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Playlist 8/13

13 Aug

Food Fight

3 Nov

Judgment day

21 Oct

The Intern Fear Project

13 Oct

12-Minute Dutch Film Sparks “Home-Grown Jihad”

4 Oct
Muslim Women in Kuwait City

Muslim Women in Kuwait City

While some filmmakers merely wish to entertain their audiences with scenes of epic battles or cute boy-meets-girl plots, there are other filmmakers who wish to send a political message with their work and inspire change.  Such was the motivation for Ayaan Hirsi Ali when she wrote the screenplay for Submission, a 12-minute movie that aired on Dutch television on August 29, 2004. Hirsi Ali had wanted to use the film to speak out against what she thought of as the injustices of Islam.  The film would, as seen in a 60 Minutes segment, turn the tolerant nation of the Netherlands upside-down with fire bombings, death threats, and the assassination of the film’s director, Theo van Gogh.

Even though the film was relatively short, it packed a powerful punch.  In the film, a naked woman has Qu’ranic verses painted on her bruised and beaten body. The verses chosen were those that allowed for the mistreatment and subordination of women in Islam.  Two things Hirsi Ali said she found to be “evil” and “offensive” were that a woman may be slapped if she is disobedient and should be raped if she says “no” to her husband.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Hirsi Ali was born to upper-middle class Somali Muslim parents, but she rejected Islam at a very early age and became estranged from her parents when they tried to force her into an arranged marriage. She obtained political asylum in the Netherlands in 1992 and worked medial jobs until she was able to attend Leiden University.  After earning a master’s in political science from Leiden, Hirsi Ali was elected to the Dutch Parliament in 2003.  Hirsi Ali spoke out in Parliament against honor killings, defined typically as the murder of a Muslim woman for bringing dishonor to her family in some way.

As someone who also unafraid to voice criticisms of society, Theo van Gogh seemed to be the perfect choice to direct Submission.  Van Gogh was known in Holland as an equal-opportunity offender, insulting anyone regardless of race, religion, or gender.  After Submission aired on the Dutch public broadcasting network, both Hirsi Ali and van Gogh received multiple death threats.  Hirsi Ali worked in Parliament under guard, but van Gogh laughed off the death threats.

On the morning of November 2, 2004, Theo van Gogh was bicycling to work when Mohammed Bouyeri shot him several times.  Van Gogh reportedly pleaded for mercy, asking “Can’t we just talk about this?”  But Bouyeri slit van Gogh’s throat, and stabbed him with a dagger, pinning a letter to his body.  The letter was addressed to Hirsi Ali, threatened her life, and called for the destruction of Holland and the United States.

According to Theodor Holman, one of van Gogh’s closest friends, van Gogh “embodied what you can do in [the Netherlands] and what you can say.”  The Netherlands is known for its “liberal” politics, especially for the legalization of marijuana, prostitution, and gay marriage.  So when van Gogh was murdered for an expression of free speech, the country went into a state of shock.

Site of van Goghs Murder

Site of van Gogh's Murder

Tens of thousands of people mourned van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam.  There were fire bombings of mosques and Muslim schools, with counterattacks on churches.  Van Gogh’s murder even inspired the creation of a “poor man’s Patriot Act” by the Dutch Parliament and dug up the buried tensions in the country due to the growing number of Muslims in Holland.

In the aftermath of van Gogh’s death, it became too difficult for Hirsi Ali to stay in Holland.  She had to resign her seat in Parliament and moved to the United States to work for the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank.  And although Submission had such chaotic and shocking responses, Hirsi Ali still plans to make Submission Part II.  Not making this sequel would mean, to Hirsi Ali, that she would be giving the terrorists want they want.  And though terrorists believe Allah will reward their violence, Hirsi Ali definitely does not want to reward them submitting to their demands.

Molten Rivers, Dragons, and Frenzies of the Galapagos Islands

28 Sep

Galapagos Land Iguana

Beneath Fernandina Island in the Galapagos sleeps the temperamental La Cumbre Volcano, which at any moment could wake and spew rivers of molten lava.  Without sufficient warning of the impending explosion, the island is a dangerous place for anyone, let alone a toddler.  Yet when filmmakers David Parer and Liz Parer-Cook traveled to Fernandina Island to capture the wonders of the Galapagos, they brought their three-year-old daughter, Zoe.  The filming might have been dangerous but if someone viewing the National Geographic Explorer documentary about the expedition learns so much about Galapagos wildlife, then the firsthand experience David, Liz, and little Zoe had must have been magical.

More Than Finches and Tortoises

The Galapagos Islands are best known as the place where Charles Darwin studied finches, rode tortoises, and developed his evolution theory.  But there is so much more of the Galapagos Islands for filmmakers like the Parers to explore and document.  Though over 90 percent of the Galapagos is protected as a National Park, the animals are generally unafraid of humans, making the wildlife easier to film.  One of the biggest hurdles to filmmaking on Fernandina Island, though, was actually getting the equipment on the island.  Due to the rough waters near the coast, the Parers and their crew had to unload one ton of equipment piece by piece using a pulley system.  This method of unloading was so feeble that even the camera, the most valuable piece of equipment, fell into the water, but luckily seemed to make it out unharmed.

March of the Iguanas

One of the most prominent animals on Fernandina Island is the land iguana, which still looks the same as its ancestors did nine million years ago.  David and his crew set out to film these prehistoric animals as they undertake a journey similar to the film March of the Penguins, minus the blistering cold and penguins.  Not much is known about mating between these iguanas, so David hoped that he and his team would be the first to document the mating ritual.  After the male and female iguanas mate, the female iguana migrates to the rim of the La Cumbre Volcano and buries its egg in what might be the most dangerous nesting ground.   It took David and his crew seven hours just to get to the rim and three more hours to climb down into it, due to the risk of landslides and falling ash.  The cameraman had to constantly wipe the lens and blow air on the lens using a baster because of the ash and humidity.  Despite all these hurdles, the film crew was able to capture this mysterious mating ritual and were able to get many close ups of the action since the animals did not fear the crew.

Finding Feeding Frenzy Becomes Whale of a Search

Just as filming the mating ritual of the land iguana would help us learn about these animals, filming the feeding frenzy of plunge-diving birds would also capture rare footage.  But such feeding frenzies are about as predictable as La Cumbre Volcano’s eruptions.  So in order to track down a possible frenzy spot, the Parer team got on a boat and followed mobs of dolphins that, like the plunge-diving birds, also feed on large schools of fish but use sonar to track down their next meal.  David filmed the dolphins’ hunt using a small waterproof camera on a long pole lowered into the water at the bow of the ship, showing us the dolphins’ point of view underwater.  While a feeding frenzy still eluded the Parers, they were able to capture some other amazing footage in the waters around the Galapagos. During the search, Liz and others of the crew dove into the ocean to film sharks and other marine animals.  Hammerhead sharks may look aggressive with their wide heads and sharp teeth, a parade of hammerheads swam past the divers without confrontation.  Even a whale shark, the largest fish on earth weighing in at ten tons and measuring the length of a bus, was a gentle giant around the crew.  Steven Spielberg might have taught us to fear sharks in Jaws, but to Liz, being in the water and observing these creatures is just like heaven.

The Biography of a Blockbuster Storyteller

20 Sep

Steven Spielberg

Today, no man in his right mind would dare to doubt the cinematic genius of director Steven Spielberg.  Yet as “An Empire of Dreams,” the Biography profile of Spielberg, showed, the climb to the top was a difficult one for the film legend.  As a child Spielberg struggled with his Jewish identity and parents’ divorce, and as a young filmmaker he struggled from a young age to get a break in Hollywood.

