The Plight of the “Distant Stranger”
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Many of us have read Nick Kristof’s columns over the years. And, perhaps, like me, you’ve been moved by his words, shaken by his stories, struck dumb with melancholy and grief. But, inevitably, the “plight of the ‘distant stranger’” assumes its role in feeling the events happening over there.
The HBO documentary, Reporter, will challenge you to come closer, to care, to take action as he pursues uncovering the truths behind human rights violations and personal suffering. With Kristof leading the way, the viewer bears witness alongside his two traveling companions, a med student and a teacher, to the tricky trail the journalist walks when reporting in war-torn Congo.
The film portrays some of the ethical and moral dilemmas of being a reporter in a conflict zone. When Kristof encounters a 41-year-old woman of 60 pounds lying at the edge of a village about to die, he acts. When a warlord responsible for the raping and pillaging of thousands gives thanks to the Lord, he bows his head; when that same man, General Nkunda asks him to eat with him, he dines. Few of these decisions are made without some type of deliberation — a grimace, a pause, a controlled look. But, in the end, he always writes.
He perseveres and tries to understand the underlying aspects of the people involved. And, he asks the difficult questions that have gotten other journalists killed. I’m not trying to saint him, but I now better appreciate his work as he attempts to discover a fuller aspect of all the human beings involved. He continues to tell the difficult stories of a region that gets covered during catastrophic events, and then forgotten within a blink’s time of a celebrity foible or the next breaking news event.
I hope we can interview him for the show some day in the future and hear how he wrestles with these difficult choices — and how he continues on.
A New Dialogue?
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
In preparation for this week’s program, "No More Taking Sides," we’ve been following the recent developments in Robi Damelin’s life. Our show includes this film clip from the documentary Encounter Point of Robi reading the letter she wrote to the family of her son’s killer.
In 2005, just a few months after Ta’er Hamad had been arrested, she wrote:
After your son was captured, I spent many sleepless nights thinking about what to do, should I ignore the whole thing, or will I be true to my integrity and to the work that I am doing and try to find a way for closure and reconciliation…
…I understand that your son is considered a hero by many of the Palestinian people, he is considered to be a freedom fighter, fighting for justice and for an independent viable Palestinian state, but I also feel that if he understood that taking the life of another may not be the way and that if he understood the consequences of his act, he could see that a non-violent solution is the only way for both nations to live together in peace.
Over three years later, Robi indirectly received a defiant, militant reply from Mr. Hamad via its publication by a Palestinian news agency:
"Just as I refused to directly address the soldier’s mother, I cannot wish to meet her. I cannot meet with the occupier of our land on the same land. I carried out the operation as part of the struggle for freedom, justice and the establishment of an independent state, not out of a lust or love for killing. Acts of violence are a necessity imposed upon us by the occupation and I shall not abandon this path for as long as the occupation continues."
"Ta’er, how ironic, the people who most wanted to protect me from the words in your letter were my Palestinian friends and other bereaved parents in our group. They of all people have the right to talk about my actions and who I am for we have worked together for more than 6 years to try to end this terrible conflict and to give both sides a chance to live with a sense of dignity free from the terrible fear which engulfs us and gives us all the excuse for violence. The tears I saw in the eyes of my Palestinian partners in the Parents Circle when they met me after you chose to publish the letter were tears of understanding and yes friendship and love…"
"… The wisest reaction I had to the words of your letter came from my wonderful son Eran, who I thought would be terribly angry. Well he said, listen mum, perhaps this is the beginning of a dialog."
In the audio embedded up top, Trent recently spoke with Robi from her home in Tel Aviv to learn more about how she’s reflecting on this exchange, and what it means for her work with the Parents Circle - Families Forum. It’s worth a listen to hear her ongoing tenacity.
The Impressionable Faces of Buddhist Silence
by Trent Gilliss, online editor
Tomorrow, our latest production with Matthieu Ricard will be released via our podcast. His journey to the Himalayas and studying under some of the great Tibetan Buddhist monks and the current Dalai Lama was inspired by the films of Arnaud Desjardins.
What struck him and became the catalyst for his lifelong journey, as he told Krista in a hotel room in Vancouver, was a particular point in one of these documentaries when he saw “a series of faces, of contemplatives … in silence” — of all shapes and sizes.
I wanted to see those faces. The video above is excerpted from the 1966 film, Le Message des Tibétains: Le Tantrisme (deuxième partie). For the quick skinny on the portrait sequence Ricard mentions, skip to 50:05 in the clip.
