17 February 2008

The Year of Living Dangerously

So many warm, fuzzy feelings today: Talking with the woman who sold me a birthday card for my sister and who unprompted told me she had loved one of the very films I had picked out as the best out of the vast slush heap of films that ended up in the Boulder International Film Fest this year. Hearing a woman say sincerely that she'd attended a lot of film festivals around the world and this was one of the best she'd ever seen. Feeling like the people here (and beyond) had finally found this festival at sold-out show after show. And I didn't even make it to any of the parties! Instead I saw an incredible number of amazing films over the past couple of days, and it's not even over yet. One today was 3 Peaks 3 Weeks, which the kind of thing that can start movements. In short, a group of women decided to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and two other nearby peaks in three weeks to raise money for a school in Africa. I didn't think I was going to stay but sat down a few minutes into it and had to see what happened -- and as usual was infinitely glad to have had the opportunity to share in an otherwise inaccessible experience by the time the film ended.

So here's a little detail about life in Africa I have gleaned over this weekend of films: a lot of schools are not free for the students; after a certain age, students must pay to go to school the way we pay for our colleges here in the U.S. Well, the women featured in Michael Brown's film decided to do something about this specific problem in one place. They went out and raised money and awareness for education and AIDS relief work in Africa. Now a large group of kids has a school full of inspired kids -- as well as the buses and fuel to get them there. People made sure there were teachers and materials and walls, any one of those things no small feat to orchestrate and mobilize in a country halfway around the world. (The kids in this school, incidentally, are now occupying half of the top-ten spots in their country's educational system, for those of you who like metrics.)

Over this weekend I have been so impressed at the countless people I have come across who are doing their utmost to see that these great acts of bravery and service are not only witnessed and acknowledged, but are also offered as an example of what is possible today.

I have felt like I have spent this festival steeped in the best of what we are about here in this weird little cosmopolitan and worldly-yet-provincial town I live in. I have this feeling today that someone is thinking about the same stuff I am: how to serve in a way that makes a difference, how to use what we know for good. People mock us in our "Boulder Bubble" (or "seven square miles surrounded by reality," an epithet that might have more punch for me personally if I hadn't also heard it of San Francisco when I was living there). They mock us not just for our health-obsessed ("crunchy," "granola") lifestyles, but also for passing resolutions about nuclear power and trade with other nations. But these are all cliches rooted in truth: I now know I am not alone in persisting in my belief that democracy and access and truthtelling are fundamental to the way our world works when it works best. We've championed the poor when we've been well off. When we've seen what's bad, we have stood for seeking out the source of the badness and fixing it -- or at least trying to make amends so we can continue to grow and evolve as a people. These films are being made by people like me who think about these things every day and try to act on them much more than I do every day. Back when I was helping cull the best of the 700 or so films that were submitted for inclusion in the Boulder International Film Fest (I only had to watch about 100), and I sifted through hours of good and awful film to find the gems that I just had to share with my neighbors, Robin and Kathy Beeck were talking about the election and how they thought maybe they'd aim for a "political" theme for the festival.

It didn't quite look like that by the time I saw the printed programs (with all the typos I had offered to help catch before they got out -- you know, the petty stuff that drives me crazy, like Ghengis and not Genghis, Kurtz and not Kurz, "Tribecca" instead of the correct "Tribeca," and the one that rankles every year: "sponsers" -- the sort of thing only I and a few other people seem to notice but really leaps out at me every time, just like all those "regrettable errors in the titles" I wearily remarked on in my notes on the submissions and how today I noticed "sight" used when they meant "site").

Despite all those niggling nits that bug me to no end, and the absence of a "politics" theme, which would have, in retrospect, seemed so small next to the worldwide experiences I have had the opportunity to witness, I have found the these chronicles utterly amazing and inspiring. I have perceived (whether intended or not) an overarching narrative arc in the sequence of the adventure films and the humanitarian aid films, the progressions of ideas from simple obsession with risktaking to the limits of people's desire to do something, anything, to make a difference in the world. All evening I have been doing the "I am not worthy" motion (from Wayne's World) in Robin Beeck's direction. Maybe she thought I was just schmoozing her up, but every ounce of genuflection in her direction has been in complete sincerity.

Here's an instance of what I'm raving about.

Joe Simpson is the guy who fought his way back to the living after being left for dead and then describing his experiences in his book and film, Touching the Void, a moving and scary film about obsessions and their consequences, about human strength and frailty. He's back this year with a film called The Beckoning Silence, about the call of steep mountains (it is a good follow-on to Steep, which ventures into similar territory). Simpson here recounts (and has actors reenact) a story of derring-do on the north face of the Eiger, an adventure by four friends that turned fatal yet inspired Joe to climb difficult mountains himself and make this film. That he survived being cut from his climbing partner's rope and falling into a crevasse for four days in his first film and then lived to tell these less fortunate climbers' tale are two amazing feats; the third is that he is able to distance himself from this pursuit after such prolonged obsession.

A lot of these adventure films are about obsession with risk: Beauty Mark represents local woman Diane Israel's confession about her disease and journey back from her exercise-induced anorexia in all its pernicious forms and effects on her life; The Beckoning Silence is about the deadly call of the most elusive peaks in the world; Row Hard, No Excuses is about how people will put their entire lives on the line to pursue something that may actually get a remote parent to pay attention to them for once in their lives.

