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.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Millions for Mortenson

When Emmanuel College asked me to be the keynote speaker for their convocation ceremony last September, I just had to accept that I was their back up plan. "We tried to get Greg Mortenson," they told me with voices trailing off.

It wasn't that Mortenson was particularly hard to get - he just came with a price. A big, big price. He commanded $25k an appearance minimum. He demanded first class airfare. And the limo better be waiting outside baggage claim.

So much for Pennies for Peace. More like Millions for Mortenson.

Even though my image of Mortenson waned at that time, I still enjoyed reading "Listen to the Wind," to my 3.5 year old daughter, Isabelle, and marveled at all that he accomplished. Now, the 60 Minutes report that charges "Three Cups of Tea" is a "beautiful lie" and Mortenson's charity is taking credit for building schools that don't exist.

In defending himself against 60 Minutes, Mortenson says, "The program may appear to ask simple questions, but the answers are often complex, not easily encapsulated in 10-second sound bites." Actually, I think the key questions can be answered in a fraction of a second: Greg, were you captured by the Taliban as you claim in your books? Did you build all 170 schools you say you did? A simple yes or no will suffice.

With good work so difficult to accomplish in Afghanistan as it is, it's sad to think about what a negative impact this will have on all the honest people working so hard without even a fraction of the recognition.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

So, this is what film directors are supposed to do...

We just visited the Taj Mahal! Sort of...

Bengali film director Ahsanullah Moni made this decision: spending $58 million is worth it to give those who can't afford a trip to India the chance to see "the" Taj Mahal. He spent five years building a replica of the 17th century monument in Sonargaon, a small town that will be an hour's drive from Dhaka when the new highway system around the capitol city is finished in a couple years. But today it took us almost 3 hours.

Open for just a short time now, the Banglar Taj Mahal is already considered one of the best spots in the country for couples to get engaged, giving it the Indian reputation of the Temple of Eternal Love even though Moni didn't build it as a memorial to his wife as Emperor Shajahan did.

No doubt there's something enchanting about this pink-trimmed place--and its "in-the-middle-of-nowhere" location adds to its mystique. Good is coming from it, too. All the money raised from entrance fees goes to help the people of Sonargaon who often suffer food shortages.

(Pictured upper left: Beth Balaban and Director Ahsanullah Moni.)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Return to Dhaka

Written on Qatar Air Flight#344 from Doha

Dennis and I had been married for just a few weeks when we landed in Dhaka with our film crew in November 1998. Like I am now, we were working on a global health story, and we planned to spend a couple weeks in Bangladesh and then travel to South Africa for more filming and our honeymoon.

As we made our way to rural villages and documented women walking for days to reach health clinics, our driver played a constant high-speed game of chicken with the brightly decorated buses and trucks that filled the narrow streets. The sense of doom was so great, that every day we were still alive, I began to feel more invincible than ever—-refusing at times to even wear a seat-belt.

While we focused on filming, everyone else was paying attention to the nation’s favorite pastime: cricket. A big tournament was underway—and all eyes were on Jacque Kallis, the pride of the South African team who was admired here even while routing the Bengali players. White, handsome, tall and talented, Jacque’s picture appeared each morning in The Daily Star newspaper.

Enter Dennis—college football and lacrosse player at Harvard. White, handsome, tall and talented—and walking through Dhaka with a camera crew in tow. It wasn’t long before shouts of "Jacque! Jacque! " followed us as spell-bound fans shook our hands, snapped photos and asked for autographs (Dennis was more than happy to oblige, and there were many restaurant napkins left featuring the misspelling Jack Calis).

After two weeks of filming, we were on our way to Cape Town. And so were all the smartly dressed South African cricket players. As we weaved our way through the sea of dark blue blazers, green-striped ties and tan slacks at baggage claim, there he was--Jacque Kallis: Dennis’ blonde-haired doppelganger. Now it was our turn to snap photos and ask for an autograph. To this day we ask ourselves, What are the chances?

This magical trip went on to include sunbathing with penguins, the world’s highest bungee jump and appendicitis… but that’s another story…

Stay tuned for this trip's adventures with the two Beths - Beth Balaban and I are traveling together for a new branded film.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Principle Voices: Beth Balaban on Bangladesh

Associate producer and asst. editor Beth Balaban is heading to Dhaka

I’m really excited for my upcoming trip to Bangladesh. It will be my first trip abroad with Principle Pictures, and the first big shoot I’m a part of. It’s also my first time shooting one of our branded films (for Novartis), and I’ll be using our brand new camera, the Panasonic AF 100. I love this camera! The shallow depth of field, precision focus, and accuracy and saturation of the colors make the pictures gorgeous!

When I started at Principle Pictures I had a strong background in theory from Emerson University where I’m wrapping up my MFA, but very little practical knowledge. Over the past year, I’ve progressively learned more and more about each phase of the production process, starting with grant writing and pre-production and eventually moving on to shooting and producing. Now, I primarily edit our branded films, and so it’ll be great to come back into the edit suite with material I’ve shot.

Bangladesh is special for another reason: I’ll celebrate my 26th birthday in Dhaka! I’m hoping Beth Murphy and I – the two Beths – will go out on the town during our last night before flying back to Boston at 4am the next day. Then we’ll be home for a week before heading to Uganda for a week. Something else to look forward to! And we plan to do lots of blogging from the road on both trips – so, check back here.

Where Monsters Can Grow

To help start a conversation about the connection between ignorance and hatred, "Teaching BEYOND BELIEF" (written by Columbia University Teachers College) includes this poem:


Beware of the monsters
Who dwell in the mind,
Who grow in the shelter
Of shadows they find.

Beware of the demons
Who hide from the light,
Who only survive
When our spirits lose sight.

Those creatures can thrive
Where our knowledge is low;
They fill in the spaces
Of what we don’t know.

Beware of the monsters
That cause us to hate,
To strike out in anger
When we can’t relate.

For ignorance darkens
The mind and the heart,
And helps all our monsters
To tear us apart.

But learning and thinking
Will strengthen us so
We won’t be the places
Where monsters can grow.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Principle Voices: Sean on his upcoming Fulbright scholarship

Our producer Sean Flynn received a Fulbright scholarship last month, which he will use to travel to India and produce a documentary about life in Dharavi, one of the biggest slums in Asia.

The reason that I chose to apply to the Indian program specifically is that, prior to joining Principle Pictures, I’d spent two months backpacking around India with a friend of mine. I was totally enchanted and mesmerized by the country. It was a life changing experience on a lot of levels - one of those things that really made me start opening my eyes to the world. Even though I had already been thinking about getting into documentary film before that, traveling through India really cemented that decision for me. I wanted to bring stories from other cultures and other parts of the world to American audiences.

Looking back on that two-month trip, I feel like I was just skimming the surface. I never got to dig deeper into the culture. For the Fulbright proposal, I decided to focus most of my energies on slum called Dharavi where the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was shot.

I’ve been interested for a number of years now in the phenomenon of urbanization in the 21st century and the fact that in the last few years we reached the tipping point where more than 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities. I’d like to explore how cities like Mumbai are taking shape and how opportunities are distributed within them. What motivates all these people to pick up their lives, leave the village they came from, and move into the city?

The purpose of the Fulbright is to provide funding for scholars and artists to research and teach abroad, building ties between different cultures on a global scale and breaking down stereotypes. So there’s a sense of responsibility that comes with it - of being a cultural ambassador for the United States.

That idea has definitely given me pause and made me reflect not only on how I can use this opportunity to pursue my own creative goals, but also how I can do something for the community there and hopefully give something back. I know this will be another life changing experience.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Principle Voices: Kevin on THE LIST edit

Kevin Belli is Principle Pictures’ Senior Editor and Director of Photography

A whole day of editing, that’s how a typical day at Principle Pictures looks like for me, these last few months. I come in and review what I’ve done the day before. I try to macromanage myself and set daily goals. You can get really overwhelmed when you think about an hour long film for example. Every scene is like its own little film and it has to make sense in the context of the bigger story.

The most important thing for the rough cut is establishing structure. Beth Murphy (Director) and I will sit down and work out the film’s structure. The order information is presented, the order of the scenes, how the information is shared, how much information is being revealed... all of that establishes the pacing of the film.