Ricard describes the influence of Desjardins’s films in greater depth in The Monk and the Philosopher, a dialogue between him and his father, Jean-François Revel, a French intellectual who is well-known for his challenging critiques of Communism and Christianity:
Matthieu Ricard: …what triggered my interest in Buddhism was in 1966…
Jean-François Revel: You would have been twenty then.
M.R.: I was still at university, and just about to go to the Institut Pasteur, when I saw some films made by a friend, Arnaud Desjardins, as they were being edited. They were about the great Tibetan lamas who had fled the Chinese invasion and taken refuge on the souther side of the Himalayas, from Kashmir to Bhutan. Arnaud had spent several months on two trips with an excellent guide and interpreter, filming these masters at close quarters. The films were very striking. Around the same time, another friend, Dr. Leboyer, came back from Darjeeling where he’d met some of the same lamas. I’d just finished a course and had the chance of taking a six-month break before starting my research work. It was the time of the hippies, who’d set out to India overland hitchhiking or in a Citroen deux-chevaux, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I was also drawn to the martial arts and had thought of going to Japan. But the sight of the pictures brought back by Arnaud and Frederick Leboyer, what they told me and their descriptions of their encounters there, all helped me make up my mind to head for the Himalayas rather than anywhere else.
J.F.R: So it was Arnaud Desjardins’s film that started it all off.
M.R.: There were several films, The Message of the Tibetans and Himalaya, Land of Serenity (which included The Children of Wisdom and The Lake of the Yogis), four hours in all. They include long sequences of the great Buddhist teachers who’d just arrived from Tibet — what they looked like, how they spoke, what they taught. The films gave a very alive and inspiring account of what it was like.
J.F.R.: You said they left a strong impression on you, personally. Why?
M.R.: I had the impression of seeing living beings who were the very image of what they taught. They had such a striking and remarkable feeling about them. I couldn’t quite hit on the explicit reasons why, but what struck me most was that they matched the ideal of sainthood, the perfect being, the sage — a kind of person hardly to be found nowadays in the West. It was the image I had of St. Francis of Assisi, or the great wise men of ancient times, but which for me had become figures of the distant past. You can’t go meet Socrates, listen to Plato debating, or sit at St. Francis’ feet. Yet suddenly, here were beings who seemed to be living examples of wisdom. I said to myself, ‘If it’s possible to reach perfection as a human being, that must be it.’
La Convivencia and the West-Eastern Divan
» download [mp3, 2:57]
Marc Sanchez, associate producer
The audio above comes from one of our "Revealing Ramadan" participants, Ibrahim Al-Marashi, who appeared in our podcast and radio program. He’s an Iraqi-American who currently lives and teaches in Spain, and has lived in California (Los Angeles and Monterey) and Turkey. During his interview, he talked about one of the things that attracted him to Spain: La Convivencia. This idea, which translates as “the coexistence,” describes a cultural harmony between Muslims, Jews, and Christians and was first coined when Spain came under Muslim rule beginning in the 8th century. Al-Marashi goes on to talk about his Lebanese-Christian grandmother and his interests in shared Muslim-Jewish-Christian ideas.
Al-Marashi’s interview was fresh in my mind when I happened to catch an airing of the documentary, Knowledge Is the Beginning. The movie follows a season of the West-Eastern Divan, an orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim.
The orchestra is made up of young Israelis and Arabs, and Barenboim’s hope is to show how music can bring people together. The idea for the group was born out of Barenboim’s friendship with Edward Said.
Barenboim was first raised in Buenos Aires, the son of Russian Jews, and he began studying piano and giving performances at an early age. His family relocated to Israel 10 years after Barenboim was born, and he was on the conductor’s track before his thirteenth birthday.
Said was born in Palestine before the founding of Israel. His family moved to Egypt after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. He went on to study at Princeton and Harvard and to teach English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He was a prolific writer, and staunch advocate for Palestinian rights. He passed away in 2003.
In addition to his political writing and cultural criticism, Said was a passionate fan of classical music. So much so that he was the classical music critic for The Nation. It was through music that he and Barenboim first bonded. And, it was music that opened a dialogue to their differences. Said and Barenboim knew that coming together — just bringing your ideas to the table to talk — can open a lot of doors. From the orchestra’s Web site:
"Music by itself can, of course, not resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Music grants the individual the right and obligation to express himself fully while listening to his neighbour. Based on this notion of equality, cooperation and justice for all, the Orchestra represents an alternative model to the current situation in the Middle East."
(Top photo: Ibrahim Al-Marashi.
Middle photo: Edward Said, left, and Daniel Barenboim, right, chat during an awards ceremony in Oviedo, Spain in 2002. Photo by Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images.