But to a documentary, I kept seeing this extra dimension come into play for all of the participants in these different dramas: This need to do more, to serve people less fortunate, to prove that the world is not so vast or impenetrable, to be needed for something. The showing of 3 Peaks, 3 Weeks made me feel proud not only to be a part this year of bringing stories about the healing power of truth, beauty, and music to my neighbors, but also proud of being human.

Speaking of humanity and its limits, the hardest film to watch was the one that hit closest to home, and it turned out not to be the one about a woman's midlife wish for a child after all (although that one is still dear to me). I felt I needed to take a good hard look at Taxi to the Dark Side's message about the way violence has been propagated in the military culture and I was glad I did. Rewind a few months to when I saw another film that I've since been raving about and that has since inspired me to write a novel about big pharma and the FDA. This documentary feature, called Taken As Directed, showed how destructive the antimalarial drug Lariam is in a certain percentage of the vast numbers of people who are prescribed the medication before going into military or peacekeeping service in various tropical locales around the world. In that film I saw people who were loving and generous turn dark and murderous, some after only a single dose of a medication they thought was designed to help them. Tonight I talked to someone who knows two people who were profoundly affected by taking this drug. I was shocked when I saw the film at the arrogance and persistence of the U.S. military and the drug manufacturer in denying any wrongdoing, and I was intrigued by the possibility that there was a reason they were continuing to allow these things to happen. My husband is a little leery of my willingness to join the conspiracy bandwagon, but tonight, watching Taxi to the Dark Side, I was shocked anew at how Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney have made every attempt and in many ways succeeded in making end runs around the constitution. Bush has given himself the right to define what it means to comply with the Geneva Convention (and where are the Republicans who were shouting about Clinton's discussion of defining "it" now???).

To my patriotic grandmother Jane in Florida, let me just say that this is the smoking gun, the crux of the reason I can't bring myself to get behind and "support" this president, our commander-in-chief (like "god," I just can't bring myself to use capital letters). The "rule of law" that has been the foundation upon which this country was established (did you ever learn about habeas corpus? -- look it up, if you must) has been perverted and reinterpreted, under Bush's administration, as the sanctioning and propagation of the following "interrogation tactics" being employed to coerce "confessions" from "terrorists" who are actually detainees denied the right to fair trials, much less speedy ones. These are tactics sanctioned against people completely innocent of any charges of conspiracy or terrorism, people like you and me just trying to go about their lives and provide for their families and serve in the ways they know how to do best: sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, sensory disorientation, extended periods of standing, sexual humiliation, dogs, and waterboarding. To see the images depicting these truths, the people all the way up the chain of command justifying these outrageous acts of brutality and humiliation, made me feel ill, not just sick to my stomach but sick at being a part of a culture that could condone such violence against innocent and precious humans.

So as I watched Taxi I did all I know how to do: I wrote like a fiend. I took page after page of notes. I was appalled at the things I heard and felt I had to bear witness, not only for the Iraqis abused in the ways I saw and heard described but also for the service men and women who were turned into instruments of torture by their own government. In my notebook I railed about this being worse than not learning from the Holocausts in Nazi Germany and the purges and pogroms in the Soviet Union and Pol Pot's eradication of a huge percentage of his population, the people that made up his nation. It was taking all the worst things from those experiments in thought control and terrorization and using them against people, people with no recourse. I wrote down the things that officials and interrogators said because I couldn't believe people could say them and it was all I could do.

And so I came home at the end of the night fired up about the people who have gone to Africa and by those who have put themselves in grave danger to get the stories of the soldiers and the so-called "enemy combatants" out here for all of us to see. And to a somewhat lesser extent the adventurers (my personal reaction to Joe Simpson is "what planet of beings do you come from that you must subject yourself to this kind of extreme danger? (I do recognize in this our culture's desire to explore if not outright test the frontiers of human experience, whether on earth and in space.)

Watching these films, a zillion connections to other films, whether popular, obscure, or unknown, emerged; this idea map will have to remain, for now, a project for another blog. I have to get some rest and decide where to begin. Well, once I'm finished with my story about the drug industry, that is.

I was impressed at the way the films at first seemed to be about the limits of human endurance and the power of obsession to motivate people, but as the films rolled past, I also kept being gently (or even forcefully) yet effectively led to a deeper, more important question, the one Linda Hunt's amazing character Billy repeats in The Year of Living Dangerously, one of those films like All the President's Men that still may translate into my life as a stint as an international journalist or aid worker one day: "What then must we do?"

And I see, too, as I stay up until three a.m, having started watching films at 11 this morning (with only a couple of hours' break in the middle), that there's another story embedded in all this that I've had my eye on, the one that is also about obsession and mania and that still is part of the picture for me and for all the other music fans and athletes and journalists and filmmakers and other everyday heroes (as our local TV news channel celebrates weekly but I feel like climbing up to install a big bat-signalesque broadcast that will reveal to all from my rooftop 24/7).

I'll wrap up this ramble by saying that I am simply grateful to so many people including Robin and Kathy Beeck not only for honoring some of what I thought was important and groundbreaking by showing it at the festival but also for leading me beyond my own perceptions. I have been inspired to reassess what it's possible to get done. In a really good way, it feels like it's time to get busy (I'd been saying "I need a vacation" just before I went to Florida for a funeral -- and then tonight I told my sweetie, "It's a funny kind of vacation that makes you want to get to work," but truly that's the best kind, isn't it?). More: my best friend Robyn has a hard time hearing the praise from anyone but she again showed great grace under pressure, which is what it takes to get these things done in the world and at home. And to the people who helped pick these films I say I can hardly believe the company I find myself in. I'm grateful to be a part of this community.

What then must we do?

No comments: