The marvels of ink and memory, of fatherhood and identity.
From Zone 8 to Cell Block to Urban Network Bookstore
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"My mama became my hero and my father became my mentor."
Hunkered down in a WDET motor city hoodie and a down sleeping bag listening to KAXE in northern Minnesota, I caught the first episode of The Listening Post, a documentary series from the BBC that “invites close, unhurried listening to the stories of individuals.” And wouldn’t you know it, the first profile tells the story of a Detroit native.
Yusef Shakur, who now runs a bookstore and community center in Zone 8, grew up in the same neighborhood and became a gangster as a teenager. At the age of 19 in 1992, he began serving a nine-year prison sentence. While there, he reaches out to his father who’s also serving time — a man he’s never met and considers “a sperm donor.” His father’s reply changes the course of his life:
"Son, let your past mistakes become your teacher because your mistakes can become our greatest education. … You must use this time to prepare yourself to leave better than what you came in as. Turn your cell into a university by rebuilding yourself from the inside out. … P.S. You misspelled knowledge, religion, envelope, address, message and religious. If you don’t have a dictionary, you need to get one. Words are powerful because they convey who we are. Use your mind to free yourself or somebody will use your mind to keep you a slave."
It’s a story about the power of a lost father’s love, hope and resurrection, and a tale of the meaning of time and attention in the most dire of circumstances.
Danish Filmmaker Spends Year in Wisconsin Documenting Contemplative Neuroscience Research with Children and Vets in “Free the Mind”
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
For the past year, Danish filmmaker Phie Ambo has been trailing neuroscientist Richard Davidson at his lab in Madison, Wisconsin. Best known for studying the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks, Davidson’s research has shown that meditation can literally change the brain.
He’s the featured guest in our show titled "Investigating Healthy Minds." While producing it, we were looking for sound that would illustrate some of his point and discovered Ambo’s yet-to-be released documentary, Free the Mind, contained a few audio clips that would help bring Dr. Davidson’s work to life.
In 2010, Ambo set out with her family from Denmark to document Davidson’s newest research with pre-school children and war veterans. We emailed her to learn more about her film, and her motivations for making it.
I met Richard Davidson for the first time in 2009 when he was in Massachusetts for a conference on mindfulness. I was there to look for a scientist who would be a good main character for my film, so I sat through four days of talks given by different experts in the field, and I immediately knew that Richie would make a great character when I saw him on stage. He is a very playful and curious scientist, and it’s easy to tell that he is very visionary.
What inspired you to make a film about him? How and why is Richard Davidson’s work personally meaningful to you?
The reason why I wanted to make a film on Richie’s work is that he is personally invested in his research. He is a meditator himself, which to me makes him interesting as a researcher on a very deep level.
Richie knows that meditation works for him, but he really wants to know how and why it works. He has his own bodily experience with meditation, which I believe gives him the tools to ask the relevant questions on a scientific level. To me it’s also crucial that Richie works with rigorous scientific methods and that he also publishes studies that show that meditation does not work for everyone. This makes him reliable and trustworthy to me.
Another good trait in Richie is that he is not afraid to ask some of the questions that may not be popular in meditation research like: How many of the people who take a mindfulness class actually stick to the training one year or 10 years later?
Do you have a meditation practice? If so, what kind of practice do you do? How has meditation shaped your own life (and brain)?
About six years ago I suddenly started to have panic attacks and it was very scary and disturbing. I went to my doctor and she wanted to medicate me, but I had a strong feeling that medication was not the right treatment for me. I felt that I had to find a way to work my way through this crisis with all my senses open, not closed.
By coincidence I heard about mindfulness meditation and I took an eight-week course in Copenhagen. It helped me a lot to just accept things as they were and not try to shove down all the uncomfortable emotions. But I also felt very strongly that something was physically changing in my brain as I practiced. I got very curious about what was actually happening to me on a scientific level, so I decided to look into this through my work as a filmmaker.
I still meditate every day. I practice different kinds of meditation -– lovingkindness, open awareness, body scan, and sound meditations. It’s funny because in my work as a documentary filmmaker I often struggle with accepting reality as it is; I can’t control what happens when I shoot and this is both the best and worst about working with reality. But the way I see it, meditation is very much about being in the present moment and experiencing it fully without wanting to change it -– and this is really helpful to remember in my job. In many ways my meditation practice helps me to stay open towards any changes that may occur during shooting and just go with whatever happens.
You traveled inside this emerging world of contemplative neuroscience during the filming process. How did your understanding of contemplative neuroscience deepen or change?
In the beginning of my research process, it was very important to me that the meditation form being studied was mindfulness, so I was a bit thrown off when I found out that one of the experiments that I was following for the film had changed into being about a specific breathing technique and yoga, which was not Buddhist based.
