A poster in Marseille, France, in July 2020, calling for Nasrin Sotoudeh’s release from prison.
The National Council of Jewish Women of Canada spotlighted the remarkable story of Iranian lawyer and human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh during a showing of the eponymously titled film, Nasrin, on Jan. 10.
Narrated by actress Olivia Colman, the film takes us into Sotoudeh’s life in Tehran, where she has been a stalwart in defending a wide array of people: political activists, women who refused to wear a hijab, members of the religiously oppressed Baha’i faith, and prisoners sentenced to the death penalty for crimes allegedly committed while they were minors. Her work has come with a tremendous amount of personal sacrifice, including prolonged periods in jail.
Among the notable cases brought up in the film is that of Narges Hosseini, who, in 2018, stood on an electricity box on Tehran’s Revolution Street and removed her headscarf to protest Iran’s mandatory hijab law. She was immediately arrested, and Sotoudeh soon took up her cause. At her trial, the prosecutor claimed she was trying to “encourage corruption through the removal of the hijab in public.”
Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi is another of Sotoudeh’s clients. In 2010, Panahi was given a 20-year ban on making films, but he has nonetheless continued to create widely praised cinematic works, such as Taxi, in which he played a Tehran taxi driver – Sotoudeh was one of his passengers. The movie won the top prize at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival in 2015. Together with Sotoudeh, Panahi was co-winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2012.
And there is the unassuming hero we encounter in Sotoudeh’s husband, Reza Khandan. His unflagging loyalty to his wife and family is underscored throughout the film. He, too, has been imprisoned several times, most recently from September to December 2018, after he wrote about human rights violations in Iran on Facebook. He was accused of operating against Iran’s national security by backing the “anti-hijab” movement. Khandan currently faces a six-year prison sentence.
The film relies on secret footage, made possible by intrepid camerapeople within Iran who took on incredible risk to record Sotoudeh in both her professional and private lives. In the midst of filming, in June 2018, Sotoudeh was arrested for representing several women protesting Iran’s mandatory hijab law. Due to health concerns, she was briefly released from prison late last year, but has since been incarcerated again.
During Sotoudeh’s furlough, she was scheduled to undergo tests to monitor her heart. At one time, she was moved to intensive care in a Tehran hospital after a 46-day hunger strike, protesting the conditions political prisoners in Iran have to endure. She also has pressed for their release during the time of the pandemic.
Shortly before her own release from the Qarchak women’s prison, Sotoudeh contracted COVID-19 but has since recovered.
Following the film’s presentation, a panel discussion took place with the film’s director, Jeff Kaufman; its producer, Marcia Ross; activist Shaparak Shajarizadeh; and former Canadian minister of justice Irwin Cotler. The discussion was led by NCJWC president Debbie Wasserman.
“One of the intents of the film is to say it is not just about Sotoudeh and Iran, it is about applying her standards to our countries and ourselves. Let’s take her example and make it global,” said Kaufman.
The filmmakers said they wanted to tell Sotoudeh’s story because she personifies a commitment to democracy and justice, and represents the power of women to shape society. Further, Sotoudeh holds a deep conviction that people of all faiths and backgrounds deserve equal opportunity and protection.
Both Kaufman and Ross spoke of the extraordinary caution taken to preserve the anonymity and security of those shooting the footage in Iran.
Asked about her reaction upon seeing the screening, Shajarizadeh said, “I cried the whole time. We could see ourselves in every minute of the movement.” Shajarizadeh, who now resides in Canada, was a women’s rights activist and political prisoner in Iran – she fought against the country’s mandatory hijab law for women.
“Nasrin is not only the embodiment of human rights in Iran, but a looking-glass into the persecution of all those who are imprisoned in Iran,” Cotler said.
Cotler advocated for “showing the film as much as we can, and [to] have the sort of conversations we are having now, and mobilize the different constituencies that she has been helping.”
Ross said the film will be out later in the year on Amazon and iTunes.
Established in 1897, NCJWC is a voluntary organization dedicated to furthering human welfare in the Jewish and general communities locally, nationally and internationally. To learn more, visit ncjwc.org.
Sam Margolishas written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
A still from the documentary Shared Legacies: From the left are Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Maurice Eisendrath and Abraham Joshua Heschel during the march from Selma to Montgomery, 1965.
The Victoria Shoah Project held a panel discussion on Oct. 20, following an online showing of the documentary Shared Legacies: The African American-Jewish Civil Rights Alliance.
The 2020 film, part of the sixth annual Victoria International Jewish Film Festival, chronicles the common history of prejudice and hardships each group has faced, and features footage of the relationships of such luminaries as Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Included are interviews with many prominent civil rights leaders of the time, such as Andrew Young, John Lewis, Rabbi Alvin Sugarman and Rabbi Peter S. Berg.
After the screening, there was a Vancouver Island-based panel discussion with Adrienne and Barrie Carter, Paul Winn and the Victoria Shoah Project’s Robert Oppenheimer. From their own experiences, they each spoke about African-Canadian and Jewish-Canadian relations. They also talked about the film, and the events from 1960s America that it depicts, from personal, historical, present-day and Canadian perspectives. Rick Kool, also of the Shoah Project, served as moderator.
Adrienne Carter was born in Hungary in 1944, as the Nazis marched into the country and were increasing their campaign to exterminate the Jews. Many in her extended family died in Auschwitz. She and her family moved to Canada in 1956, following the Hungarian Revolution. “The whole stateless experience is very well known to me,” she recalled. “I married Barrie in 1965, at a time when Blacks and whites rarely ever connected, let alone married, and at a time when many Southern states had laws against interracial marriages.”
A co-founder and the director of services at the Vancouver Island Counseling Centre for Immigrants and Refugees, she has spent much of her working life helping immigrants by providing therapy to those who have experienced trauma, including intergenerational trauma.
Barrie Carter, who was a special needs education assistant until his retirement, told the audience of his early years. Born in Jacksonville, Fla., he moved to the northeastern part of the country where, in his teens, he volunteered with the NAACP in Bridgeport, Conn., and in New York and picketed Walgreens to challenge their segregationist luncheonette policies in the South. He immigrated to Canada on a bicycle in 1963. “While I was riding north, people were taking the bus south to the March on Washington. But I just had to get away,” he said.
Both Barrie and Adrienne Carter have traveled around the world, providing services to victims of torture and genocide.
Winn, whose work experience includes having been the executive director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, followed by recounting his experiences growing up in Toronto’s diverse Kensington Market neighbourhood.
“When I was 10 or 11, I was a Shabbos goy. I would do some things for the neighbours on Saturdays because they were unable to perform those tasks for religious reasons,” Winn recalled. “I got invited to bar and bat mitzvahs.”
He said, “It was natural for the Black and Jewish communities to support each other when there were struggles with such things as immigration. When I watched the film, I remembered how the connection between the religious Black and Jewish communities helped bring about a lot of activities in Canada, as well.”
