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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Filmmaker Wes Anderson talks The Grand Budapest HotelMarcel Proust, and Francois Truffaut at NYPL Live with the lively mind of Paul Holdengraber:

"Almost every Truffaut movie is his adaptation of a book he loves. And, his movies are filled with books. I share that affection for books, just even as objects as well as great stories."

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The Creator: A Film That Explores Alan Turing’s Enduring Question

by Susan Leem, associate producer

This week’s show with physicist Janna Levin spends a great deal of time discussing her novel about Alan Turing. Tonight, Ms. Levin is helping launch a short film about the legacy of the computer scientist and code breaker called The Creator, which makes its world premiere at the World Science Festival:

"[it] follows sentient computers from the future on a mystical odyssey to discover their creator: legendary computer scientist Alan Turing. Decades ago, Turing famously asked, ‘Can machines think?’ and ever since, the notion of computers exceeding human intelligence has transfixed researchers and popular culture alike."
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A Tight Focus on the Spiritual Side of Transitioning

MOVIE REVIEW
The documentary Rites of Passage by Jeff Roy follows a 42-year-old practicing Muslim and Indian transgender to Bangkok for gender reassignment surgery and puts her Islamic faith and ethnic identity at the center of the journey.

by Emily Frost, guest contributor

Maya Jafer

When Jeff Roy first met Maya Jafer in Los Angeles, he had prepared a long list of questions. But he barely got in one; Jafer had finally found someone with whom she could share her story.

Ms. Jafer, a 42-year-old transgender woman and a practicing Muslim from India, spent the next hours detailing a cultural and religious background that never accepted her and describes a personal journey full of upheaval. Mr. Roy, who had never made a film, decided Jafer’s story needed to be told.

Rites of Passage is all about the journey. The metaphor is central to the documentary. Before the film begins, Ms. Jafer has been on an internal voyage during two years of hormonal and psychological therapy. In the opening scene, she is moving again.

Without any explanation, the viewer is thrust into an airport in Thailand, the only place where she can afford gender reassignment surgery. The harsh lighting and close-up shots make it feel as though we, too, have been on the impossibly long flight from Los Angeles. The director favors immediacy and honesty above all else, shooting with a cinéma vérité style.

Ms. Jafer rarely needs prodding to open up. She views the camera as a chance to share wry and self-deprecating commentary. As she and a friend of the director’s, whom she just met, taxi to a nighttime shopping area, she discusses a sexual massage. There’s lightness in how she addresses this stranger as she tells him “she hasn’t had sex in two years,” but, after the surgery, men will be all over her. She’s basking in the liberation of her decision. There’s no turning back.

The film benefits from its tight focus on Ms. Jafer. These opening confessions hook the viewer. And lest the audience think the trip will be all light-hearted quips and high jinx, Mr. Roy cuts to the heart of the matter, inserting a climatic scene early in the film.

Maya Jafer in a Bangkok Taxi

Riding in a taxi through congested streets, Ms. Jafer speaks directly to the camera: “I have no one to talk to at all,” she cries, “all I have is God.” This may be the most intense period of her life, a turbulent mix of dread and anticipation. Though Mr. Roy is filming, he’s beyond her reach. Jafer is alone.

Here’s where Mr. Roy’s film strikes out on an independent path. Other American documentaries have focused on the enormity of transitioning from male to female or vice versa. They delve deep into the physical and social side of the transition. But what about the spiritual side? The tendency is to think of transgender or transsexual people as progressive and, by extension, secular. But Mr. Roy puts religion and ethnic identity at the heart of Ms. Jafer’s journey.

In the taxi, she begins to pray. The prayer has a soothing power, but Ms. Jafer’s trembling voice bespeaks the fear and anxiety washing over her.

Prayer and her faith are the only connections she still shares with her Indian and ultra-orthodox Muslim family. Her father is devout, and was also abusive. As a child she was awoken early in the morning, beaten, and ordered to pray. “How would you find love for God in that way?” she asks, sweeping tears from her face, trying to preserve her black eyeliner and mascara. It took Ms. Jafer many years to create her own relationship with God, separate from what she knew as a child. Here, again, the director lets the camera roll, and the uninterrupted scenes of Ms. Jafer struggling to regain composure don’t seem out of place with the “along for the ride” quality of the film.

Maya Jafer at Holi

Early on, the film establishes the stakes are high. “If it were not for God and spirituality, I would not be alive today,” Ms. Jafer says, pressing the palm of her hand to her forehead, her yellow headscarf slipping slightly. There was a time when she realized her choice was transitioning or suicide.