I like to think creatively about how to tell parts of the story for which there is little to no video coverage. For example, a major part of Kirk Johnson’s character development in THE LIST is to tell his post-traumatic stress accident story: He was sleepwalking while on vacation and fell out a two story window. We have a few still photographs of Kirk in the hospital, and excellent interview material, but by themselves, I thought the presentation of the material fell flat.

The fun thing about being an editor is when a problem like this comes up, I can try to think of a unique way to shoot it or show it. In this case I came up with the idea of putting Kirk’s photographs from the Dominican Republic in a slide projector and shooting the projector itself and the projected images. So that became my coverage for telling this part of the story, and I think it provides a sort of a cool aesthetic that works well with some other stylistic choices we’ve made.

I have a love-hate relationship with editing, because it can seem overwhelming--especially at the beginning. For THE LIST, we have more than 350 hours of raw footage that we’re cutting down to less than an hour. And there are days when nothing seems to be going right, and a whole day will be spent trying to work through 10 or 20 seconds of the film. But then there are the good days - the great days. The days when it’s going so well I don’t want to leave the edit room. I love being in the groove, and there’s nothing like watching back a section that you know works. The rewards are so worth the struggle.

So I don’t view any of this as work. It eats up a lot of time, especially social time. But I love doing it because at the end of the day I’m working on a film. I’m making a movie! It’s fun, you know. It’s a mental struggle, it’s an emotional struggle, but at the end of the day it’s the most fun you can have.

Principle Voices is a new blog series that features weekly interviews with staff and interns to provide insights into what, how and why we do what we do.

Introducing Myself: Lara Sitruk

After working here for three weeks, I feel part of the PP-family. I’m up to date with most of the projects everybody is working on and the pile of plans for future projects which keeps growing. Common characteristics among my coworkers are ambition, interest in the world and the constant laughter that fills the office every day.

I moved to Boston from the Netherlands and arrived way too overdressed at my first day of work, thinking American companies are very professional and formal. Principle Pictures is professional, but more informal, which creates a very cozy, fun and motivating atmosphere in which to work!

Kevin Belli, Principle Pictures’ Senior editor, dragged me to the premier of ‘Jane Eyre’ at the MFA-museum after my first day of work, where we had just missed the President of the United States who was in Boston for a special event. That same week I got to join my coworkers at the Salem Film Fest, listen to music in South End and see ‘Educating Rita’ at the Huntington Theatre. I guess you can say people at Principle Pictures are very culturally educated.

One of my tasks here at Principle Pictures is to take care of our blog and keep you all up to date with our news, plans and adventures. To give you more insight in our projects and the people who work at Principle Pictures, we are introducing to you: Principle Voices, interviews with people in the office. This week Kevin tells us about what he’s up to right now: editing the documentary THE LIST.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Principle Inspirations: Poetry from Mary Angelino

Mary Angelino has been named one of 2010's best new poets.

Helping My Father Write His Father’s Eulogy

Instead of uneducated, write immigrant,
instead of mason
artist with brick and stone.

If you say worked hard, always
food on the table
, you won’t need
to say poor.

He’d want the Pslam read first
to get it out of the way.

End with the time
he drove to that mansion,
the fence as white as a rich man’s teeth,

Just to show you the tile rooftop,
blue as a thousand passports
cut from the sky.

Another of her poems, "Refugee," is beautiful and heartbreaking. She presents it at this reading:

Principle Inspirations is a new blog series that features those special things that makes us laugh and cry -- the things that motivate and inspire us. We hope you'll share your stories with us, too.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Remembering Geraldine Ferraro

One of my earliest memories as a journalist is of covering Geraldine Ferraro's visit to the University of Rhode Island in 1989 after she'd become head of the new Int'l Institute for Women's Political Leadership. I drove my white Fiero to the event which was held in the mold-infested campus auditorium where faded maroon-and-black carpet was made even less favorable by the low-watt florescent lighting.

With me I brought a Marantz pmd430 tape recorder, a microphone, and three packs of extra batteries--all stashed in my tan Liz Claiborne bag. After positioning the mic on its stand, angled precisely to the height I imagined Ferraro to be, I seated myself directly to what would be Ferraro's right. I imagined her right-handed, and, therefore, prone to looking right. I'd be sure to make eye contact, and be more likely to persuade an interview backstage.