Oppenheimer, a clinical psychologist with a focus on traumatized children and youth, a human rights activist and a staunch promoter of Holocaust education, also shared some information about his career. Reflecting on the 28 years he spent working in Detroit, he said, “It was an interesting experience for me. I was the only non-African-American on the staff and I was impressed with how welcoming the community was to me.
He added, “One of the things that impressed me about the movie was when Heschel said ‘not to be a bystander to history.’ I think that is central to my idea of human rights, that we cannot just stand by.”
“One of the things that really hit me in the film,” said Kool, “was a pastor standing in a church with a rabbi who said, ‘Reverend King isn’t here anymore, Rabbi Heschel isn’t here anymore, but are their children here now?’”
Barrie Carter observed that the youth in activist groups today “have the same dynamism as we did. They have an energy and a knowledge of concepts. It isn’t just a blind following. It is a positive morality.”
“They seem to believe it is part of their responsibility to make things better,” added Winn about today’s activists. “They want to make things better.”
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.
Note: This article has been amended to reflect the correct name of the film festival. It is the Victoria International Jewish Film Festival.
“I learned about climate marches and I learned about dancing bubbies,” said my niece Fae, 9, when we were discussing Bonnie Sherr Klein’s new children’s book, Beep Beep Bubbie, over FaceTime. Among other things, my niece Charlotte, 7, learned “you can learn to ride a bike at 53 and anything is possible.… And I learned about grandmothers who can shush a crying boy.”
Amid much laughter, including talk about dogs pooping – Bubbie has a dog – and what my nieces recalled of Vancouver from their visit here last year, Beep Beep Bubbie offered more discussion than I had anticipated. But, before I get to that, I have to say, for the record, that my nieces have dancing bubbies in their lives, and bubbies who can shush crying children, so they more related to these aspects of Bubbie’s character than learned from them. With that qualification and butt covering, I continue with the review, starting with the basic story of the book.
It is Shabbat and Kate and her little brother Nate are going to visit their grandmother, who is going to take them to Granville Island to buy apples for Rosh Hashanah. The kids have been told there’ll be a surprise waiting for them at Bubbie’s. That surprise, though – Bubbie’s new scooter – isn’t a happy one initially for Kate, who “already missed the Bubbie she used to have. That Bubbie danced and took them to climate marches.” However, during the afternoon’s adventures, Bubbie’s scooter not only allows her to venture farther from home than she otherwise would have been able to manage, but has other advantages, as well.
After their trip to Granville Island, Kate shares a library book that she’s brought along for the visit. About American educator, activist and suffragist Frances Willard, Kate and Nate find out that Willard “fought for women to have the right to vote. When Frances was 53 years old, she learned to ride a bicycle to show that women could do anything.” A conversation ensues about why Willard wouldn’t have known how to ride a bike. “People were afraid women’s ankles would show under their petticoats,” explains Bubbie. “Can you believe it?”
Well, at my nieces’ house, this part of the book was met with disbelief and more laughter, as Charlotte was keen to show off her ankles, which were hard to see, given the placement of their computer and her being the height of a 7-year-old. But, before things deteriorated into mayhem, Fae said, “I also learned that girls are tough.” And, she “learned another reason why women weren’t treated fairly in the past.”
“And what was that reason?” I asked.
“Because women didn’t ride bikes because their ankles were going to show. And they couldn’t vote, [it was] like they didn’t have an opinion.”
“It’s definitely not fair,” said Charlotte about people thinking that girls showing their ankles was wrong.
All in all, Beep Beep Bubbie elicited much talk and not an insignificant amount of gymnastics. The illustrations by Élisabeth Eudes-Pascal are wonderfully colourful and fun; full of energy and movement. Both Fae and Charlotte gave a resounding “yes” when asked if they liked the pictures.
One the drawings is a two-page spread of Bubbie, Kate and Nate and the park, where they join in the fun of flying kites. One young person is in a wheelchair, and Charlotte asked why Bubbie had chosen a scooter instead. Not knowing the answer, I asked the author. Here is her response: “I chose a motorized scooter over a wheelchair, btw, because it felt more sportif,” wrote Klein in an email, “and I am lucky enough to be able to transfer, which keeps me a bit more mobile.”
I like knowing, but the reasons aren’t important, as far as the story goes. Art is to be interpreted and my nieces and I talked about a lot of ideas, from serious to silly, during our FaceTime book review session.
Published by Tradewind Books, Beep Beep Bubbie can be purchased from pretty much any online bookseller. Enjoy!
Avram Finkelstein will be participating in the Queer Arts Festival, which takes place July 16-26. (photo by Alina Oswald)
A lot of it feels familiar, said New York-based artist and activist Avram Finkelstein about the current situation in the United States. The same American institutions that failed during the HIV-AIDS crisis are failing to effectively deal with the pandemic. And, when he was a teenager in the 1960s, cities were also being burned in America.
“It’s sad to think that we will be having the same struggles,” he told the Jewish Independent in a phone interview last week. “But, also, as you get older, you realize that progress is not a pendulum swing from left to right, it’s actually a spiral going forward and things do move to the right and they move to the left, but [there is] incremental change. So, part of me feels like we’re seeing the dying gasp of a world that I hope we’re leaving behind, and I see a world in the future that I want to live in. So that’s kind of helping me through this.”
Finkelstein was scheduled to come to Vancouver next month to participate in the Queer Arts Festival.
A founding member of the Silence=Death and Gran Fury collectives, as well as the political group ACT UP, he is the author of After Silence: A History of AIDS Through its Images (University of California Press, 2017). His artwork is part of the permanent collections of MoMA, the Smithsonian, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, to name but a few places, and his work has been shown around the world. He was set to unveil one of his new works in Vancouver. As it is, with the restrictions required to minimize the spread of COVID-19, he will be helping open the festival remotely, as part of a panel discussion chaired by curator Jonny Sopotiuk, which will also provide viewers with a tour of the festival’s art exhibition.
“I have a large mural that was going to be in the exhibition and now it’s going to be in a virtual space,” said Finkelstein. “I’m very excited about this piece and the fact that Jonny chose it – it’s the first time I’ve shown it…. I had a commission to do a work for the Shed, which is a new art space in New York, and, while I was waiting for the weaving tests of the final pieces – it’s a very large jacquard weaving – I decided to start drawing from the same source material as the cartoon for the weaving. I hadn’t drawn since recovering from a stroke; I had a stroke about two years ago…. I then realized that my hand isn’t my own, my body is no longer my own.”
