceases to be the norm, Lilian refuses to be silenced, even if speaking out comes with a price.

“There are a lot of men who would refuse to marry me for this reason, but I don’t want to marry them. What if we had a daughter one day?”

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Riots in Kampala

Just as we headed out of Kampala yesterday morning, riots broke out across the capitol city. We got bits and piece of news throughout the day: AK-47 fire forced a shut down of all businesses, the U.S. Embassy was on lock-down, and traffic between Kampala and Jinja (the road we were driving) was interrupted.

“Oh Uganda!” – the headline we woke up to in the independent Daily Monitor – is right.

Outrage with President Yoweri Museveni over skyrocketing inflation (200-percent in the past two months for fuel and food) reached a tipping point this week when a popular opposition leader was violently arrested. Dr. Kizza Besigye had started a “walk to work” campaign to protest the soaring inflation, and the people we've met are grateful to Besigye for doing something.

"The government just doesn't care that we're suffering - that we can't afford to drive places or feed our families the same way," a mother of five told me. But by shooting, tear-gassing and beating Besigye, military police prove that the government isn't merely indifferent to the people's plight, it is ready to rule by force.

One editorial asked the chilling question “Is Uganda returning to the days of Amin?” – referring to Idi Amin who became known as the “butcher of Uganda” for his brutal rule.

We kept tabs on the riots throughout the day while filming some beautiful stories and scenes in quiet rural villages around important family planning work in the country. Around 7pm, we received the all-clear to head back. In the end, at least ten people were killed and about 100 injured. (Picture: Children surround photographer Beth Balaban in the village of Kitayunjwa.)

Things are quiet in Kampala today—“Weekends are for fun,” someone told us, so I guess we’ll wait to see what happens Monday.