As I moved left to sit, something under my chair reacted. I ignored it and sat. Ferraro began to speak. It felt like 1984. As she greeted us, something began to happen that I could not ignore: A giant cockroach darted back and forth underneath my seat. At first I just stared at the floor, lifting my legs up during every scurry. But an hour in, I kept my feet on the chair, hugging my knees into my chest.

I can't remember anything Ferraro said that night, and have long since lost the tape. But my memory of that night still makes me laugh. And Ferraro's acceptance speech five years earlier still inspires me:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mass Humanities Awards Grant for BEYOND BELIEF Education Campaign

Good news from the Massachusetts Foundation for Humanities! We’ve been awarded a grant to get BEYOND BELIEF and its new curriculum/study guide (written by Columbia University Teachers College) into the hands of teachers and students. In fully funding our grant proposal, Senior Program Officer Hayley Wood says, “I can think of few more appropriate ways to learn about 9/11, focusing not on the horror of the event itself, which may not be the most appropriate approach for young people, but learning about the event more tangentially, through the choices of people who were directly affected by the tragedy.”

Now that we’ve been awarded the grant, we can’t wait to spend it! The $10k will accomplish a lot. In collaboration with our partners—Teachers College and its innovative development division Edlab, Primary Source, Educational Collaborative of Greater Boston (EDCO), and Beyond the 11th, we will hold a series of professional development workshops this spring. Feedback from teachers during those sessions will be used by Teachers College to write a Teacher’s Manual, and online professional development materials will be created to extend the reach and impact of this grant.

This fall—in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11—Primary Source will organize a “Global Watch” of BEYOND BELIEF—a live event at Coolidge Corner Theater that will be streamed online, allowing educators and others to participate via Facebook and Twitter. Stay tuned for updates—we hope you can join us in-person or virtually!

The study guide has been developed with these specific disciplines in mind: history, social studies, English, peace studies, international studies, women’s studies, and psychology. While Teachers College has been busy writing, we’ve been editing a new educational DVD. New features include: 10-minute teaching modules, added special features from our return to Afghanistan, and a shortened version of the film that will fit into junior high, high school or university classes.

And we were thrilled to hear how effective the BEYOND BELIEF program has already been for students and teachers at Gill St. Bernard Middle and Upper school. “I have rarely seen students so moved and eager to make a difference on behalf of others whom they are never likely to meet or know,” says Peter Schmidt, the school’s Director of Studies.

One student explained her reaction this way, “Before watching the film, I felt prejudice toward Muslims… However, I learned my hatred was misguided toward the Afghan people who had nothing to do with the 9/11 terrorists attacks… I feel like my own wounds from that day have started to heal. This film gave me a powerful sense of hope.” This is exactly what we hope for – that students are able to internalize the film’s messages.

“This film and its study guide will move your students to talk about and understand the history of America and Afghanistan at war,” says Ambassador Swanee Hunt from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “The message is that this whole world is ours, we are all connected, we are all responsible for making this-our-world better.”

Initial funding for this educational effort came from the Fledgling Fund, making it possible for us to build the capacity for a strategic and robust campaign.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

In Defense of Malalai Joya's Visa Application

Almost three years ago to the day, Malalai Joya and I were bundled up in our winter coats walking through Boston Common, discussing Afghanistan. Joya hadn’t been back home in a while—she is always cautious about returning to Afghanistan, afraid she will put her parents’ and siblings’ lives in danger. Not to mention her own. As a vocal women’s rights activist who has since been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world, Joya has survived five assassination attempts and countless death threats.

But here in Beacon Hill with her slight frame and oversize coat, she was unrecognizable, blending in with the cities’ college kids while carrying a Canadian passport with a 1978 birth date printed inside the maple leaf cover.

As we took pictures in front of the State House, Joya’s smile was hidden by her long, dark hair that the wind swirled around her face. She held my 7-month-old daughter, Isabelle, and returning her to my arms spoke wistfully about how her life on the run would likely never be conducive to motherhood.

She had come to Massachusetts for a few events including the International Women’s Day program we planned: A screening of BEYOND BELIEF and a presentation by Joya.