The source material, he explained, “is a portrait of a gender-non-conforming friend who later transitioned. The work was all about corporeality as an abstraction and the ways in which we’re allowed to look at certain things, and what is public and what is private about gender and sexuality. And then, all of sudden, I realized, I’m actually talking about my own body in these drawings because my own body is not my own body anymore. I realized that I had made this sharp pivot from an abstract, theoretical idea of corporeality to this kind of war or dance, or I don’t know how to describe the physical process of having to use your entire body to hold a pencil.”
Despite the health, political and other challenges Finkelstein has faced, he remains hopeful.
“We’re trained to think that, if we don’t have hope, then the only thing that’s left is despair, but the truth is, hope isn’t so much the point – it’s the horizon that hope is sitting on and, so long as you can see a horizon, I think that, to me, is the same thing,” he said.
“I’m Jewish, as you know, and I think that Jews have a very different relationship to memory and to witnessing. If your people have been chased all over the globe for centuries, you take a long view. You sleep with one eye open, but you take a long view, and I think, therein, I’m eternally hopeful.”
In an interview in 2018, Finkelstein predicted that the situation in the United States would worsen before it improved.
“Which is another thing about being Jewish – you learn that there is no such thing as paranoia because it’s all real,” he said. “So, one could have seen, as plain as the nose on one’s face, where America was heading. And, in actual fact, what happened with Trump’s election was, we’ve joined the international march of global totalitarianism…. And, it’s not about to get really bad, it’s really, really bad. It’s really bad and I think that, here again, you can’t be Jewish and not think – not think your entire life, actually – in some way being prepared for, OK, what are the risks I’m willing to take if this happens? How far would I be willing to fight for other people if that happens. The shadow of Nazi Germany never escaped your consciousness.”
So how does Finkelstein conquer the fear?
“I guess I’ve replaced it with anxiety,” he said, laughing. But, he added, “I don’t know why I’m not fearful. I think that I was just raised – a day doesn’t go by that I’m not reminded of another lesson or another incident or another part of Jewish-American social history in the 20th century that my family was directly there for. I almost feel like I’m the Zelig of the left. All the stories you would tell my mother or my father, they’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, we were there. We were there at the Robeson riots. Oh, yeah, we were there when they closed The Cradle Will Rock and everyone walked down the street’ – exactly the way it was in the last scene in Tim Robbins’ movie. When I saw it, it seemed too preposterous, I called my mother, said, ‘Could that have happened?’ And she started singing the song that Emily Watson sings in the film.
“So, I think I have such a sense of self that one could interpret it as fearlessness, but I think that it would be more accurate to say I was not given an alternative role model. I was raised to feel the suffering of others and, if other people are suffering, there’s no night’s sleep for me. So, there’s really no option – you’re either closing your eyes to something terrible or you’re doing everything you can to try and make it less terrible. And I think that that’s the Jewish condition.”
He described Jews as being like queer people. “We are everywhere,” he said. “We’re in every culture, we’re in every race, we’re in every gender, we’re in every country. We have every type of ethnic community that we surround ourselves with. An Ethiopian Jew is different from an Ashkenazi Jew, but we’re still all Jews.”
Though raised by atheists, he said, “I don’t think you’ll find anyone more Jewish than I am or than my family, but Jews are prismatic. We are many things. Consequently, I feel like I can’t speak on behalf of other Jews, I can only speak on behalf of myself.
“Likewise, I’ve always had people of colour in my family; I just always have. And, I learned very early on back in the ’60s, when the civil rights movement was fragmented between King and Stokely Carmichael and the Panthers, and everyone was choosing sides, I think that’s another example of what I’m talking about – there are many ways in which to be black. And so, I don’t feel like what I have to say about this current moment is anywhere near as important, essential, vital, critical … [as] a person of colour – what a person of colour has to say about this moment is much more important.”
Finkelstein was one of the minds behind the now-iconic Silence=Death poster, which has been adapted over the years by many people. A variation of it could be seen in at least one of the recent protests. The original iteration encourages viewers to use their power and, for example, vote. In general, working towards solutions is an important part of Finkelstein’s activism.
“I think critiques are easier,” he said. “I think also we mistake public spaces, we mistake the commons, as a declarative space. I tend to think of it as an interrogative space. I think that, even in late-stage capitalism, when someone is trying to get you to put your money in a bank or go buy a soft drink, there’s something Socratic about the gesture of trying to get you to do something … you’re responding to it, you’re engaged in it, and that’s the interrogative part that I think is easy to overlook. And I think that’s where the answers are.
“I think that the way that the Silence=Death poster is structured is it’s really like a bear trap. We worked on it for nine months – the colour has certain codes and signifiers, and the triangle has another set of codes and we changed the colour of the triangle from the [concentration] camps and inverted it to obfuscate some of the questions about victimhood. And the subtext has two lines of text, one that’s declarative and one that’s interrogative, and the point size forces you into a performative interaction.”
This poster and other work with which Finkelstein has been involved include aspects that “people are very afraid to experience,” he said, “which is fallibility, mess-making and tension. And I find all of those things as generative, as kindness, support, community. They’re differently generative and … hearing so many people who are trying to figure out how to find their way in, as white people, into the conversations that are happening in America right now, is the same struggle as a young queer person trying to find their way into the AIDS crisis. I mentor a lot of young queer artists and activists and the first thing they say, their immediate impulse is, I have no right to this story, I wasn’t here, I didn’t live through it. To which my response is, immediately, you have every right to the story – it’s your story, it’s the story of the world…. Race is a white person’s problem. People of colour are paying the price for it, but the problem, the genesis of the problem, is whiteness. And we have to figure out how to talk about it…. But I think now is the time for listening.”
He said, “We have to know what our responsibilities are and this goes back to Judaism – our responsibilities as witnesses. You can’t let your discomfort change the importance of this moment or overshadow the importance of this moment.”
One of the things Finkelstein does is teach social engagement via flash collectives. “I think we’re never put into a position where people mentor our personhood,” he said. “We have people mentor us as computer programmers or healthcare providers or tax accountants or artists or writers, but … there’s something primeval which is missing in the way we’re acculturated, and the flash collective is almost shamanistic in that regard; it taps into this primal thing that is quite astonishing when you let it out.”
Understanding that he will not live forever, he said “the Silence=Death poster casts a very mighty shadow and it makes it very difficult for people to figure out how to make new work, if that’s what they think it has to be…. It became obvious to me that I could be talking about Silence=Death until the day I drop, but, one day, I am going to drop and I want other people to start making those new works and I thought this would be a way to get people to make new work.”
He described the collectives, which teach political agency, as being “like a stew of the top 10 hits of grassroots organizing in a condensed workshop that’s tailored to the individuals in the room.”
He said, “I believe that I don’t necessarily have to change the world because I know that there could be a teenager in 2050 who sees something that someone I worked with did that made them think of something else that I never would have thought of. That is the point of the work, not the how do I fix it before I’m gone, which is the dilemma of Larry Kramer [who passed away last month]. He really thought, and I think it’s really male, but it’s very men of a certain generation also – he really thought that he could fix the AIDS crisis, and it didn’t happen.”