God plays a huge part in her decision to live — and to transition. Ms. Jafer pushes aside the temptation to curse God for giving her the wrong physical body. As the taxi pushes forward, she works through her distress, the camera tight on her face, knotted with tension.

The film is intentionally short. Mr. Roy trimmed the fat so moments like those in the taxi stand out, but it’s hard not to wish to see more of Ms. Jafer getting from point A to point B in Bangkok. In a later scene, she sits with a group of Thai men, sipping her first ever glass of wine and eating a bowl of long, steamy noodles. How did she get there and who are these men? They barely seem to know each other.

Back at the hotel, the film shows Ms. Jafer dancing in the dark, losing herself to trance music. She drapes herself across the couch, rises, and spins around her long, black wavy hair. Mr. Roy illustrates her moment of release — a respite from her direct confessional approach to the camera.

After the wine and the dancing, the film moves back to reality. Ms. Jafer, brow furrowed, consults graphic anatomical photos as a Thai doctor describes how the surgery works. The filmmaker’s choice not to interview doctors or nurses helps capture Ms. Jafer’s disorientation, as does his quick and choppy editing style.

Mr. Roy stays in raw mode in the next montage. Ms. Jafer has her photo taken and is shown nude from the waist up, her new breasts exposed. Her red toenail polish is removed, her genitals are shaved, and her playfulness is gone. She’s wearing a blue hospital shower cap and murmuring prayers, prone on a gurney and quietly weeping.

The film closes as it began, with movement — and with the audience thrown into the middle of things. It feels like a suspense movie. Kudos to Jeff Roy for transforming what could have been a very talky documentary into a film full of action. In the final shots, the camera angle is low, the world seen through Ms. Jafer’s eyes — the neon lights glaring down, the anonymous Thai nurses moving efficiently — and then the doors of the operating room swing shut.

Rites of Passage promo image"Rites of Passage" screens at the Palm Beach International Film Festival on April 15 and at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival on April 21 and 26. The full version, “Mohammed to Maya,” will connect with Jafer after the operation and will premiere in Mumbai at the Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival from May 23–27. A special preview screening of “Mohammed to Maya” will be held on May 1st at Metropolitan Community Church in Los Angeles, with a question and answer session with Jeff Roy and Maya Jafer.


Emily FrostEmily Frost is a radio reporter and online journalist. She is an Annenberg Fellow at USC’s Annenberg Graduate School for Journalism and an executive producer and host at Annenberg Radio News.

We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through ourFirst Person Outreach page.

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The Hunger Games: Reality TV Not Lost on Our Youth

by Steven Martin, guest contributor

Hunger Games Mall Tour - may the odds be ever in your favorFans give the three-fingered salute of District 12. The gesture is one of admiration, meaning thanks or goodbye to one’s beloved. (photo: Doug Kline / © 2012 PopCultureGeek.com)

I was certain I was going to hate it. All of my four kids have been fans of the series of books by Suzanne Collins since before they were cool; therefore when the movie was announced, we all knew the midnight screening on the night of release was a must-do.

But in the run-up to last night’s trip to the IMAX theater, the reviews I read and heard helped confirm my feeling that this would be a disgusting movie: violent, gratuitous in every way, repulsive to my social conscience.

I was wrong. Very, very wrong.

I tend to approach these cultural phenomena with a concern that my comfort level will be jolted. What I should be concerned about is what these phenomena say about our culture, and in the case of The Hunger Games, what it says about the generation that elevated the story to its current status. With an eye to the latter, I drove home early this morning with a deep satisfaction that my kids were smarter than I was at their age, and that their generation understands something mine did not.

First: yes, the movie is violent, and disturbingly so. The story is one about a future world in which a wealthy ruling class dominates a world that it is linked to, but separate from, itself through overwhelming police and military power, and entertainment that both enthralls and intimidates the underclasses. The focus of the story is an annual gladiatorial ritual in which representatives from the “districts” under domination give up children to a tournament of slaughter and death. Yes, this movie is based around images of children killing each other.

It is a valid question to ask: why must we tell stories that constantly elevate the level of violence necessary to grab our attention? Why is it now necessary to portray children killing other children, and children dying by each others’ hands? This is indeed an important question for our society to wrestle with. But more importantly, we should direct our moralizing to the question the film itself seeks to ask: why are we satisfied to be part of a society that finds it necessary to feed upon its young?