I remember how uncomfortable it made some people in our audience when Joya gave example upon example of how U.S. policy--no matter how well intentioned--props up warlords and drug dealers and means more suffering and oppression for Afghan women. For years now, she has spoken vehemently against the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and our event was no exception.

It was a memorable night, and I was looking forward to seeing her again sometime this week during her book tour in the U.S. for “Woman Among Warlords.” That book tour was scheduled to start today.

But this time Joya was denied entry to America.

Denied a visa, according to her staff, because she is “unemployed” and “lives underground.” But America has long been a place of refuge and asylum for those fleeing persecution—something we can understand would make it impossible to hold down a job. What separates Joya from others like Iran’s Salman Rushdie or Mexico’s Marisol Valles Garcia is her attack on U.S. foreign policy. She says things that people just don’t want to hear.

Instead, Joya is now in the company of others denied visas –people like Kenya's former police chief Hussein Ali who was kept out of the U.S. last year because he is responsible for gross human rights violations at home. Last January, human rights groups celebrated Ali’s visa denial.

But no human rights groups are celebrating now. It seems clear that Joya’s visa denial is the result of what the ACLU calls “ideological exclusion,” an effort to deny visas to foreign artists, scholars and writers who criticize U.S. policy overseas. This was common during the Bush administration, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent lifting of bans on two prominent academics and a Columbian journalist seemed to signal an end to this racist, discriminatory, anti-free speech policy (one that is aimed at Muslims more than any other group).

In fighting one case of ideological exclusion, the ACLU wrote:
“No legitimate interest is served by the exclusion of foreign nationals on ideological grounds. Ideological exclusion impoverishes intellectual inquiry and debate in the United States, suggests to the world that our country is more interested in silencing than engaging its critics, and undermines our ability to support dissent in politically repressive nations.”

Whether you agree or disagree with what Joya says, the First Amendment protects our right to hear it. It’s a good time to remember President Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech in which he discussed ways to improve U.S.-Muslim relations through “a sustained effort to listen to each other; to learn from each other; to respect one another; and to seek common ground."

That vision cannot be realized if people like Malalai Joya are silenced in America.

(If you’d like to support Joya’s goal of having a book tour in the U.S. click here for practical ways that you can help.)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hello, Denver!

Barbara Bridges and her extraordinary Women+Film Festival know how to celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day! I'm here in Denver for a screening of BEYOND BELIEF and a fundraiser for our 10th anniversary of 9/11 national outreach effort. (All the while eating what is most definitely too much movie popcorn and enjoying beautiful French films like POTICHE starring Catherine Deneuve and QUEEN-TO-PLAY, Kevin Klein's first French-speaking role).

I am struck today by David Brooks' NYT editorial about our over-confident nation. As Americans, we're collectively self-indulgent and the accolades we expect don't match our merits. As Gerald Chertavian, founder of Year Up, told me this week, "There is no free lunch. If you're not willing to work your ass off, then you can't expect access or opportunity." Yet, lots of people do. And they want compliments, to boot! Not surprising then that a recent study shows college students would prefer to have their egos puffed up than eat their favorite food or even - gasp - have sex.

Brooks' most interesting observation is the link between magnification of self and the decline of values around citizenship. "Citizenship, after all," he writes, "is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise." He is focused on ideas of national citizenship, but I believe the same applies to global citizenship. It's important, then, to see ourselves as a small link in a larger generational chain - so that things that inflate our sense of self today don't mean abdicating responsibility for tomorrow.

The films programmed by the talented Tammy Brislin of the Denver Film Society are helping to inspire many thoughts about how not to succumb to our "all-me" culture. She had first envisioned a 2.5 day festival to honor International Women's Day - but after 2 martinis and 2 weeks of pressure from DFS director Tom Botelho, found herself in charge of a 6 day festival exploring and celebrating women's voices and the inclusive spirit that defines them.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Ironweed Film Club Features BEYOND BELIEF

Ironweed Film Club is a subscription-based club that delivers progressive-themed, independent documentaries to your door every month. Members receive one-of-a-kind DVDs with though-provoking, honest, quality films that are hard to see outside of the festival circuit. Each month a film (or films) are distributed based on a theme.

Our film BEYOND BELIEF is featured this month on the theme of FORGIVENESS. Check out Ironweed, and start your own film club right in your living room!