This was an experiment with vets who suffer from PTSD and they go through a seven-day workshop. I was worried that just sitting down breathing would be too subtle to make interesting cinematic scenes with the vets, but it turned out that the breathing activated all kinds of emotions that came out during the workshop. This made the study very suitable for the documentary film, and I realized that the contemplative practices all stand on a pretty similar ground so they produce some of the same effects too. It’s not so important whether it’s Buddhist or not.
Tell us a little bit about the filming process. How long did you document Richard Davidson and his research? What aspects of his research did you look at? What’s the story you’re trying to tell?
I went to Madison three times to prepare for the shooting and make sure that we were all on the same page and then I brought my husband and two kids for six weeks in the fall of 2010 where I did almost all of the scenes for the film. I was in India briefly with Richie to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama and then back again in Madison in the spring of 2011 to do the very last scenes for the film.
I had decided to make a film that would appeal to a wide audience because I think it’s important for everyone to know about these alternative ways to work with our health. I think that a lot of people get turned off if they feel that this film is too academic for them so I chose to make it a case-based story where we follow three characters that go through studies set in Richie’s lab.
Two of them are vets and one is a five-year-old child. What I really like about the studies that these two extremely different groups go through is that they are very similar; they all learn to concentrate and become more aware of themselves and their surroundings. So the story that I would like to tell is that essentially all human beings are alike even though we seem very different on the surface. We are all just trying to achieve happiness. The good news is that we can work intentionally towards that goal because our brains are plastic and we have the potential to change all through life.
What did you see on the ground while filming that made a lasting impression on you? Is there a particular story or experience that stands out?
I really like some of the more poetic moments in the film. One of the vets sits in his own thoughts halfway through the workshop and then he says, “I’ve just come to the realization that I haven’t really lived since I’ve been back. I’ve just been kind of here.” This guy has stopped making plans for his life, but at the end of the workshop he starts to talk about running a marathon!
Another moving moment is when a vet says that he used to be a kid who was smiling all the time for no reason and now he’s grown cynical and closed off and he never smiles. At the end of the workshop, he has a smile on his face during a meditation.
The little kid in the film, Will, also has a wonderful scene in the film when during class the kids are talking about how to make a plant grow. The other kids say “sun, soil, and water” but Will says “love” in a clear voice “because if you don’t love it, it won’t grow!” These are all little steps that the characters take on their journey that I feel incredibly privileged to be witnessing through my camera.
Free the Mind is slated for release in the spring of 2012.
The Purest Bicycle Rider
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
How many of us have passed by a stranger on the street or sat near a person on a bus or a train so many times but we’ve never really known much more about that person than the judgments and stories we’ve created in our heads? For some Bostonians, this documentary makes that introduction. The film does a lovely job of introducing Louie the bike rider and shows you his passion for one thing — riding bicycle.
If any of you Bostonians see this, comment or drop us a line if you recognize Louie. I’d love to hear what you think.
Before the Destruction: A Dublin School for Deaf Boys and Its Demise (photos)
by Tristan Hutchinson, guest contributor
Up the main steps of the building and into the hallway, four floors of corridors that lead to numerous rooms. Inside the rooms sit beds with sheets on, jars of hair and face products, old TV sets. Classrooms of books, teaching aids and chairs. When the building falls into dust, with it go the memories.
After the Famine, the Catholic Church, together with the Christian Brothers, established St. Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Cabra, on Dublin’s north side, in 1857. The deaf population of Ireland was of particular concern to the Church as they had received no religious teaching, and emphasis was placed on religious instruction through sign language.
St. Joseph’s played a significant role in the formation of the Irish deaf community. Here, boys were also taught trades such as tailoring and shoemaking, and the school produced many skilled craftsmen. Tuition through sign language continued until 1957 when the controversial oralism method was introduced, prompting a separation of boys based on communication ability.
After a series of media revelations in the 1990’s about child abuse in Irish institutions, the government set up the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA), and, after a lengthy investigation, produced the Ryan Report. This report outlined hundreds of systematic and “endemic” cases of abuse of children in institutions, including St. Joseph’s, and found a culture of abuse that for many years government inspectors failed to stop. St. Joseph’s was the only school featured in the Ryan Report where parents had sent their children voluntarily.
In 2006, the Christian Brothers acknowledged that boys in their care had suffered sexual and physical abuse at the hands of “individuals,” remarking that sexual abuse was seen as a “moral failing on the part of the Brother in question.” Boys reported instances of rape and molestation by staff. Others were engaged in sex talk and were shown adult movies in their rooms. The Commission also revealed that this level of systematic abuse led to a disturbing trend of peer abuse.
The Ryan Report states that children were not believed when instances of abuse were reported, and were more often than not ignored. At best, offenders were removed from the school and sent to another, where abuse continued. Recent studies show that deaf children are more at risk of physical, mental, and sexual abuse, with some studies stating a risk two to three times higher as these children may not be able to communicate their experiences, or understand what has happened.
The CICA report contained allegations of abuse stemming from 1914 to when the commission started, and the intention of the CICA was to publicly name the abusers, but was blocked in doing so by a right-to-privacy lawsuit taken out by the Christian Brothers. As well as this, an indemnity deal between a number of religious orders involved and the government allowed the Orders to avoid paying the full cost, and an eventual settlement of over €400 million was agreed, with the Irish taxpayers picking up the rest of the compensation. The report also opened up and criticized evidence of State and Church collusion during the period of abuse.
In 2006, the Christian Brothers relinquished control of Irish schools, bringing to an end over 200 years of management that formed the backbone of Irish education. This year sees St. Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys demolished, making way for a new national deaf centre.
For some, the school represented an opportunity to develop and excel in a safe environment. Trades were taught and the school produced many skilled craftsmen. For others, it was a place of shame and brutality. When the oralism method was introduced, those who were profoundly deaf were segregated from others, kept apart in classes and in living quarters. It bred a system of fear into the lives of children who were seen as particularly vulnerable.
I started the project with the intention of documenting what remained of St. Joseph’s before its demolition.
Some spaces were stripped bare.
Dorm rooms empty.
And sinks taped off.
Other rooms contained years of relics, objects, files, and reminders of the past.
On the walls scrawled graffiti; chalkboards still had writing.
There were beds with sheets still on. Bottles of hair products and tonics.
The building echoed my footsteps, yet the past was tangible and loud in the silence.
I wanted to document all this before the building disappeared into the dust.
Tristan Hutchinson is a photographer based in Dublin, Ireland. He’s currently working on a project in the home of his mother’s birth, Cobh, a small harbor town in the south of Ireland, which has one of the highest incidences of cancer in the country. You can see more of his work on his website or follow him on Tumblr.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
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.”
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 …”
Film on Canadian Hutterites Is Reward Enough
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
It’s hard to watch The Hutterites and not wonder what has changed, and stayed the same, since 1964 for this Anabaptist community. But this is a piece of cultural history worth absorbing without thinking about the present.
Colin Low, a Canadian filmmaker who inspired Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed this 28-minute documentary profiling a Hutterite community in Alberta, Canada. Not only is this film very informative about the lifestyle and beliefs of a relatively obscure communal people, this film is beautifully produced and an interesting example of the history of documentary technique. Here’s a taste of the narration:
"The memory of what the world once did to them remains with every Hutterite, and to a large degree they still mistrust the world and what they consider its false values. All Susie Chetter owns is contained in a hope chest. She will never have more money to spend than a child with an allowance. She probably will never see a movie or a television show. She knows nothing of science; little of art. She was baptized at 19 and made her vows, and now she is free to marry. If she should one day have children of her own, despite the sacrifices demanded by her belief, her dearest hope is that their lives will differ in no essential way from her own life."
Sometimes, researching a book suggestion yields serendipitous rewards in the form of an engaging video “snack” on this Friday morning.
Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada
The Offering: A Sculptural Site Intervention
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Meditation and contemplation take many forms. Often we (at least I do) think of this act of introspection and focus as being a peaceful, tranquil experience where the noise of machinery recedes to make way for internal silence and harmony. But, Australian artist Robbie Rowlands' creative vision saddles up those moments of sitting and evaluating with the harmonious execution of circular saws and hammers. They are more than instruments of delivery; they are the yogis, to some extent:
"The cut, for me, is so violent. Well, not violent. It’s incredibly tense. That’s why working with the power tools is quite crucial to the work, because, it demands your full attention. You have to have full concentration."
Rowlands makes this point in the film above, which documents his dissection of a single story, clapboard church and community hall in Dandenong, Victoria originally built in 1904. Described as a “sculptural site intervention,” The Offering uses only the materials contained within the structure itself to create the installation.
And, for the observer, the exposed layers of history reveal symbols and moments in time worthy of introspection. History becomes the meditative center. And, once again for a brief while, this church becomes an anchor in its community — and a spiritual center worth meditating upon.
Update (June 2, 2010): I just happened upon this radio documentary from ABC Radio National about The Offering. Aside from the visual, what differentiates this piece from above is its inclusion of residents who used to inhabit the space — from a member of a Hindu religious group to a man who used to take dance lessons there. Well worth a listen.
History From the Bottom Up
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
"Take your minds and think through them. Take your hearts and set them on fire. Amen." —Studs Terkel
I was excited to see that our show with Studs Terkel is listed on HBO’s resources page for the documentary "Studs Terkel: Listening to America," which debuted this past weekend. Even more exciting, though, is the announcement that roughly 6,000 hours of his interviews will be digitized by the Library of Congress.
A quote from the trailer: “History is so often told from the top down through the voice of statesmen and politicians, but what Studs has done is to tell history from the bottom up.” Amen.