Viral successes like The Hunger Games reach mass audiences because they strike a nerve. The audience for the books and the film, the “millennial generation,” is not lost on the message. Our society is held together by a craving for violence. What is, say, middle-school football, after all?

We should ask: is it tolerable for us to send our young boys into a game that breaks legs, destroys knees, causes concussions, and otherwise changes the course of life forever? Of course it is! Not only does the game bring our community together, provide economic opportunities, but for the lucky few, college scholarships and professional opportunities. For the players, they are willing to risk limb and even life for a lottery-styled shot at fame and fortune. For the audience, we are willing to cheer when the fallen player limps off the field, or worse, is carried off to the emergency room, sighing a concern or uttering a prayer for the well-being of the child who may suffer permanently in the name of our entertainment.

The Hunger Games causes us to consider other forms of this structural violence. Not to only pick on the venerable institution of football, the film’s prevailing metaphor can be applied to all kinds of American institutions of empire: soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, Treyvon Martin, state-sponsored gambling (the lottery), Wall Street, and so on. Face it: our society is one that eats its young. Through its horrific portrayals of a society that dominates via a tournament in which children kill children, The Hunger Games might well shock us into seeing the way we ourselves do it.

After the movie, my kids wanted to know my reaction. Did I just see it as yet another violent kid-pic? “No,” I said, “I didn’t expect to come here and see a movie about the young Israeli soldiers sent to occupy the West Bank.”

In return I asked if, when they read the books, they saw them as overtly political. “Yes,” my fourteen- and seventeen-year-old kids replied. And while they discussed on the way home the ways the movie changed story details of the books, I went to bed at 3:15am knowing that the major theme was not lost on them.

It gives me hope.


Steven MartinSteven D. Martin is a documentary filmmaker, photographer, and activist. He currently serves as a founder and executive director of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. You can read more of his thoughts at the Uncommon Voices.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry and contribute a deeper understanding of the world around us.

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Is a Machine Gun Preacher What We Wanted?

by Martin Marty, guest contributor from Sightings

Sam Childers with SPLA SoldiersReverend Sam Childers poses with SPLA soldiers. (photo courtesy of Machine Gun Preacher)

Preachers, pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams number in the hundreds of thousands in the United States. They minister at the borders between what get tabbed “sacred” and “secular” realms, and as such cannot go unnoticed in public media.

Some critics in the culture wars complain that they too often do get unnoticed. But most representations of them in movies and on television evoke, in the minds of those who have positive regard for clergy, George Bernard Shaw’s often paraphrased saying that there are two tragedies in life: not getting what we want, and getting what we want. “Not getting what ‘we’ want,” whoever “we” are, used to be represented in comments that ministers, especially Protestants, usually came across as namby-pamby and culturally marginal types as if labeled “Handle with Care.” They often appeared begowned and silver-coiffed, viewed over the groom’s shoulder, saying, “I now pronounce you… You may kiss the bride.”

Everyone who knew, or was, a full-of-life cleric, resented that cultural posture. In today’s world, however, most clergy representatives on film are not suave mainline clerics, beloved Irish-American priests, or wan and thin play-it-safe rabbis. Today, with the rise of presumably Protestant born-again studs, manipulators of people, and takers-of-the-law-into-their-own-hands types, we see images of law-breakers with macho swagger. Those observations are background comments to this week’s version of the sometimes robed swashbucklers, in a film called Machine Gun Preacher. It was hard to evade reviews last weekend; two which found me were in our local Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.

Gerard Butler as Sam Childers in "Movie Gun Preacher"We don’t need to review the reviews or condense all details of the plot. The regular run of characters surrounds the Reverend Sam Childers: his ex-stripper wife, here “stuck with platitudes such as ‘God gave you a purpose, Sam Childers.’” The movie is based on a book which is based on a (presumably) true life story of a convict who gets violently born-again, thoroughly baptized, and self-licensed to pick up a gun and fight in defense of children in Sudan. Childers built an orphanage there, we are told and shown, and evidently does some good things for the kids. But that’s not what the movie is about. To compete today, it has to be violent, and is.

Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune deals with the scene in Sudan, personalizing it along the way. Here is how he voices the Gospel: “Staring down an enemy, he seethes: ‘The Lord I serve is the living lord Jesus. And to show you he’s alive, I’m going to send you to meet him right now!’ Blam! Another enemy, smote.” What does the viewer get to see in a plot plotted for today’s American market? Roger Ebert in the Sun-Times, on the reverend gun-slinger: he “is nothing but a one-dimensional rage machine.” So the preacher and the film-maker “can’t wait to get to the ass-whipping part of this inspirational story, [which] lacks any real sense of how Childers underwent his staggering transformation.” Well, “he isn’t the first to go to war in the name of the Lord— He’s born again, yes, but he seems otherwise relatively unchanged — He seems fueled more by anger than by spirituality.”

Until next week’s violence-in-religion movie comes along, Machine Gun Preacher invites some pondering: Is this preacher what we wanted? And, if so, who are “we”?

About the embedded image: Gerard Butler stars as Reverend Sam Childers in Machine Gun Preacher.


Martin MartyMartin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, including Pilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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Fashion Photographer Bill Cunningham Finds Beauty on the Street

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

"The wider world that perceives fashion as a frivolity that should be done away with. The point is fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you can do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization."

Fashion photographer Bill Cunningham is a personal hero, and I’m not that interested in fashion. I’m inspired by who he is as a person. I keep a photograph of him tacked up in my cube with the caption "I’m looking for something that has beauty."

Cunningham is compelled by clothing — not the celebrity status or pedigree of the wearer. He champions lively personal style wherever and whenever it captures his highly-trained eye. On Sundays, I like to soak up his weekly "On the Street" feature in The New York Times. Now he’s the subject of a new documentary, Bill Cunningham New York. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year. 

The documentary reveals Cunningham’s incredible work ethic and the ferocious joy of his work. Now in his 80s, he spends his days riding around Manhattan without a helmet on a beat-up bicycle. His film-loaded camera is always at the ready (no, he does not shoot digital), cocked to shoot someone’s interesting hat or low-rider pants.

In the evenings, he tours New York’s society circuit, snapping photos at charity benefit functions. He never eats the food at these events, and even refuses to accept a glass of water. He says this would compromise his objective stance.

While fashion has been the driver of Cunningham’s life and career, he describes his own personal style as dreary. While working, he wears a signature royal blue workman’s jacket. For years, he lived in a monk-like studio above Carnegie Hall stuffed with filing cabinets for all of his negatives. It didn’t even have a bathroom (it was down the hall). More recently, he has relocated to a bigger apartment. He asked to have the appliances and counters removed to make room for his files.

Bill Cunningham found his passion and calling in life. And because he did, he’s given a gift to the rest of us. Here’s a reminder from Cunningham to pay attention to what we see, and to look for beauty in our everyday encounters: ”Fashion comes from everywhere. It’s all here and the streets are speaking to us.”

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Ace Ventura Director’s Near-Death Experience Results in Documentary of Hope

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

I was not prepared to get a little choked up when watching this movie trailer. Partly because of the use of “new-agey” in the description below. But, it doesn’t feel new-agey at all. Just hopeful and aspirational. A big thanks to the Utne Reader for posting:

"You wouldn’t expect the director who gave the world ridiculous films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Bruce Almighty to make a new-agey documentary about the interconnectedness of all life—but that’s what has happened with I Am, Tom Shadyac’s earnest new feature. Read the full review …

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Cinema as a Moral Compass

by Susan Leem, associate producer

Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in "The Fighter" (2010)
Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in a scene from “The Fighter.”

"We are a storytelling species, and we have always used our stories to teach one another how we should live, and how we should not."
— David Gushee, "Teaching virtue at the movies in 2011"

In a recent article from the Associated Baptist Press, David Gushee, a professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, highlights four recent films, including The Fighter, that have narratives with accounts of moral virtue. This is a fresh way for me to share and evaluate new films.

I want more meaningful categories with which to talk about films rather than discussing whether it goes on the holiday viewing list or is an Oscar contender. Though I trust Roger Ebert’s judgment implicitly, the number of stars doesn’t tell me anything about how to live well or how to treat other people. Gushee’s language does.

What four films come to mind that have provided you with some teaching moment in the shape of a moral compass?

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Embracing Life’s Unexpected Gifts

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

Mid-August Lunch production still

"Finding happiness doesn’t necessarily follow from pursuing it. Sometimes the deepest happiness comes when you’re least expecting it."

I love these lines by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks from our show "Pursuing Happiness." They remind me that happiness can sometimes sprout in our lives serendipitously, without Sisyphean effort.

Grazia Cesarini Sforza (pictured in red above) is one of the stars of Mid-August Lunch, a lovely Italian film about a middle-aged bachelor who takes care of four elderly women — each with distinct and sometimes conflicting temperaments — during Italy’s annual August holiday. Sforza, like most of the cast, had never appeared on screen before. Reflecting on the film’s success and her own experience being part of the production, she echoes Rabbi Sacks’ sentiment:

"The film was … one of life’s gifts that you don’t expect at the age of 90. At 90 what’s gone is gone. … And then the success that it’s had and the friends I’ve made, the people I’ve met is something really. I hadn’t imagined anything like that."

What experiences come to mind in when you think about an unexpected happiness that landed in your lap?

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Darwin and Creation
Andy Dayton, associate web producer

This is the trailer for Creation, a biopic about Charles Darwin that recently made a splash at the Toronto International Film Festival. I noted the movie earlier in September partially because of the debate surrounding it. The film was having trouble finding a U.S. distributor, and its producer Jeremy Thomas stated it was "too controversial for religious America."

The film starts after the death of Darwin’s 10-year-old daughter, Annie, and focuses on the period where he wrote his seminal book on the theory of evolution, On the Origin of Species. According to the film’s synopsis, “Darwin is torn between his love for his deeply religious wife and his own growing belief in a world where God has no place.”

This made me think of Krista’s conversation with Darwin biographer James Moore for our program "Evolution and Wonder." At one point in the interview, Moore says about Darwin:

Always, I believe, until his dying day, at least half of him believed in God. He’d said he deserved to be called an agnostic. But he did make the point later in life that, “When I wrote The Origin of Species, my faith in God was as strong as that of a bishop.”

I’m interested to see how Creation's account of Darwin's life compares to Moore's: does it reflect the same understanding of Darwin and his struggle, or is it a slightly different story?

And, it looks like I won’t have to cross the border to find out. A few weeks ago the film was picked up by Newmarket Films for U.S. distribution. Interestingly enough, Newmarket was also the distributor for The Passion of the Christ — perhaps they’re well-equipped to handle a potentially controversial film.

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One Man Standing
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor

On the social matrix of the Web, one meets all types of interesting people and finds interesting stories through these happenstance relationships. Take, for instance, Sinan İpek. In a random checkup on the status of SOF videos, I found this Turkish filmmaker had commented on two SOF videos with themes of women’s rights: one about Kenyan women striving for a more verdant future and another about Diana Matar’s exploration of women and the veil in Egypt.

This documentary is too long for me to consider it a video snack, but it’s a compelling 25 minutes of narrative that grips you from a tender, darkly lit opening scene. İpek could have told the story of a paralyzed son and his mother’s love in an exotic land and made it feel foreign to this Midwestern American’s eyes. Instead I felt united in their fight for decency — as a journalist, as a father, as a compassionate bystander, as a citizen of the world, as a kid who used to throw snowballs at my neighbors never noticing the person behind the glass watching with eagerness.

Watch it over your lunch break, in the wee hours of the morning or in the still of night. You won’t regret it.

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Hitchcock’s Rope, Music for Our Autism Program

by Mitch Hanley, senior producer

Frame from Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope"

When we first produced our autism program a little over a year ago, I had just watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, a fascinating movie that was shot more like a play than a movie. All of the scenes take place across two adjacent rooms and were shot with one camera, meaning all of the edits were just end-to-end, joining edits, without any cutaways to other angles, etc. So, it is as if you are watching a play without any set changes.

There is a scene in the film where Philip Morgan (Farley Granger) is playing Poulenc’s “Perpetual Motion” at the piano and Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart) is asking him sensitive questions, with metronome in hand, intermittently dialing up the tempo with Morgan in lock step, playing this same piece faster and faster, the tension building.

That setting of the tune is rather anxiety-inducing, but I found the piece to be light and jaunty, with a tinge of melancholy, which reminds me of this time of year. I found James Campbell’s recording of that piece for piano and clarinet and set it into the autism program and it took on a whole other mood than was presented so cleverly by Hitchcock. You can hear the piece on the Being Playlist.

I tried to find the scene at the piano on YouTube, but I could only find the trailer in which you can faintly pick out an arrangement of the Poulenc piece for orchestra, in the background.

Hitchcock’s Rope — great movie, even if it is a bit grim. Check it out! Incidentally, if you rent the DVD, make sure you watch the additional “behind the scenes” segments; they explain the challenging shooting process (during one of the shoots, a member of the crew had his foot broken by a camera dollying across the floor!)

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