Category Archives: Film

Filming Black Love in the tropics

I really adore this video clip for Frenna directed by AZAD WASTARA; specifically the shots that capture THE PEOPLE, colours, and other sensual impressions of this place so well!

I believe it was filmed in Ghana (there’s a shot of Kiki Bees’s, which is in Ghana). Trying to find information on who the cinematographer was.

And daydreaming of filming in Melanesia

Watch: munchies, chilli balls & an airbnb.

A quick post about something funny, moving, and entertaining.

After many recommendations, I finally watched the web series ‘High Maintenance’; it really is a thing of beauty.

Below are three of my favourite episodes so far, in the order you should watch them in (the first two episodes are related).

First up, ‘BRAD PITTS’:

This second one kind of struck a nerve – and features the hungry lady from the video above. Dating after recovering from serious illness, in my experience, can be a little weird – you just hope for someone who isn’t completely freaked out by the realness of your life, and there are many people who don’t want to deal with that. But exposing that reality to someone on the second date isn’t as challenging as having chilli on your… sensitive areas. ‘RUTH’:

And I enjoyed this one about a couple doing the Airbnb hosting thing, putting up with grating house guests (including a couple of Australians) to pay the rent (incidentally the recent episode of ‘Broad City‘ in which they rent out their apartments to international visitors for one night to make money made me laugh so hard). This scenario is really my personal nightmare – I hate people all up in my stuff and personal space. But maintenance guy really helps a brother put his foot down in ‘TRIXIE’:

 

New post soon, as mentioned.

Merchants of Doubt

Hello 🙂

An A.V. Club reviewer called this film an “artless, toothless look at the expert-for-hire industry”, so naturally I’m eager to see it and judge for myself. This is the synopsis of award-winning documentary maker Robert Kenner’s MERCHANTS OF DOUBT, which was “inspired by” the rigorously researched 2010 book of the same name:

Inspired by the acclaimed book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, MERCHANTS OF DOUBT takes audiences on a satirically comedic, yet illuminating ride into the heart of conjuring American spin. Filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the curtain on a secretive group of highly charismatic, silver- tongued pundits-for-hire who present themselves in the media as scientific authorities – yet have the contrary aim of spreading maximum confusion about well-studied public threats ranging from toxic chemicals to pharmaceuticals to climate change.

Have a look:

Merchants of Doubt opens in North America in selected cities on March 6.

Cover story in Issue 13 of Stella & Entrepreneurs at CPAF

Hey look at this – the first post of the year! Hope you are well 🙂

Just writing, screenwriting and working in (arts) communications & publishing this year – which affords me time to tinker with organic and simple living (really my main hobby, other than ‘Whatsapp’-ing with my enormous family in PNG) and to prioritise nurturing my health. I am also now considering pursuing a gender research opportunity – specifically, I am considering whether I can bring something of worth to this particular task.

Anyway. Just wanted to share a couple of things to kick off this blogging thing for 2015.

‘SISTERS FOR WEST PAPUA’ IN ISSUE 13 STELLA – ON SALE NOW!

As mentioned late last year, I wrote a 6-page feature article on Nattali Rize, Petra Rumwaropen and Lea Rumwaropen for the latest Entertainment‘ issue of Stella Magazine (it’s the cover story for this issue) – which features fantastic articles on some amazing talent coming out of the Pacific! Here are some words from the Editor:

“If we’ve learnt anything from this issue, it’s that we love to entertain. And with the region brimming with so much talent, we are excited to share the stories of some of the most flexible, resilient and inspiring entertainers of 2014.

In this issue, meet the artists who’ve established unique voices in Australia, New York City, Israel, Fiji, and Tahiti. Working in music, film, literature, fashion, and dance, these artists share an interest, not in fame and fortune, but for social reform and social justice.

As much as we like to be a source of positive media for the Pacific Islands, injustice and exploitation is an ongoing challenge for us as we strive to decolonise our lands and our minds.

With our Pacific Youth being anything but pacified, we are excited to announce the launch of the Stella Pacific Writing Prize, a chance to make some noise about something you care about.”

There is also within this issue a little contributor profile on me, in which I admit to enjoying Katy Perry. If all this doesn’t convince you to SUBSCRIBE TO THE MAGAZINE BY CLICKING HERE, I don’t know what will.