Unfortunately, space doesn’t allow for most of what Finkelstein shared with the Independent about Kramer, who he described as “a complicated person.”
Kramer was a rhetorician, said Finkelstein. “And I’m a propagandist. We’re both rhetoricians in a way, but what was the dividing line that made Larry incapable of understanding the work that I did?… I felt like I understood his process better than he understood mine. And I started to think, well, here’s the difference between a person who articulates their rage with words and a person who articulates their rage with every tool in the toolbox…. Not to make myself sound superior, but I realized that I think of rage as sculptural; he thought of rage as rhetorical. I think of rhetoric as sculptural, I think of it as casting a shadow and activating social spaces. And I think that he was a Jewish gay man of a different generation and a lot of his rage was tied into his personal struggles. And I did not have those. I had other personal struggles, but I did not have them.”
As part of the Queer Arts Festival, Finkelstein will lead a flash collective on the question, “What does queer public space mean in a 21st-century pandemic?” He hopes the resulting work will be shown in a public space.
For more information about the festival, visit queerartsfestival.com. The next issue of the JI will feature an interview with QAF artistic director and Jewish community member SD Holman.
Tzeporah Berman is international program director for Stand.Earth. (photo from Tzeporah Berman)
There is no silver bullet when it comes to responding to the climate crisis, according to Tzeporah Berman. The 25-year veteran of environmental activism and international program director for Stand.Earth said it needs a multi-pronged approach.
“A lot of people like to say it’s negotiations or policy work or protests, but, in my experience, the most effective campaigns that have made change have been the ones where there has been a diversity of tactics and approaches,” Berman told the Independent. “The most effective initiatives are the ones that are not just about educating, but are about motivating people to take action on an issue…. What we need to try and do is motivate people to make change.”
Berman was among those who started Stand.Earth (formerly ForestEthics) about 20 years ago. According to the website, the group “designs and implements strategies that make protecting our planet everyone’s business. Our current campaigns focus on shifting corporate behaviour, breaking the human addiction to fossil fuels and developing the leadership required to catalyze long-term change.”
In the 1990s, Berman was an organizer of the Clayoquot Sound logging protests that contributed to agreements to prevent clearcutting. More than two decades later, as construction of the then-Kinder Morgan-owned Trans Mountain pipeline expansion ramped up, Berman participated in the sit-ins on Burnaby Mountain.
“The War in the Woods … it was this tipping point moment on the issues and Canadian history, where people were engaged from all walks of life,” she said. “Whether or not the rainforest should be clearcut was a conversation around everyone’s kitchen table. I think that’s true today of climate change and pipelines, that it’s one of these rare moments in history where it is a populist issue, where everyone is engaged in the conversation, and I think that’s why you see, in both circumstances, such a diversity of people showing up.”
Last year, the concern reached a fever pitch in Canada and elsewhere, with unprecedented numbers of people marching in the streets calling for climate action. Asked what Berman thought of elected officials such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or NDP leader Jagmeet Singh participating in marches like last September’s global climate strike – that, at their heart, target leaders such as them to address climate change through policy decisions – she said she believes they show up with good intentions.
“We’re living in this strange moment where our elected officials are starting to understand the urgency and importance of climate change, but that is not yet translating into their policy proposals,” she said. “It’s like there’s a time lag and they’re saying the right words about urgency and joining marches, but their policies represent the best thinking on what climate policy should be from 10 years ago. I don’t think they’re being disingenuous when they join a protest … but one of the big problems that we have is that so many people believe that they’re doing enough and other people need to do more. We like to celebrate how progressive we are, but we have a very mixed record. Canada is among the worst in terms of G7 countries with our climate plan.”
Despite estimates of more than one million people in Canada marching in climate strikes last year, Berman said the environmental movement is sorely outnumbered resource-wise in comparison to the oil and gas industry lobby. In a tweet sent at the beginning of this year, Berman spelled out 10 tips for successful activism.
“Do stuff that makes the world respond. Don’t just respond to the world,” she wrote. She expanded, telling the Independent that advocates need to be sure they are the ones setting the agenda, not governments and corporations. “Campaigners and campaigns are not proactive enough, we just respond to what decision-makers are doing. Instead of doing that, what if, months before, you looked at what you think needs to happen in order to protect the climate, our water, the air, produced a report with recommendations for policy, and then held a press conference and a public information night. Then you’re putting a proposal out there of what you think needs to happen in the world.”
Last November, Berman presented to 400 people at Temple Sholom, giving an overview of the scientific evidence of climate change and the role of nations and individuals moving forward. She spoke of the loss of the “culture of engagement.”
“Today, we have a weak civil society engagement muscle and an overextended hyper-consumer muscle,” she said during the presentation.
“We got lazy,” she explained to the Independent. “We live in a democracy, we assume it’s functioning, and leave it up to the politicians…. I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but I think it’s a culture that was eroding over the last generation. Growing up, it was expected in our community that you volunteer – for your synagogue, for your church. We don’t really have that culture now and the result is we’re not engaging in our communities as much as I think we used to. I notice now that we’re starting to see it more as a result of the more active student movements, but I think that’s because they’re scared.”
The role of community groups such as religious institutions should not be underestimated, she added. “People are going to be more willing to engage in the issues if they feel safe, if they feel a sense of common purpose, if they trust the people they’re organizing with. It’s one thing to hear scientists, or read an article. It’s a very different thing to sit down with people in your community … and organize. A lot of people right now are searching for what they can do. [Institutions] should be providing leadership and structure.”
Berman continues to be a leader in her own right. Late last year, she was awarded $2 million US from the Climate Breakthrough Project to fund her efforts to limit new oil and gas development globally to align with the United Nations Paris Agreement goals of a safe climate. The project will be housed within Stand.Earth.
Shelley Stein-Wottenis a freelance journalist and comedy writer. She has won awards for her creative non-fiction and screenwriting and enjoys writing about the arts and environmental issues. She is based on Vancouver Island.
Chatting surf, water refill stations and plastic pollution at Ocean Heroes Bootcamp, left to right: Enzo Ackermann (Ocean Hero), Rob Machado (professional surfer/environmentalist) and Sondra Weiss (art educator). (photo from Sondra Weiss, Founder, Lost Art of Love Letters)
Organized and led by Captain Planet Foundation and Lonely Whale, Vancouver’s Ocean Heroes Bootcamp has a singular purpose – finding ways to save our oceans from plastic pollution.
One of the bootcamp presenters is Sondra Weiss. She offers participants a unique way to inspire action.
Having grown up in Connecticut, close enough to the ocean to fall in love with it, Weiss then went to the University of California. After graduating, she took an art museum educator position, a role she maintained for about two decades. Eventually, however, her love for the ocean drew her to start up the Lost Art of Love Letters.