Childhood Days

Steven Spielberg was born on December 18, 1946 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The family moved a few times when Spielberg was young, which made it difficult for him to make friends and fit in at school.  Spielberg also struggled with his Jewish heritage and was ashamed to be a Jew even though he grew up around many Holocaust survivors (later inspiring Schindler’s List).

Family home videos and pictures made up much of the segment about Spielberg’s early life in this Biography profile, as well as interviews with Spielberg’s parent and one of his sisters, but there are no first hand accounts from Spielberg himself.  While it was interesting to hear from his father how young Steven grabbed the family camera during a camping trip and from then on filmed constantly, the viewer did not get to hear about this life-changing event from Steven himself.

Spielberg’s first movie, “Fighter Squad,” had much lower budget than the blockbusters he would later direct.  This short movie mixed documentary footage and Spielberg’s own footage at Phoenix Airport.  Spielberg won his first award for the film “Escape to Nowhere” at just 13 years old and at 16 made $600 screening his film “Firelight” at a local theater.  Although Spielberg was devastated when his parents divorced in 1965, this seemed to only make him more determined to become a successful director.

Breakthrough at Universal Studios

Spielberg enrolled at Long Beach State after high school, but his higher education in filmmaking came from hanging around Universal Studios.  After visiting Universal Studios during a school trip, Spielberg met head of the editorial department Chuck Silvers, who got Spielberg a job as an unpaid clerical assistant.  After seeing Spielberg’s film “Amblin,’” Chuck Silvers was so moved that he showed the film to Sid Sheinberg, president of Universal’s parent company, MCA.  Although Sheinberg said he thought Spielberg looked like a geek, he was impressed by the young filmmaker’s work and signed Spielberg to a seven year contract with Universal.

Unfortunately for Spielberg, his first gig for Universal was to direct Joan Crawford in the pilot episode for the television series Night Gallery.  For anyone who has ever seen Mommie Dearest, directing Joan Crawford might seem like a nightmare, but Spielberg won her over with gifts and knowledge of her films.

Box Office Busts and Blockbusters

In 1972, Spielberg finally got a break into directing film with The Sugarland Express.  Although the film received high praises from critics, it failed at the box office.  Spielberg vowed that he would never allow one of his films to flop like that again—and then came Jaws.

Taking a gamble on the young filmmaker, studio executives asked Spielberg to direct Jaws, based on the novel by Peter Benchley.  Spielberg rejected the novel’s heavy subplot structure for a riveting thriller with a cast of unknowns to seem more realistic.  The film that would become one of the greatest cinematic phenomena of all time was a filmmaking nightmare and a feared financial disaster.  During production, the budget doubled and production time tripled, but somehow Spielberg pulled it off.  Jaws made box office records, had audiences mesmerized, and scared generations of children into never swimming in the ocean.  Though it made Spielberg a millionaire, more importantly (according to narrator Peter Graves) it made Spielberg a respected filmmaker.  

Planet Earth Shines a Light on Caves

8 Sep
Public Domain Image Courtesy of NASA

Image Courtesy of NASA

Contrary to popular belief, space is not the final frontier.  While astronauts and astronomers make headlines with their discoveries of things beyond our planet, there is still one section of Earth that few dare to explore.  Beneath the surface of this world is a whole other world of dangerous caves and mysterious cave-dwelling animals.  BBC’s Planet Earth gives us a glimpse at the most majestic and gigantic of these caves and the strange inhabitants that otherwise would have been left in the dark.

Gone Fishing with Glow Worms

During one of the first scenes in this episode of Planet Earth, the filmmakers play a little trick on the viewer.  After the narration mentions that caves are home to some of the “strangest and least known animals on the planet,” the shot appears to cut to a starry night sky with bells chiming in the soundtrack.  However, these “stars” are actually the glowing blue lights in the tails of cave glow worms.  These cave dwellers are attracting their prey towards the silken strands that act as fishing lures.  While it is a little gross that these strands come from the glow worms’ mouths and are filled with drops of mucus, the insects flying into and twisting around the pearly strands look a little bit like an act from Cirque du Soleil.  Who would have guessed that such beauty could be seen from a creature that catches its food in its snot?

Giant Mound of Guano

Probably the most interesting and yet disgusting scenes in this “Caves” episode are in Borneo’s Deer Cave, which is big enough for a jumbo jet and home to three million wrinkle-lipped bats.  With so many bats comes something else of gigantic proportions in this big cave: a huge mound of bat droppings, also known as guano.  As the camera sweeps along the mound, the viewer gets an idea of just how big this pile of sewage is, as well as a better look at what lies inside the dung.  While the cave’s ceiling is covered in millions of bats, the mound of guano is covered in a carpet of millions of cockroaches.  Close-up shots of the cockroaches digging through the dung reveal giant cave centipedes and crabs living in the bat droppings.  While the digested remains of food from the bats provide a source of food for these cave animals, the guano can be a death trap to other animals.  In what are some of the most horrifying shots of this scene, the viewer sees a small rodent get trapped in the dung like quicksand and suffocate.  The shot of another animal’s skeleton in the dung reminds us that this is the circle of life that provides life to the cockroaches and crabs, but suffocating in another animal’s feces seems to be one of the most awful ways to die.

Filmmakers “Into the Abyss”

As the Planet Earth Diaries’ “Into the Abyss” for this “Caves” episode showed, the rodents were not the only ones who suffered in the guano for this film.  Like the Diaries for “Chasing Wild Camels,” the filmmakers in this episode faced quite a few challenges in filming some of Earth’s most unknown animals and natural wonders to raise awareness for conservation of our planet.  This time, though, the filmmakers had to spend a month working in a big mess of feces and roaches.  The cockroaches swarmed everywhere, thus complicating the filming process by covering the camera lens and making the filmmakers uncomfortable by crawling up into their pants. Like “Chasing Wild Camels,” “Into the Abyss” is also quite humorous, though the humor is not as subtle this time.  “Please don’t send me back again!” begs one member of the film crew.  Another declares, “No one should have to live one month in pooh.”  The humor here is a bit of potty humor mixed with schadenfreude, as the viewer can laugh at the crew’s struggle while being thankful it is not himself in the muck.  Yet, we should all be thankful for this film crew’s struggle, because without them we would have never been able to see these wondrous caves or the creatures that dwell there, even if it is in a big pile of pooh.

The Real Lives of “The Photographers” for National Geographic

2 Sep
My attempt to photograph animals in the jungle... of the Lincoln Park Zoo

Monkeys in The Lincoln Park Zoo  Copyright 2007 Linda Hays

These days, with so many amateur photographers using their camera phones and uploading pictures to Facebook, it is easy for us to take for granted the effort and dedication of professional photographers.  In an attempt to shed light on what is thought to be one of the easiest and most glamorous jobs, National Geographic’s documentary “The Photographers” takes viewers behind the lens of the cameras of National Geographic magazine’s courageous photographers and shows that their lives might not be as charmed as you would expect.

Since the birth of National Geographic over a hundred years ago, the magazine’s photographers have carried the tradition of capturing themes of discovery, exploration, wildlife, and faraway places in pictures.  The brave photographers risked their lives to shoot the unfamiliar cultures and customs of distant lands.  Though photography was still a relatively new technology, pictures made up over half of National Geographic’s content by 1908.  Today, National Geographic photographers shoot about 150 stories and travel over one million miles a year to bring images of the world to the magazine’s readers.

It may seem like National Geographic photographers have a dream job, but photography is more than just traveling to interesting places and pressing a button on a camera.  According to interviews in “The Photographers,” the real lives of National Geographic photographers are not always fun.  During their travels for assignments, the photographers might have to put up with “miserable conditions and horrible hotel rooms.”  According to one photographer, they often spend more time gaining permissions than taking photographs.  Another photographer commented on the loneliness of the job, comparing it to the Texas Rangers because “You’re by yourself, doing your thing.”  A common complaint of the job was also the diseases and injuries the photographers have experienced, the most common of which was malaria.

In the spirit of a photographer’s mantra “Show, don’t tell,” “The Photographers” goes further than just interviewing the National Geographic photographers about their jobs.  When Nick Nichols spent seven months in a Central African rainforest, video cameras followed him and his camera as he ventured through a jungle that wasn’t so human-friendly.  Close-ups of Nichols’ hands and face revealed hundreds of tiny insects that not only obscured his vision but also burrowed into his skin.  Another fascinating moment from Nichols’ expedition was when Nichols was photographing a charging elephant.  As the elephant stampeded towards Nichols and the videographer, the video is shaking so much that it is difficult to tell what is happening.  Even with the pressure to get the photo in a short window of time and the danger of being trampled to death by an elephant, Nichols captured a clear and impressive image.

The photographers of National Geographic are not just photojournalists—they are artists, each with their own style and point of view.  It also seems as though they are all modern-day adventurers, like Indiana Jones searching for the Holy Grail of images to show the world.  Most of us would focus on the glamorous parts of this life, the traveling and the experiences, but it is important to remember that even National Geographic photographers have to put up with a few “snakes” in their paths.

Planet Earth’s “Wild Camel Chase”

27 Aug
Bactrian Camels

Bactrian Camels

When asked to visualize a camel in its natural environment, few people would picture an icy habitat.  Yet, for the endangered Bactrian camel of Mongolia in the Gobi Desert, the only source of water is snow.   In order to increase public awareness of this elusive and nearly extinct animal, the BBC’s Planet Earth film crew braved Mongolia’s harsh weather and primitive conditions.  Though their “Wild Camel Chase” was difficult and frustrating, this part of the award-winning documentary keeps the viewer’s interest through education and drama with a subtle sense of humor.

The crew’s search for suitable footage of the Bactrian camel began in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capitol.  As producer Huw Cordey explained the preparation for the two-month trip as the rest of the crew packed up the vehicles, the viewer can see the breath of the crew and can sense that the journey is already difficult.

One of the first moments subtle humor was drawn into the documentary was when the crew stopped at a primitive gas station.  As the commentator noted that this gas station was “without any of the usual safety considerations,” the shot cut from a leaky gas nozzle to a group of natives smoking cigarettes.  A similar sequencing strategy to depict the difficulties the crew endured in a way that was amusing to the viewer was used later when the “Russian-made supply vehicles” needed repairs.  The close-ups while the Mongolian drivers made repairs coupled with the slightly sarcastic tone of the commentary made this sequence comical and gave the viewer an idea of how frustrating it might have been to be in those conditions.

After weeks of searching for suitable footage with the help of a Mongolian expert tracker, the crew seemed to never catch a lucky break. However, as the commentator noted that “The rear ends of camels continued to dominate the team’s filming” and the cameraman stated the score as “Camels: 1, Film Crew: Nil,” the soundtrack hinted at the crew’s changing luck.  While the soundtrack was previously scarce and somber, the rhythm of the pipes and drums at this moment rolled along in the way that hinted at the winds of change.  This soundtrack died out as the natural sounds of camels eating snow and making mating calls were matched with the victorious camel close-ups.  While other filmmakers may have ended with a triumphant fanfare to signal the ending, this documentary more suitably ended with a camel mating call, which indicated the successful end of the film crew’s quest.

As a whole, the goal of making Planet Earth was to increase awareness of the Earth’s natural wonders, from the smallest insect to the biggest mammal.  In the behind-the-scenes look at capturing the footage of the Bactrian camel, the viewer got a glimpse at the frustrating and difficult journey the crew endured in order to create a sequence that only made up a few seconds in the “Desert” section of the documentary.   However, such footage was vital to the documentary in order to alert the public of a majestic creature on the verge of extinction.  Through simple editing and a slightly humorous tone throughout the “Wild Camel Chase,” the viewer is drawn into the story of the crew’s quest and is aware of the value of this footage.