Check out the strong cover for Issue 13 HERE.

CONTEMPORARY PACIFIC ARTS FESTIVAL 2015: ‘OCEANIA NOW’

The Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival (CPAF) this year will be held from 9-11th April 2015, with workshops being run during March and visual arts exhibitions running until May!

CPAF 2015 will explore the spiritual, physical, cultural and political dimensions of contemporary Pacific identity – situated in the present, the medium between honouring the past and authoring the future. Oceania Now. A space of pure potentiality and agency.

Stay tuned to the CPAF site for updates and ticketing information for workshops and the Symposium. This years festival will include:

5 different Art and Creative Workshops. Including Pacific Photobook Project, Bilum Weaving with Vicki Kinai, Pacific Bling Weaving Workshops, Pacific Fashion Runway Workshop, and Hula Fitness Workshops.

Community Day. Featuring a FREE concert headlined by Radical Son, Children’s Area (a creative village for children and young people with workshops and activities running throughout the day), face painting with artist Ella Benore Rowe, the Craft and Weaving Tent (with Sounds of Polynesia), Interactive Art with Naup Waup (Naup will create work and display his own creations, as well as cultural artefacts from Papua New Guinea), and the Pasifika Fashion Parade featuring participants from the two day Pacific Fashion Runway workshop. There will also be a marketplace with stalls selling a variety of goods.

Traditional Tattooing with Julia Megeau Gray. She’ll be an artist in residence over the three days of CPAF (including Community Day) to demonstrate live tattooing. Julia will be working on individual pieces, and will be available to work on people at FCAC on the 9-11 April.

Woodcarving demonstration with Fono McCarthy. This carver and multi-disciplinary Samoan artist will create an 8ft free standing responsive sculptural work made of native wood titled ‘Gafa Fa’avae’ over 3 days of the CPAF festivities – the work will be completed during the CPAF Community Day.

‘Resonance’ Exhibition. Curated by Chuck Feesago, and featuring work by Naup Waup, Cecilia Kavara Verran, Dan Taulapapa McMullin, Kirsten Lyttle, Chantal Fraser, Chuck Feesago, Leuli Eshraghi, Anna Crawley, Eric Bridgeman.

‘Construction Piece Scores’ ExhibitionCPAF Artist in Residence Ann Fuata will collaboratively develop a work based on ancient intercontinental ocean floor highways that are thought to stretch across the entire Pacific Ocean.

Fiafia Bar – The Festival Bar. 6pm-10pm for the three days of the festival. Step into the Fiafia Festival Bar and witness a Pacific collision of island culture, dance, song, circus and all flavours of contemporary entertainment.

CPAF Symposium. 9-10th April. 25 speakers, 6 chair persons, the PK-CPAF presenters and our keynote speaker Ema Tavola will be progressing a lively and focused discussion on issues relevant to contemporary Pacific arts practice in both an Australian and international context.

We’ve just released the Symposium line-up HERE and HERE.

I’m looking forward to seeing Stella Magazine Editor Amanda Donigi chair the panel ‘Entrepreneurialism in Pacific Arts’.

A two-day pass or one-day passes are available. To book your place in the audience, CLICK HERE.

Stay tuned to the CPAF website and CPAF Symposium website for further announcements, booking information, and the full festival program (yet to be released).

ESSENTIAL viewing for contemporary peace: 12 Years A Slave

There’s a good reason this film won Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay at the 86th Academy Awards, as well as the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Lupita Nyong’o, and a Best Actor nomination for Chiwetel Ejiofor:

 

12 Years A Slave is a devastating portrayal of the story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), an adaptation of his 1853 memoir ‘Twelve Years a Slave’.  Northup was a New York State-born free African American man, an accomplished violinist and farmer, a husband and father, who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery.

Other cast members include Adepero Oduye, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Liza J. Bennett, Brad Pitt, and Paul Dano. This motion picture was directed by the brilliant Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) from an adapted screenplay written with John Ridley, and shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt – who worked with McQueen on Hunger and Shame. It was produced by Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company.

*****

I cannot quite put into words the power of this movie. The story will stay with me forever. So I will just say this: 12 Years A Slave is not merely an historical picture. It is much more than a biographical drama, more than a faithful adaptation of an autobiographical novel. And it is much, much more than an unflinching look at one of the ugliest manifestations of human evil in known history.

Yes, this film is all of those things, and for this I feel grateful to all who made it a reality. But let us not make the mistake of resting in the anaesthetising assumption that that warped consciousness – such that would lead a human to think it not only okay, but justifiable, to torture, own, or exploit another being – is essentially dead in the developed world. It is not.

I see this film as having contemporary parallels. For 12 Years A Slave highlights one of the most disturbing and insidious aspects of the human mind – the ability to desensitise ourselves from the suffering of others, in favour of our own comfort, pleasure, wealth, aesthetic preferences.

Perhaps unintentionally, the film is rich in metaphors for the justifications we in the modern, supposedly “enlightened” and civilised world make for purchasing products, supporting governments, hoarding wealth or simply turning away from the suffering of others, in favour of base and corrupt self-interest.

One such example: A slave owners wife, Mrs Ford, who is disturbed by the anguished wailing of a Mother (who happens to be a slave, Eliza) for her children, a young boy and little girl, taken from her and sold to other slave owners. “I cannot have that kind of depression about”, she whispers. The grieving Mother is removed, permanently.

Out of sight, out of mind… the oppressor’s comfort is conserved. The victim’s pain and vocal suffering was disturbing the comfortable, civilised peace. The victim’s pain – not the evil, vile acts that caused her pain – was seen as the problem.  (Mrs Ford had earlier, for a brief moment, entertained sympathy for Eliza’s plight, before telling Eliza it would be okay, as she would soon forget her children).

So then. What is evil?

Evil is not just abject cruelty and extreme violence. It has been said that evil thrives when good men do nothing. Evil also thrives when those perpetrating and supporting evil indirectly, fail to see – or wilfully refuse to see – how their actions (or inactions) are part of that evil.

When we allow our governments to torture, mistreat, imprison. When we punish people for fighting for their freedom. When we simply turn away from the suffering of others. We are Mrs Ford. We are the person who claims to be compassionate, to be good, whilst simultaneously supporting systems literally sanctioning the harm of others.

When you see this film – and you must – think about the hidden cruelty and inhumanity built into our global economic system today. Think about how we tell people fighting to merely be free that they should be less “angry”, and consider them less worthy of sympathy when they have the audacity to show the desperate emotions that come with the struggle to survive.

Think about how easily and happily we remain ignorant of the suffering that may have gone into almost everything we consume. Slavery is not dead, and nor is the moral blindness that enabled it. It is incumbent upon everyone who truly believes in freedom – and I hope that you do, as I do – to open our eyes.

.

“The last word: everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live. This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup. I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery. And the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.” – Steve McQueen, Director, 12 Years A Slave.

RETRO POST: “A FORCE OF NATURE: David Suzuki”

Hiya 🙂 I first posted this blog post in 2011 – it was my 63rd post. David Suzuki was on the ABC program ‘Q & A’ a few weeks back, but I only just remembered this – thought it might be a good time to put it out there again. New post soonish!

“The human brain now holds the key to our future. We have to recall the image of the planet from outer space: a single entity in which air, water, and continents are interconnected. That is our home.”

David Suzuki


It was a chilly but wonderfully moonlight night on Sunday evening when a friend and I attended the Australian premier of the David Suzuki documentary, A Force of Nature, at the Moonlight Cinema in Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. David Suzuki is a Japanese Canadian scientist, broadcaster and environmental activist, who has hosted the award-winning CBC science program The Nature of Things since 1979. Having grown up watching his television specials (broadcast in Australia on the ABC), I was excited to see him giving an introduction before the screening. If you’re familiar with his work as a science communicator, you’ll be surprised by the very personal nature of this film, made by award-winning Canadian filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson.

This is the trailer:

THE FILM PREMISE.

David is in the final act of his life and academic career, and is about to deliver his last lecture. Not shown in its entirety, the brilliant lecture forms the spine of the film – it is visited in specific segments, to introduce themes and ideas that are then explored biographically through David. We are taken to various locations of significance to him, and broader significance in terms of our collective history (Hiroshima, for example. David marvels at the resilience of nature after the devastation of the atomic bomb). As he visits these places and reflects on the impact of these events on his life, we understand the evolution of his activism/career and the motivation behind the message – of the interconnectedness of all life, and respect for the natural world. The result is a more emotionally powerful argument for science. Gunnarsson seamlessly moves us between these personal scenes and the lecture, as the essential theme of the film unfolds: what LEGACY are we leaving behind?

INDIVIDUAL AND COLLECTIVE LEGACY.

Not only the central theme of the film, Legacy is also the title of David’s new book (read about it here). A Force of Nature and Legacy are part of The David Suzuki Legacy Project. When one becomes an elder, a status that 74 year-old David embraces in the documentary, leaving a legacy becomes the most important thing you can turn your mind too. In A Force of Nature, he reflects not only on his personal legacy but, more importantly, our collective legacy.

WHAT WE DO WE REALLY VALUE?

According to David, this is the greatest threat to that collective legacy: the industrialised/first world obsession with economic growth. It seems that to this society, or at least to political and business leaders, growth/expansion is not merely a means to an end; growth is progress. But David argues we need to reassess what kind of growth is good, and what progress actually means to us. The great benefit of being an elder, of being wise, is that it enables you to do just that. What do we really value? And how do we structure our lives, lifestyles, and economies to ensure that the important things are preserved, and that future generations can also enjoy them? We see that responsible public policies come after that, when we make sure we elect leaders and reward businesses who ambitiously pursue practical policies that reflect those values – as ambitiously as the United States pursued a space program after Sputnik (a determined program that, unintentionally, gave us GPS and mobile phones). In order to get the right leadership in place, though, the majority needs to come to really understand the direction our personal choices are taking us in, collectively. This is why David moved into television and media educating – to influence public consciousness on a broader scale.

BECAUSE THE SOLUTION LIES IN OUR HEADS.

David says that the 2kg organ that enabled our undistinguished ancestors to take over the world – our BRAIN – is the organ we must now use to save ourselves from the self-destruction we are creating.  Our brains are endowed with memory, curiosity, and inventiveness that enabled us to successfully populate the planet (despite our sensory and physical handicaps). And that brainpower did something incredible, which has set our species apart from others: it invented the idea of THE FUTURE. The future doesn’t exist (yet) – only the present, the now, is real. But our brains have the ability to perceive that we can affect the future by what we do today. This is CREATIVE POWER – the power to create the future. It is the power to imagine, and to see ahead where the dangers and opportunities lie. To recall experience and knowledge in order to plan and inform our behaviours, and understand how those behaviours (thoughts and actions) will affect the future reality. Deliberate cause and effect. David believes it is this foresight that enabled our species to rise to supremacy as it has.

PRICING LIFE ON EARTH? CARBON TAX vs BIG INDUSTRY

Yet business interests, emission intensive industries and their political allies are encouraging us now to ignore this ability of foresight, for one oft cited (bullshit) reason in particular:

“we can’t afford it”.

This is nonsense, David argues, as environmental concerns should always be primary… after all, it is the natural world that sustains human life in the long term – not jobs! He also argues that the notion that we can’t afford to reduce our carbon emissions is a complete fallacy. Business interests in his country of Canada, as in Australia, have opposed the imposition of a carbon tax, arguably one of the best market mechanisms to reduce carbon emissions, saying it would cripple the economy. Here in Australia, Prime Minister Gillard’s recent announcement of plans to introduce a carbon tax from July 1st next year has been met with fierce opposition by the usual suspects: Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, right wing politicians, their media geisha and the money-focused voters that support them.  In the State of NSW, the right-wing opposition leader has wasted no time in using the issue, warning voters about how the tax will add to their annual power bills, and vowing to “fight the carbon tax” (wow, what a hero). Yet Sweden has had a carbon tax since 1991, and charges $150 a tonne – not applied to fuels used for electricity generation. Because fuels from renewable sources (such as ethanol and biofuels) are exempted, the tax has led to a large increase in the use of biomass for heating and industry. Since the imposition of the tax to the year 2006, they reduced carbon emissions by 9%, which exceeded the Kyoto target so much that they were told they could actually increase their emission by 4% (something they declined to do, because it wasn’t considered ambitious enough!). Moreover, their economy grew by 44% during that time.

Like David said, that old “we can’t afford it” line? Lie.

THE BRAIN, THE SOLUTION.

Our abilities of foresight are greater today than they have ever been, thanks to science, the body of knowledge across disciplines, and the freedom of access we have to that knowledge facilitated by communication technology. Ironically though, it is the advent of too much information that is in some ways impeding environmentalists’ efforts. People, having a bias towards a particular viewpoint (regardless of whether that viewpoint is true or not) can easily find sources of “information” that justifiy their bias. What is needed are people who can sift through the information we are bombarded with everyday, and identify what is valid and what is not. Moreover, we need people and sources of information that will take the time to look at an issue in depth AND in its broader historical and social context – how it relates to other news stories and ongoing developments, giving us a more complete understanding of the issues. Why is this important? Because of one simple, powerful fact: everything is interconnected.

THE WISDOM OF INDIGENOUS CULTURES, THE KNOWLEDGE OF DEVELOPED COUNTRIES, AND THE GENIUS OF NATURE.

Something I’ve always admired about David is his genuine respect for indigenous cultures’ relationship with the natural world. It is an affinity that has deepened with the birth of his grandson, whose father is a First Nation’s man of Canada (we get to see the little dude in the movie). The values of many aboriginal cultures in relation to the environment stand in complete contrast with the values that underpin the economic system of the West, Asia… the industrialised world. Many indigenous cultures place an emphasis on having humility and reverence in the face of nature. The idea that certain areas, certain places in nature, for example, are sacred and not to be exploited, is regarded as silly by growth/money-minded, myopic thinkers. That particular value though, of reverence for nature and seeking to work with it, or like it, (as opposed to conquering and using it), is one we will need to embrace en masse for our own survival. That doesn’t mean turning our backs on cities, or technology – far from it. In fact, the convergence of this value and technology – as in biomimicry – has already given birth to some ingenious designs, inventions, and architecture. Have a look at this awesome bit of biomimicry modern architecture in Zimbabwe (of all places):

Green Building in Zimbabwe Modeled After Termite Mounds

Another idea that is embodied in many indigenous cultures, and ancient spiritual traditions, that David has articulated scientifically throughout his career, is the interconnectedness, and hence, interdependence, of all life – of everything within the biosphere. Every living thing is bound together by scientific laws and the elements. We are, fundamentally, all the same.

In this short clip from the film, he articulates this interconnectedness beautifully in relation to air:

The problem we face as a species is that we tend to look at everything in a segmented, fragmented way. We see parts, not the whole.  This is reflected in public policy – we treat energy, health, the environment, immigration and economics like they are separate issues. But they aren’t – they are, as we are, all interconnected.

David believes this is the most crucial message we need to get out today… our very survival now depends upon it. Until enough of us let this fact permeate our thinking and consciousness, and govern our behaviour and choices, we will continue to head in the wrong direction.

Pearl: Film Premiere! May 24 2013

This is happening tomorrow night – congrats Lisa Hilli, George Siosi Samuels and the talented YOUTH who created this film!

Story Weavers, Youthworx Media and Signal invite you to the premiere of

‘PEARL’

A short film written and directed by Australian Pacific Islander youth. 

 

Earlier this year a group of young Melbournites from Pacific backgrounds came together with filmmakers as part of the ‘Story Weavers’ project. We spent our time exploring film craft and the experience of being young, urban and Pacific Islander. The result is ‘Pearl’, a beautiful short film written, directed and filmed by the collective and incorporating everyone’s idea of how it is to be a young Pacific person living in Australia NOW!  

It’s the story of Dinah, a young Islander woman struggling with her grandmother’s death and the demands that her family place on her. She escapes down to the railway tracks where she spends her days. Trains pass by, mates pass by, cops pass by. Will life pass Dinah by?

 Join us for a good Islander feed to celebrate the launch of ‘PEARL’ and contemporary pacific culture! Entry by donation/koha.

 

Friday May 24

6:30pm for 7pm start

SIGNAL

Flinders Walk, Northbank, Melbourne CBD

(Behind Flinders St Station towards Sandridge Bridge)

 

Story Weavers is a project of Youthworx Media and SIGNAL. This is a satellite event of the Contemporary Pacific Arts Festival held at Footscray Community Arts Centre  in partnership with the Big Island Collective 2013.

Pearls_Flyer3

Pacific Stories – DVD release

“Eight Australian Pacific Islanders share their stories about the challenges of negotiating Islander culture, language and identity in an Australian context.

With cultural backgrounds from across the Pacific, these filmmakers explore the struggle to keep family connections strong; investigate stories from the spiritual world; celebrate Oceanic art; and contemplate the meaning of age old traditional practices in our contemporary world.”

Pacific Stories, the DVD.

Hello!

Pardon my absence from my home on the internet. I have a number of fun projects on the go at the moment. A number of pots on the stove. A number of juggling balls in the air. I’ll stop now. You get the picture.

I will return with a post when I feel I have some semblance of control over these personal and creative affairs. In the meantime, I would like to promote something that is worthy of your attention. In late 2010-2011 I had the privilege of participating in a project called Pacific Stories (see blurb above).

Produced and facilitated by filmmaker Amie Batalibasi and cultural educator Lia Pa’apa’a as part of the Emerge Festival, and supported by Australia Council for the Arts, Multicultural Arts Victoria and Footscray Community Arts Centre, Pacific Stories was a film project for Pacific Islanders, mainly from the Melanesian region. Basically, we all made a short, factual film.

The films we made were compiled onto a DVD. The DVD recently received a G classification, and the project is keen to sell the remaining DVDs. You can purchase a copy here:

http://www.multiculturalarts.com.au/events2011/pacificdvd.shtml

Pacific Stories was first and foremost a great learning experience, and one that I am sincerely grateful for. Filmmaking can be tricky – the film I ended up with was completely different to the film I actually wanted to make. I had hoped to make a straight documentary without my voice anywhere, but time constraints and, ahem, shy participants forced me to reconstruct my idea into a 5-minute V.O’d narrative.

Such is life. The really great part was getting to see the other participants films, and to see them shown to a packed audience 🙂 That was fun! I wrote about that experience HERE.

Amie and Lia have rather brilliantly kept the Pacific Stories project rolling with Harmony on the Murray, a two-week intensive film project with a group of students at Robinvale P-12 College. Showcasing not only the talent and creative ideas of the young people involved, but the remarkable tutelage of these wonderful women.

Read about it here:

http://pacificstories.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/its-a-wrap/

Some of Amie’s Young Media Makers Project crew will now assist in post-production. The Young Media Makers Project (YMMP) aims to use film as a means of creative expression for young people to tell their stories in a new and innovative way and to provoke thought about young people’s issues amongst the wider community. Attending the first screening of the first crop of films from this project, a number of the young filmmakers had come to Australia as refugees. It was awesome to see their stories on screen, told from their point of view. Thought provoking, and, also, thoroughly entertaining.

You can follow that project here:

http://www.youngmediamakersproject.com

So, that’s that. Back soon – once I learn how to juggle.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

Had a seriously delicious, gloriously cheesy spinach gnocchi for lunch today at The Quarter, 27 Degraves Street Melbourne. Great service, waiters were excellent with my wheelchair needs. Good, good karma to them.

And as stated in last post, I did try Shira’s (In Pursuit of More) recipes! More on food and health and pigging out in a future post. As the owner of one of the most sensitive and irritable stomachs downunder, It appears I am finally – truly – making peace with food. How nice it is to just cook and eat, curl up with book and cup of chai, then sleep 🙂 Simple pleasures.

The Dhamma Brothers.

I watched a film on the weekend, and the story behind it got me thinking about the causes of violence, crime and punishment, and the possibility of transformation. This is the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koaf_JiWCaI

About the film.

The Dhamma Brothers (2007) is an unsentimental documentary about the effect of an intense meditation program that was introduced in what was one of the most dangerous and violent prisons in the United States – the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer, Alabama. Assaults and killings within the prison were a regular occurrence, and, like in many others, all the ills of society flourished: gambling, forced prostitution, the drug trade, gang violence, and so on.

In 2002, Dr Ron Cavanaugh, Director of Treatment for the Alabama Department of Corrections, authorised a Vipassana Meditation course to be held for prisoners who wanted to do it. This is the first time such a program was tried in a maximum-security prison in the United States – in the Bible Belt, of all places!  Its introduction followed the success of a similar program run in the Tihar Prisons in India, where vipassana seemed to have a calming effect on the prison population. Dr Cavanaugh wanted the program to be ongoing but, due to fears that the program was turning inmates away from Christianity, and the misperception that the program was affiliated with the Buddhist religion, it was shut down soon after the course that featured in the film. Years later it was reinstated, but in the intervening years inmates had to practice meditation covertly.