Bottom photo: The West-Eastern Divan rehearses at Royal Albert Hall in London for the BBC Proms in 2009. Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images.)
Transgender Identity in Iran: A Film
Trent Gilliss, online editor
The topic of gender and sexuality is on our long list of shows we want to produce in the coming year — in particular, a show on transgender people. The videos above and below are excerpts from Be Like Others, a documentary about a number of young men who are transsexuals living in Iran and pursuing surgical changes.
In these two clips, Iranian-American director Tanaz Eshaghian shows the complex, multi-layered conversations and struggles for transgender people living in an Islamic state — from conversations about proper attire and wearing of the hijab to familial struggles about cultural norms.
What’s surprising to me in these clips is the nature of the conversation. Even though there are discussions about operations and genetic tests confirming a biological male identity, the root of these conversations is love and caring and community. Despite her objections about his transformation, the mother in the second clip spends as much energy lecturing her son on wearing less makeup and donning the hijab properly when going out; in the first clip, a member of the transgender community reprimands a peer for going out in public with hair hanging out the back of her hijab and talks of bringing respect to their community.
Although these individuals are pursuing lifestyles that are outside the cultural norm, it doesn’t mean that they abandon their upbringings and the values instilled in them. They continue to live within the larger culture, defying some strictures while observing others. Obviously, they face predicaments I can’t imagine, but, it’s also heartening to see that their families remain in dialogue with them in tense circumstances. I find that heartening and am anxious to view the documentary.
Update (6.21): The film will be broadcast on HBO2 on June 24th.
"Sounds of Faith"
Andy Dayton, Associate Web Producer
Here’s a preview of an upcoming documentary series called “Sounds of Faith.”
Sounds of Faith is a unique media and educational outreach project focusing on the commonalities in the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The three-part documentary film and its accompanying outreach program will focus on how humans are connected to God through sound, and will foster a deeper understanding of the strong ties between the three religions.
Once you get past the initial voiceover (I’m not a huge fan of the Hollywood tone it carries), the rest of the clip contains some beautiful sights and sounds of faith and worship from around the world. The project plans to launch nationally on public television sometime this year.
"The Trials of Ted Haggard"
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
The first entry I wrote for SOF Observed (which was never published as it was part of a blogging trial) was about the fallen Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard. More than two years ago, news had broken about his then-alleged homosexual entanglement and solicitation of crystal meth. The e-mails were making rounds among the SOF staff.
Not only were all of us shocked like so many others, we were also discussing the news coverage. If I recall, most of us thought it was surprisingly restrained. Many critics of Ted Haggard who might have reveled in his demise, didn’t. And those who might have demonized his accuser were beseeched to pray for him instead. Boy, just thinking back, the Evangelical Right still held quite a bit of political sway. The NAE — of which he was president at the time — was rocked to its core.
We also found Haggard’s letter to his congregation, which was read to parishioners at a Sunday service, terribly and painfully tragic. I remember thinking at the time: Is this evidence of the power of sin over the most sanctified among us, or simply evidence of the power of homophobia and the closet to destroy human lives?
Well, perhaps I’ll be able to better discern the meaning of that question in a few weeks (or when it becomes available months later on Netflix?). Alexandra Pelosi’s — yes, Nancy’s daughter — short documentary, The Trials of Ted Haggard, will be shown on HBO through the month of February. If any of you watch it, I’d like to hear your analysis. One reviewer calls it “engrossing” and writes: “The man comes across as wounded, damaged, confused, deluded, in crisis with his faith, and very, very human. Curiously, his trademark grin is still in place.” There’s a trailer on the linked page above.
Spiritualism: A Radio Documentary
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Early this morning, the BBC World Service rebroadcast this CBC documentary about the uniquely American religion of Spiritualism. Lily Dale, a small town in southwestern New York state, was founded by a socially progressive group of Spiritualists in 1879 and is the epicenter for its practitioners.
Wondering what is a Spiritualist? Here’s the town’s definition:
One who believes, as the basis of his or her religion, in the continuity of life and in individual responsibility. Some, but not all, Spiritualists are Mediums and/or Healers. Spiritualists endeavor to find the truth in all things and to live their lives in accordance therewith.
To expand on that definition, Spiritualists believe in a divine power and the afterlife. The dead can be contacted through mediums, individuals given the gift of channeling and contacting these spirits. These spirits are in a state of evolution, and by contacting them, embodied people can gain greater understanding about moral and ethical issues.
If you’ve got 30 minutes, Frank Falk’s doc is worth a listen.