“I launched this project about four years ago, thinking the world needs more love,” Weiss told the Independent. “As I listen to the news, or my students, or people in the world committing suicide, I just thought that love is a great antidote for everything happening in the world.”
Weiss lives in Santa Barbara, Calif., and was asked to come to Vancouver last year to help with the Ocean Heroes Bootcamp.
“Last year was the second year that they did Ocean Heroes, when I was in Vancouver,” said Weiss. “It brings together 250 local and international youth activists between the ages of 11 and 18, from 20 countries and 24 U.S. states, and the idea is to collaborate worldwide to fight plastic pollution.”
Based out of the University of British Columbia dorms and hosted by Ocean Wise and the Vancouver Aquarium, the next bootcamp is scheduled for June 26-29, though that may change depending on the progress made dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Weiss is to lead a part of it called Love Letters to the Sea.
“It is an art-integrative letter-writing project that promotes positive changes for the ocean,” said Weiss. “So, rather than feeling overwhelmed by environmental issues, community members can take action and promote innovation by using their voices to drive policy solutions.
“Participants take pen to paper and brush to paint to express their sentiments, their solutions, for ocean love. And, a lot of the letters are sent out to local businesses, council members and political figures to say either thank you for the work they do for the ocean environment, or to ask them to make changes.”
Last year’s focus was on eliminating single-use plastic bottles. Participants were tasked with developing ideas to help the community achieve this goal.
“As mentors in bootcamp, in general, we come up with ideas and have the youth collaborate, come up with campaigns and talk to experts in different fields, figuring out how to create the most change, being creative and positive the whole time,” said Weiss.
Each Ocean Heroes Bootcamp draws many different people from all around the world, she said, including youth who have created changes in their community or on a wider scale.
“There are experts leading panels, workshops and group activities … and Love Letters to the Sea, my personal activity, is more artistic-based,” she said. “So, there are writing prompts for writing, but there are also images to inspire art. There are watercolours, crayons and coloured pencils for campers to express themselves in various ways.”
While there are age gaps, some of the younger kids have inspired more change than some of the older ones. Regardless of age, all are passionate about the issues and put any age-related ego aside to learn from and with one another, said Weiss.
“One of the beautiful things is that youth from all around the world are working together toward the one topic – and the topic is plastic pollution, what plastic pollution and consumerism is doing to affect the planet as a whole,” she said.
Weiss hopes that the letters “help motivate the people doing good work and also helps the community to remain civically engaged … and be part of society, knowing we can make change and, as an educator, working with youth shows them to use their voice for change.
“We can use that same thing – the letter writing, it has been tried and true throughout the years. When someone wants to try and make a decree, the people will use a letter. Or, to really express something to a friend going through a hard time, or a family member, a lot of times, we’ll take pen to paper and write it down. It’s a great way to slow down. We live in such a fast-paced society. We need to slow down and really think about what’s in our hearts.”
Still, Weiss is well aware of the power of technology when well-used. She has worked with Jack Johnson’s band to create a song written by middle school kids who wrote love letters to the sea.
“They took lines from the letters, which became lyrics for a song,” said Weiss. “Letters are personal, but the way to reach the masses is through music and video. And, we created it into love letters, which are strong and powerful.”
Some of the lyrics produced include: “Water can’t be broken, but we can make her cry / Going to write a love letter to the ocean, let her know we are always going to try.”
“It was phenomenal that the students got to express themselves and sing it out,” said Weiss. “They wrote the notes and the music, and then we went into a recording studio and recorded a different version.
“Letter writing is such a great way to get ideas onto paper and out of your mind and heart. The next stage is to bring music and video to a larger global audience.”
Weiss sees artistic letters as a gateway to reaching people on a different level, touching people’s minds in a different way to promote change.
“Images or music definitely help ignite that,” said Weiss. “For me, when you are talking to them and you see the light in their eyes go up, you see them drawn into the conversation.
“So, what does it takes to ignite someone to care? That’s what I ask at the bootcamp. I ask the youth if they are going to write an organization and ask them to limit their plastic packaging. And I ask them what they think would get them to consider the financial cost … and think more about the overall cost, the environmental cost. We learn so much from the kids and they inspire us as much as we inspire them – and the relationships maintain year-round.”
While Ocean Heroes Bootcamp is free to attend for accepted youth and their chaperones, including room and board, there is a $100 reservation fee and travel costs that may be waived via scholarship. All applications to attend the bootcamp are reviewed by Captain Planet Foundation and Lonely Whale. Qualified candidates are contacted by the Ocean Heroes headquarters team to complete registration.
The Ocean Heroes HQ team accepts a maximum of 300 youth leaders each bootcamp. Each attendee is paired up with a team of squad leaders, peers who guide them through the program and ensure they have the tools, support and information they need to graduate from the camp with a successful campaign plan to eliminate plastic pollution. For more information, visit oceanheroes.blue.
Katie Delay, left, and Sunny Enkin Lewis are co-presidents of Grant Park High School’s Students for Social Justice. (photo from Sunny Enkin Lewis)
Earlier this year, Winnipeg Grade 12 student Sunny Enkin Lewis won first prize for her age group in A&E network’s contest Lives That Make a Difference. The contest receives hundreds of submissions from all over Canada.
“The prompt [for the contest] is along the lines of, ‘Write an essay about someone who has made a significant contribution to Canada in 2018,’” Enkin Lewis told the Independent. “So, I wrote about Autumn Peltier, who – I believe she’s 15 now, around there – is an indigenous water keeper. She’s an activist for clean water in indigenous communities in Canada. She’s spoken at the UN, she’s spoken to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. So, she’s done a lot of amazing activism.”
Peltier is Anishinaabe and is from the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario.
“I chose her for a couple reasons,” said Enkin Lewis, who was born in Toronto, but has lived in Winnipeg for the past 10 years. “First of all, I think her cause is really important in Canada. I’ve always been really upset with Canadian society and government, because we tend to look at ourselves as pretty flawless in terms of human rights. And, it is true that the quality of life for Canadians, overall, is really good. Yet, there are people, a lot of people, who don’t have the most basic of their needs met – water and shelter … and I think she has brought more awareness to that.”
In her essay, Enkin Lewis points out that Peltier not only stands up fearlessly for this cause, but that she does so from a unique worldview as an Anishinaabe person.
“She thinks of water as deserving of rights,” said Enkin Lewis. “That’s not something we would generally think of and I think it’s a really strong statement – that someone can stand up and speak of things in a way that contrasts the common logic of general Western ideas. I think that helps validate indigenous worldviews in a Western context a little more. Also, I was just inspired by her, as a young woman. I think it’s so important that young people’s voices are heard and that’s how I believe change will happen the fastest – if young people are given a platform and are accepted and respected – and she really embodies that.”