The film focuses on how the vipassana program affects four inmates in particular – four ‘Dhamma Brothers’ – participating in the second meditation course held in 2002. Edward Johnson is serving a life sentence for a gang related homicide. We meet his family, still dealing with the enormous pain of his crimes, and consequent separation from him.  Grady Bankhead was given life without parole, downgraded from death row, for capital murder (he essentially did nothing as his accomplices in a robbery savagely stabbed to death their victim). His beginning in life was appalling: at five years old, he and his baby brother were abandoned by their mother, in a deserted house. A few days later, his brother died, and Grady blamed himself for his death. The two other inmates featured, Benjamin ‘OB’ Oryang & Rick Smith, are also serving life sentences for murder.

Vipassana: HARDCORE meditation.

Vipassana is an ancient and rigorous practice based on the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings. The intense program used in the prison involved no books, media, or external distractions, no prayer, complete silence, and 10 hours of meditation a day, for a 10 day period. There were specific rules about each day’s schedule, and, of course, inmates had to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and all intoxicants. This is meditation, hardcore. The prisoners found it extremely confronting and difficult – having to sit still and completely face the truth, face themselves. Silence and stillness can be experienced as heaven or hell, depending on what’s within you.

Many people these days have tried basic meditation for relaxation purposes. But this 10-day vipassana intensive takes the basic practice of meditation further – forcing the practitioners to go deeper, truly get in touch with their sensations and everything that is usually suppressed and repressed. At this level, a practitioner realises that it is these sensations (caused by thoughts and beliefs, both conscious and unconscious) that are driving their behaviour. Once this is identified, and they are able to become the observer of these sensations, they are able to take responsibility for them, and to stop being reactive. They become calmer, and able to choose a better way of responding to whatever situation is at hand.

Two meditation teachers — Bruce Stewart and Jonathan Crowley – led the men through the 10-day program. Inmate OB helped them transform the prisons gym facility into a monastery of sorts, where participants ate, slept and meditated in seclusion for the duration of it. Crowley said of vipassana: “No one is telling them what to look at, or how to change. They’re gaining their insights within themselves.”

Why prisoners should be allowed to find ‘inner peace’.

I know a lot of people would hear of a program like this, introduced to help prisoners find peace, or change, and condemn it.  That is an understandable and very human response. After all, why should criminals have peace? The crimes these men committed are heinous – I am deeply saddened at the thought of what the victims, their loved ones, and even the perpetrators families must have gone through as a result. A few of the men in the film acknowledged this themselves. So why shouldn’t criminals suffer? Why should criminals be offered the chance of this relief, after the pain they have unleashed on the world?

The filmmakers and supporters of the program have several solid answers to this:

1) More peaceful and productive prisoners, who then have the capacity to influence fellow prisoners in positive ways (i.e. affect the prison culture).

2) Safer working conditions for prison staff, dealing with the prisoners.

3) The majority of offenders will eventually be released back into the community. If we can make sure their heads are in the right place before they get out, our community will likely be safer, and we might have citizens better able to reintegrate into society.

4) Potentially lower recidivism rates. There needs to be a greater emphasis on rehabilitation if we want to evolve as a society.  As things stand, the chances of released prisoners reoffending are pretty darn high.

All of these are compelling reasons for allowing this kind of progressive program in a prison. I also believe very strongly that the victims of crime themselves, and their loved ones, should have the option of participating in this kind of healing work for free. After all, they carry the pain of crime, the grief of loss, and the burden of un-forgiveness heavier than anyone. As for the issue of crime punishment – the program doesn’t negate this. Perhaps, if a prisoner actually comes to see and accept their responsibility, express genuine remorse, and tries to change their behaviour, this could be seen as a part of justice, not against it.

What the ‘Dhamma Brothers’ gained.

Through the program, the four participants featured were able to confront themselves, and their suppressed volatile emotions. Edward, for example, dealt with the grief of the accidental death of his baby daughter for the first time since the event itself. Many of the men harbor feelings of wanting revenge on other prisoners for in-prison disputes. In becoming ‘conscious’ of suppressed issues in this way, they were able to deal with them, and let them go. And they were able to identify ‘cause and effect’ within themselves – how various negative sensations within them were causing certain behaviours, and how they could now choose different, more constructive behaviours. Stewart and Crowley were delighted with the positive transformation they saw in a number of prisoners.

I’m still skeptical of some of the men – the film acknowledges some prisoners try to use these kinds of programs to benefit their parole hearings, trying to fake it until they make it. However, I am in awe of prisoner Grady’s attitude towards his sentence and his life. His complete acceptance of his guilt to me was an important indicator that he was honestly ready and willing to change. Though he didn’t kill the victim directly, he accepted his complicity in the crime, and the sentence he was given for it, taking responsibility for the pain he caused the victim’s loved ones and his own family. He accepted that the prison was his home, for life, neither seeking nor hoping for release. And when his daughter was murdered – a fact he found out about by reading the newspaper – he found it within himself to forgive the perpetrator, refusing to deny that man’s humanity. This is something that many would find almost impossible to do. I for one can’t even imagine. But I guess that is the power of sincere vipassana.

Inner peace and outer peace go together.

I’ve never committed a crime or an act of violence (excluding childhood scraps with my brothers). But I’ve been a bad girl, and a good girl. I’ve made mistakes and been the victim of the mistakes of others. Nowadays, all I want to be is a balanced and free woman – not an easy goal, for someone like me. As I’ve grown older I have used meditation more and more as a way to stabilise, deal with my many issues and let go of pain so that I (hopefully) don’t operate in the world in such a way as to bring harm or suffering to others, or to myself. As an emotional empath too, I must use meditation to continuously let go of psychological junk. I firmly believe in forgiveness, both of others and of self, and for absolutely taking responsibility for ones own feelings and consequent actions. Meditation helps me practice these beliefs in my own life. I want to channel all my drama into creative writing, not live the train wreck – not anymore. I want peace.

Perhaps that’s why the film resonated with me. Honest transformation inspires and moves me, deeply. The fact that a murderer can change should give us hope that the problems of humanity aren’t insurmountable.  But it also points to the fact that personal transformation is a journey that usually begins with a choice, which, ultimately, can really only be undertaken at an individual level. When someone “gets” this, though, dives in and does the confronting, difficult (but ultimately freeing) inner work to face their own demons, damage, grief, and find grace, the transformation can be astounding. This is not a purely selfish undertaking. The ultimate goal of such work, if approached sincerely and practiced continuously, is to be a more peaceful, loving, functional human being in the world. To be less hostile, judgmental, and negative. To transform and overcome every negative human emotion: anger, resentment, jealousy, self-pity, rage, bigotry, etc. in order to avoid manifesting this internal garbage as negative intentions, actions and words.

Making peace within is thus not separate from peacemaking in the world – it is a crucial part of it.  In this imperfect place full of imperfect actions and consequences, with all the physical and verbal violence inflicted on us and by us, it is understandable that some need to work harder at making this peace than others. Given the effect this will likely have on their actions in this world, it is perhaps wise to let them do that work.

Random Clips time!

As the title suggests, a selection of random clips.

Posting just because. Is there any better reason?

My brothers and father appeared in this episode of Frontline (02:40 my big bro firing a gun, hehe). It’s a brilliant series from the Working Dog team – a fantastic piece of satire. Particularly loved the storyline in this episode, ‘Playing the Ego Card’:

This is in my ears right now: Thievery Corporation’s “Shadow of Ourselves”. Reminds me of a gorgeous friend I knew briefly……. 🙂 back when SBS was still screening Eat Carpet:

These guys, Bombay Royale, rocked my world recently:

Ordering laksa at a takeaway recently, I was recognised by a happy fella who shouted me a beer once ages ago while watching the XX perform this. Reminded me how conspicuous a girl with a fro in a wheelchair is!:

My boys The Roots on Yo Gabba Gabba!!! Performing “Lovely, Love My Family”:

This is still heaven to ears…. By The Middle East:

This is the trailer for the film Beginners, which I annoyingly missed out on a MIFF ticket to (left it too late! Damn my depressed winter hibernation):

And I’m not afraid to say I’m really looking forward to seeing this feel-goody escapist South African/UK production, Africa United, this week. Go kids! I sincerely hope they showed you the money:

 

 

 

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