As for as why Enkin Lewis’s essay may have been chosen, she said, “I think my choice of person was really relevant in Canada today, especially since, now, I think, there’s a big focus on indigenous rights, and I think it was maybe a bit refreshing to see someone like that. I haven’t read the other people’s essays, and they didn’t tell me why mine was specifically chosen … just that they thought it stood out.”
Growing up, Enkin Lewis learned that “a big thing in Judaism is valuing life over everything, and knowing the value of human life. And, I think a big part of Judaism is also just respect for people and … everyone should have a good quality of life.
“The fact that, here, in Canada, there are people who don’t have their basic needs met, I think that’s not OK in Judaism. I think it’s important for other cultures to listen to each other, just as I think it’s important for Christian people to listen to Jewish people. And, I think it’s important for Jewish people to listen to indigenous perspectives. As a European Jew, I’m not native to this land … and it’s important to respect the people who are the caretakers of this land and who have been for thousands of years.”
Last year, Enkin Lewis led the organizing of a social justice conference at Grant Park High School, which, in turn, led to the development of a student social justice club at Grant Park. Enkin Lewis and co-president Katie Delay created the club and, because they and the teacher involved in helping to form the group will have left the school by the start of the next school year, Enkin Lewis hopes the younger members will pick up the ball.
“I think our club is very student-centred, very much about what we care about right now, and it gives me and other people an opportunity to get involved in a safe and constructive way,” she said.
As Grant Park has many newcomer Yazidi students, events organized by the club have been focused on building community awareness of the Yazidi situation.
“We did a drive for school supplies for underprivileged students in Winnipeg, and the biggest thing we’ve done is organize a coffeehouse and a couple other events for Yazidis with the help of a local organization called Operation Ezra. We had a bake sale where we sold traditional Yazidi foods, a Yazidi dance class to educate people about the culture, etc. I find that people are not really aware of what’s happening to the Yazidi people.
“We had a coffeehouse in the evening and invited community members, students, parents, anyone to come. There were student performers and a speaker talking about what’s happening, and a Yazidi performer.”
Enkin Lewis’s essay win comes with a $3,000 cheque for her and a $1,000 cheque for her school. She plans to follow her family’s Jewish custom of donating a portion of everything they earn. “I haven’t narrowed it down to a specific organization yet,” she said, “but I’m going to donate it basically to her [Peltier’s] cause – water in indigenous communities. Other than that, I will probably put it toward my education.”
‘My Jewish identity has always been associated with the struggle for basic human values and rights and freedoms,” said Gary Cristall, co-founder of the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, in conversation with the Jewish Independent. “I thought that was the centre, was the core of being Jewish. That was the way I was raised and the stories that were told. I had two identifications with being Jewish – one was social justice, and the other was culinary. I worshipped at Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal.”
A longtime advocate for both the arts and progressive politics, whose passion was forged in the Canadian left of the 1950s and ’60s, Cristall is a cultural pioneer. He co-founded the Vancouver Folk Music Festival in 1978, later serving as its coordinator and artistic director until 1994.
As well as being an educator, activist and promoter, Cristall has fought for artists, struggling to win them professional respect while also defending their rights to fair fees and copyright ownership. For his range of work, he was awarded an honourary doctorate by the University of British Columbia in 2015 and was recognized as an outstanding alumnus of Simon Fraser University in 2017.
Cristall sees his involvement in activism and folk music as natural outgrowths of the culture in which he was raised. “Jews played a major role in folk music in this country, and in the States,” he said. “There were around 50 Jews who invented folk music. It was a conspiracy that was so successful no one understood what had happened.”
Cristall estimates that about 10,000 people attended the first Vancouver Folk Music Festival in 1978. This year’s festival, which takes place July 13-15, is expected to draw more than 35,000 people to Jericho Beach, where the event has been located since 1979. Seven stages are set up in the park and every available inch of parking space in the neighbourhood disappears. This year’s festival will present more than 50 concerts or workshops by artists from around the world, as well as an artisan market and a range of food vendors.
Beyond the festival, Cristall has served in the Canada Council for the Arts and was the founding president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada.
“When the CCA hired me, I was getting tired, getting ready to leave the festival, wondering what I would do next,” Cristall said. “When I saw the job ad, I thought, they’ll never hire me, but they’ll interview me and I’ll get a free trip to see my mother in Toronto. But they were looking to make a change, and they were interested in me because I was a shit-disturber and a rabble-rouser. They called my bluff, and said, ‘OK, you want to change things, come work for us.’”
Today, Cristall is at both Douglas College and Capilano University, where he teaches Canadian cultural policy and arts administration. He has spent 18 years working on a history of folk music in English-speaking Canada, which, he joked, is “1,200 pages written so far, a few hundred pages left to go.”
Asked about what he’s looking forward to at the festival year, Cristall reeled off a list of a dozen performers and what’s special about them. Among them, he mentioned Rodney Crowell, “a brilliant songwriter”; Guy Davis, a “great blues player, son of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, left-wing Harlem artists going way back”; Les Poules à Colin, “young people who are the children of that first revival generation of Quebecois folk music”; the Dead South, “Saskatchewan bluegrass”; Dálava, “a Moravian group doing avant-garde classical and folk and jazz music”; Dori Freeman, whose hometown, Galax, Va., “was a centre of old-timey music”; Vancouver’s Gord Grdina, who “plays the oud and is a brilliant guitar player, got a Juno, plays with a 10-piece band”; A Familia Machado, a “great guitar player playing with two members of his family from Brazil”; and Archie Roach “from Australia, a senior aboriginal songwriter.”
As he spoke, the enthusiasm poured off of him. Cristall is clearly still a man who loves music. “They’re the real thing,” he said. “That’s what I like about the folk festival, it’s the real thing.”
In his list of highlights, Cristall notably passed over most of the more well-known acts playing at the festival, names like Art Bergmann, Ry Cooder, the Mariel Buckley Band, Neko Case and indigenous artist and 2018 Juno nominee Iskwé. “What I love about the folk festival is not just seeing the big names, but seeing someone I never heard of before and come home loving,” said Cristall.
How does the world look to a longtime activist like Cristall? What’s his advice to the next generation?
“My hope is very much alive,” he said. “My Zaida was imprisoned for political activism, and he escaped and came to Canada. I’ve been active since 1965. We have to keep on fighting, nothing says we’re going to win quickly. I’m not pessimistic. Every movement has its ups and downs and nobody said that we were going to win fast and easy. My advice to younger people is get involved, educate yourself, learn and fight. That also connects to the kind of music [at the festival], both implicitly and explicitly – the music is a struggle to survive against the behemoth of capitalism and the fact that those artists have survived is a cultural victory. Hey, it’s too late to be pessimistic.”
Matthew Gindinis a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
The Centre for Judaism of the Lower Fraser Valley is looking for nominations for its annual Lamplighter Award, which honours a young person who has performed an outstanding act of community service.
Candidates must be between the ages of 6 and 18 and submission of potential recipients must include two references describing the child’s community service. The chosen lamplighter will receive the award during Chanukah at an evening ceremony at Semiahmoo Shopping Centre.
“Chanukah celebrates the victory of light over darkness and goodness over evil,” said Simie Schtroks. “This is a most appropriate opportunity to motivate and inspire young people to make this world a brighter and better place. By filling the world with goodness and kindness, that light can dispel all sorts of darkness.”
To nominate a candidate for the award, contact Schtroks as soon as possible at [email protected].
* * *
This summer, David Granirer received a Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada. The award recognizes a deed or activity that has been performed in a highly professional manner, or according to a very high standard: often innovative, this deed or activity sets an example for others to follow, improves the quality of life of a community and brings benefit or honour to Canada.
Granirer is a counselor, stand-up comic and mental health keynote speaker. Granirer, who himself has depression, has taught stand-up comedy to recovering addicts and cancer patients, and founded Stand Up for Mental Health, a program teaching comedy to people with mental health issues, in 2004. He has trained Stand Up for Mental Health groups in partnership with various mental health organizations in more than 50 cities in Canada, the United States and Australia. His work on mental health is featured by media worldwide and has garnered several awards.
Granirer also teaches Stand-Up Comedy Clinic at Langara College, and many of his students have gone on to become professional comics.
* * *
This year’s Mayor’s Arts Award for Community Engaged Arts went to Earle Peach. A singer, songwriter, composer, conductor, arranger, teacher and performer, Peach leads four choirs in the city and hosts a monthly community coffee house in Mount Pleasant. He teaches privately, and records musicians for demos and albums. He performs with Barbara Jackson as a duo called Songtree and also has a band called Illiteratty.
The emerging artist honour went to Ariel Martz-Oberlander, a theatre artist, writer and teacher. As a Jewish settler on Coast Salish territories with diasporic and refugee ancestry, her practice is rooted in a commitment to place-based accountability through decolonizing and solidarity work. She divides her time between theatre and community organizing, and specializing in creative protest tactics on land and water.
Martz-Oberlander is a facilitator with the True Voice Theatre Project, producing new shows by residents of the Downtown Eastside and vulnerably housed youth, in collaboration with the Gathering Place and Covenant House. Her most recent work, created with support from the LEAP program, won a research and development prize from the Arts Club. Martz-Oberlander is also the associate producer for Vines Festival, presenting accessible, free eco-art in Vancouver parks. Good art is accountable to the community, raises up voices rarely heard and is vital to repairing our world.
* * *
On Oct. 3, the Koffler Centre of the Arts announced the four winners of the 2017 Vine Awards for Canadian Jewish Literature, all of whom were on hand at the award luncheon at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Toronto.
Winners in two of the categories are based in Vancouver. Miriam Libicki won the non-fiction award for Toward a Hot Jew (Fantagraphics Books Inc.), which the jury described as, “An admirably complicated response to being a woman and a Jew in our time, a thrilling combination of memoir, journalism and art.” And Irene N. Watts and Kathryn E. Shoemaker took the prize in the children’s/young adult category for Seeking Refuge (Tradewind Books), which the jury described as, “A superb graphic novel dramatizing the Kindertransport, a powerful story enhanced by firsthand experience and beautiful black-and-white illustrations.”
The other winners were Peter Behrens’ Carry Me (House of Anansi Press) for fiction and Matti Friedman’s Pumpkinflowers (McClelland & Stewart) for history.
The history shortlist included Max Eisen’s By Chance Alone (Harper Collins Publishers) and Ester Reiter’s A Future Without Hate or Need: The Promise of the Jewish Left in Canada (Between the Lines). Runners-up in the fiction category were Eric Beck Rubin’s School of Velocity (Doubleday Canada) and Danila Botha’s For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known (Tightrope Books). In non-fiction, Sarah Barmak’s Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality (Coach House Books), Judy Batalion’s White Walls (Berkley/Penguin Random House) and David Leach’s Chasing Utopia (ECW Press) were runners-up, while Deborah Kerbel’s Feathered (Kids Can Press) and Tilar Mazzeo and Mary Farrell’s Irena’s Children (Margaret K. McElderry Books) were on the children’s/young adult short list.
* * *
In September 2017, local community member Dr. Arthur Wolak was elected for a three-year term to the board of governors of Gratz College, a private liberal arts college in suburban Philadelphia. Founded in 1895, Gratz is the oldest independent and pluralistic college for Jewish studies in North America. Accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Gratz is also recognized by Israel’s Ministry of Education and Culture. Through its undergraduate and graduate programs, Gratz educates students to become effective educators, administrators and community leaders.
In the very talented ensemble of The Road Forward by Marie Clements are Michelle St. John, left, and Jennifer Kreisberg. (photos from National Film Board of Canada)
This year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival features several films with Jewish community connections. They explore a wide range of topics: First Nations activism, Fort McMurray and the oil sands, real-life mermaids, bigotry against larger people, and being a freelance journalist in the Middle East. They will make you question your assumptions, ponder the various ways in which humans find connection, and introduce you to ideas, people and places you probably didn’t know existed.
Opening the festival, which runs May 4-14, is The Road Forward. In the very talented ensemble of this musical documentary by Marie Clements are Michelle St. John and Jennifer Kreisberg. As many of us do, St. John and Kreisberg have multiple cultural heritages that form their identity; in their instances, First Nations and Jewish are among them. In addition to performing, Kreisberg also composed and/or arranged many of the songs; the main composer is Wayne Lavallee.
The Road Forward began as a 10-minute performance piece commissioned for the Aboriginal Pavilion at the 2010 Olympics, and premièred as a full-length theatre show at the 2015 PuSh Festival. The documentary has mostly traditional components – interviews, archival footage, news clips – but these are broken up by a number of songs, which add energy and emotion to the film.
The documentary uses as its starting point the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, which were established in the 1930s, when First Nations people were not permitted to meet and organize. The groups’ “official organ,” the Native Voice, was the first indigenous-run newspaper in Canada.
“The idea was to honour B.C.’s history, so I started researching and reading online and came across the archives of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood, the oldest Native organization in the country. Their parent organization, the Native Fishing Association, is located in West Vancouver, close to me,” explains Clements in the press material.
The Road Forward touches on many issues along its journey to current-day First Nation activists, who carry on in their ancestors’ paths. Though their goals are varied – some fight for particular legal or policy changes, others for restitution and reconciliation, yet others for their own voice and place in the world – they are all seeking justice, equality, understanding.
The songs highlight the immense struggles. As but two examples, “1965” is about the decades upon decades that First Nations have been denied the basic rights that most other Canadians have long enjoyed, and “My Girl” is a heartbreaking tribute to the aboriginal women who have been murdered along British Columbia’s Highway 16, the “Highway of Tears.” The Indian Constitution Express, a movement organized by George Manuel in 1980-81 to protest the lack of aboriginal rights in then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s plans to patriate the Canadian Constitution, receives somewhat more attention than other activist achievements, and the song “If You Really Believe,” based on a speech by Manuel, is quite powerful.
The May 4 gala screening of The Road Forward is the official launch of Aabiziingwashi (#WideAwake), National Film Board of Canada’s Indigenous Cinema on Tour. For the length of 2017, NFB is offering films from its 250-plus collection to all Canadians via [email protected]. The film also runs on May 10 and Clements will participate in a Q&A following both screenings.
* * *
Limit is the Sky follows a handful of 20-somethings who have moved to Fort McMurray to follow their dreams. A few years before the price of oil plummeted in 2015 and the 2016 wildfire decimated the northern Alberta city, the average family income in “Fort Mac,” was $190,000 a year, according to the film. Working on the oil sands was where the real money lay, but others were drawn to the college or to places that serve the oil workers (and others), such as hairdressing salons and restaurants.
Most striking about the population we meet in Limit is the Sky is their diversity: they not only come from other Canadian provinces and the United States but from much further afield. The seven young dreamers featured include Max, from Lebanon; Mucharata, from the Philippines, who had to leave her 2-year-old son behind initially (for fours years); and KingDeng, a former child soldier from South Sudan, who had to help support his wife and children (in Edmonton) while at school in Fort McMurray.
“I was looking for young people who’d just recently arrived in Fort Mac, full of hopes, dreams and naïveté,” says filmmaker Julia Ivanova in the press material. “I wanted to walk the viewer through their ups and downs in a place where the men seem tough and the women even tougher. I wasn’t looking for tough characters, though: sensitivity and beauty – both inner and physical beauty – were important to me.”
Ivanova, who has Jewish roots, migrated to Canada from Russia many years ago.
“Being an immigrant myself,” she notes, “I could feel what was at stake for these young people and the challenges they face on a very intimate level.”
The main filming ran from fall 2012 to spring 2015. She felt welcomed by the people in the city, though not by the industry. “That was a brick wall I hit over and over again,” she says. “There was no filming of anyone allowed, anywhere, period.”
By the end of the film, most of the millennials featured had left the city, along with many others. “The town felt almost deserted, compared to how I had seen it in 2012 and 2013,” says Ivanova. “So many people were leaving. There was so much anxiety. I went to all the places I loved – and they’d all changed.”
Ivanova’s film shows the hope, the drive, the challenges, the loneliness of her interviewees. The dynamics are much more complex than one might assume of a city that relied on the oil sands for its prosperity. The environment is of crucial importance, obviously, but people matter, too, and this documentary shines a necessary light on that fact.
Limit is the Sky screens May 5.
* * *
Falling into the who-ever-would-have-thought category, Ali Weinstein’s Mermaids introduces viewers to real-life mermaids, of a sort.
Rachel’s underwater job at the Dive Bar in Sacramento, Calif., helps her deal with a family tragedy. Vicki and a group of former Weeki Wachee Resort (in Florida) swimmers recall their mermaid days, including a show for Elvis and a 50th anniversary performance. Being a mermaid helps Cookie, who was abused as a child and has mental health issues, manage life, and she and her soulmate, Eric, who makes her mermaid tails, are married in a mermaid wedding, after being together for some 30 years. Last but not least, Julz, a transgender woman who was bullied as a child and disowned by her father, discovers acceptance and love in a Huntington Beach, Calif., mermaid group.
Weinstein intersperses these stories with brief summaries of long-told mermaid tales, “from the 3,000-year-old Assyrian figure of Atargatis to the Mami Wata water spirits of West Africa.”
It really is a fascinating documentary, showing just how resilient and resourceful the human spirit is.
Mermaids plays twice during DOXA, on May 6 and 13, and Weinstein will be in attendance at both screenings.
* * *
Think of the cartoon villains and the hapless sidekicks. How are they often portrayed? As fat, dumb and/or oversexed? If those weren’t your first thoughts, think again. The documentary Fattitude convincingly shows how widespread bigotry against larger people is – so much so that it can be overlooked, until pointed out. Then, you wonder how you ever missed it.
From the old woman in the candy house that eats Hansel and Gretel, to Star Wars’ Jabba the Hut, to the evil squid in The Little Mermaid, these are just a few of the villains. Then there is the heavyset and dumb Hardy, sidekick to thin, smart Laurel; the stereotypical chubby best friend in so many movies; and the archetypal black nanny, forever cast in the caring, subservient role. Miss Piggy is a more complex character, both strong and confident in herself, but also sex-crazy over Kermit. And, in the entire Star Trek franchise – where have the larger people gone?
From the age of 3, the film notes, we are already programmed with negative stereotypes. When all put together, it’s quite depressing. However, Fattitude is a rather upbeat documentary, as its interviewees are spirited, determined and intelligent enough to effect some change, mainly via social media.
Filmmakers Lindsey Averill and Viridiana Lieberman speak to almost 50 people and, to a person, they provide an interesting perspective, connecting the body images depicted in films, television shows, cartoons, magazines and advertisements with their effects on viewers and on our perceptions of ourselves and others. The film discusses the links between race, socioeconomic status and weight, as well as the reasons why Michelle Obama’s campaign to end childhood obesity was misguided.
Fattitude screens May 9.
* * *
Being a journalist in a war zone seems dangerous and frightening, and it is. But it is also tedious and lonely. At least this is what it seems from watching Santiago Bertolino’s Freelancer on the Front Lines.
Bertolino follows Toronto-born, Beirut-based freelance journalist Jesse Rosenfeld as Rosenfeld hustles to get story ideas and budgets approved, waits in sparse hotel rooms for fixers to connect him with interviewees, and ventures into Egypt during its post-Arab Spring elections, the West Bank during an Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey and to Iraq, where they witness the fight against ISIS from the front lines.
Some of the more disturbing images are of the bodies of Palestinians gunned down in a home by undetermined executioners and the corpses of dead ISIS fighters dumped in the back of a truck, as well as tied to its back bumper. In another memorable part, Rosenfeld yells questions to a caged Mohamed Fahmy, when Fahmy and two fellow Al Jazeera journalists were on trial in Cairo. (Fahmy, who holds both Canadian and Egytian citizenship, spent almost two years in jail of a three-year sentence.)
Rosenfeld has strong views and isn’t afraid to share them, though he struggles to make eye contact with the camera when he makes his pronouncements. Some of the best exchanges in the film are between him and Canadian-Israeli journalist Lia Tarachansky, who hold different opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Freelancer on the Front Lines screens May 13 at Vancity and will include a post-film discussion.
For tickets and the full DOXA Documentary Film Festival schedule, visit doxafestival.ca.