Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
It is “Submission,” a 12-minute-long film performed by only one actress and shot in an incredibly simple setting. It agitated a fatal assassination of the film’s director and from then on tore apart the welcoming image of the Dutch society, which is historically known for its tolerance.
The screenplay of Submission was written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a dissident Muslim woman who withdrew her faith in Islam and lived up to her “American dream” by climbing the social ladder from a political asylum to a member of the Dutch Parliament. The director of the film, Theo van Gogh, was an outspoken atheist and controversial filmmaker who attacked all religions through his work.
Maybe such a combination could predict the outcome of Submission. The short film tells the stories of four Muslim women through one naked actress dressing in a transparent chador while wearing a veil. On her body, verses from the Koran are painted. The actress questions Allah why Muslim women should be beaten by their husbands and raped by their uncles even though they sincerely submit their preys and wills to him. She questions why theses violent actions against Muslim women are in fact doctrines of the Koran. Ultimately, she questions the point of “submission” – the direct translation of the word “Islam.”
Morley Safer from the CBS 60 Minutes reexamines the whole story of Submission. He starts from the most dramatic moment – van Gogh’s death – by taking his audience to the scene where the film director was shot, stabbed and pinned a letter of hatred onto his chest with a knife in November 2004.
Then, by presenting a series of interviews with the screenwriter Hirsi Ali, van Gogh’s good friend and colleague Theodor Holman, scholar Paul Scheffer as well as a Dutch Muslim community leader, Nabil Marmouch, Safer tells the stories behind Submission from a number of perspectives.
It is noticeable how differently the above characters interpret van Gogh’s death. For Hirsi Ali, the assassination is the evidence of how a smilingly tolerant society, in which Muslim men indeed abuse and murder women, exercises terrorism. But for Marmouch, van Gogh’s ending is predetermined, not because he insulted Islam, but because insulted all religions. Although this Muslim community leader is critical of the suppression of Muslim women, he accuses Hirsi Ali for politicizing van Gogh’s death.
Equally noticeable is how the interviewer, Safer, provides his audience an in-depth look of the issue by challenging his interviewees. For instance, when Scheffer says: “You can’t live here with a holy book that is above or beyond our democracy,” Safer questions him: “But it’s not easy, because what you are asking these families to do is give up your tradition and become one of us.”
This is in fact where the problem is. While Muslim communities in the Dutch society are marginalized worse and worse, Hirsi Ali, who is often seen as heroic by the western world, leads no easy life. She has to hide herself and accept the fact that Submission is not going to be exhibited in a film festival, because the organizers are afraid of violence caused by both sides – the Muslims and the anti-Muslims.
Van Gogh’s death is no longer about a film that has made many people angry. It poses some serious questions to the Dutch society, or, perhaps to the contemporary world: How tolerant is our society? What are we going to submit to? Democracy? Faith? Or ideology?
60 Minutes dose not give us a conclusion or resolution, but maybe stating the fact that Hirsi Ali is not going to submit to threats by producing “Submission Part II” is a silent answer given by the American media.
Monday, October 5, 2009
This is exactly the life an Australian couple David and Liz Parer and their little daughter Zoe led on the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador from 1995 to 1996. The couple’s shared love of and passion in the nature have compelled them to produce some of the world’s finest documentary films of wild animals and bagged numerous major awards.
But trying to get close to wild animals may not be glamorous at all. On Fernandina, one of the most active volcano islands that could erupt at any moment, the Parer family once slept only 50 meters away from huge streams of lava that burst out of a volcano, running down the flank. Instead of running away, the Parer couple got as close as possible to catch the destructive moment with their cameras – they needed to understand why the land iguanas, the relatively untouched island animal, chose to live in such a deadly environment.
The inquiry all began with David’s uncle, Damien Parer, a very famous photographer and cameraman during the World War II, David recalled in an interview with the Australian television network ABC.
“He felt that war wasn't the explosion,” said David. “It wasn't the destruction. It was the human within that experience of conflict and how the individual responded.”
It was this idea that always struck David and Liz to capture the moment of battle, the moment of fear and the moment of courage – not with a human being, but with an animal in every moment of truth.
The iguanas living on volcano islands are just like human beings in a war: Some got exploded right at the moment when a volcano erupted; those survived had to carry on seeking their ideal location for incubation. But unfortunately, the most ideal location was also the most deadly – the center bottom of the Fernandina, where the heat and temperature was best for iguanas’ eggs to grow. This also meant the Parer couple and their crew had to go down there as well, to a place synonymous for “center of death.”
Using a long pole to carry his camera so that it could be operated only a few inches above the ground, which was the same height as the iguanas, David was able to transmit the feeling of “migration” to his audiences in front of their television sets. When the creatures dug holes, David got his camera ready at the entrance of the holes so that his audiences would be able follow the iguanas’ effort without distance. Of course, the price was pounds of dust in his hair, nose and camera.
The involvement of Zoe, the couple’s three-year-old daughter, in their journey to explore the Galapagos was also something that surprised many people. For two years, the little girl had no playmates – human playmates – but she got to play with iguanas, dolphins and turtles. Her growth on the volcano islands was perhaps also a testimony of human beings’ growth of knowledge about the world in which they live.
From birds stealing, breaking and sucking other animals’ eggs, to 200-year-old turtles still mating to have the next generation and to a sea lion giving birth to her baby who was accidentally stuck by the tissue that had been wrapped around him when he was in his mother’s womb, the couples’ philosophy behind their filmmaking – to capture the moments of truth in animals’ world – is perhaps also a mirror that reflects the moments of truth in human beings’ life.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Every time when you are about to sink, you are magically thrown with a life vest – this is the life of Steven Spielberg, one of the most powerful and influential filmmakers in the world. From a Jewish boy who felt shamed about himself, to a high school student who never won a satisfactory grade and to an ambitious, young film director who ran out of resources and ideas, Spielberg can be seen as a synonym of the word “legend.”
Producing his first film at the age of 12 and winning a film prize at 16, Spielberg’s genius in filmmaking was impressive enough to draw anyone’s attention. But his true film instinct was shown by how he spent his playtime as a little child – all his games were to do with making a story – as his sister recalled. In fact, interestingly, Spielberg’s story was never told by himself. The Biography of the History Channel interviewed so many people around this extraordinary filmmaker but Spielberg himself. It was this obvious absence of the number one character in this documentary that told the story, from multiple, rounded viewpoints.
Spielberg’s family members, including his parents and sister, are the best sources to explain where the many creative and well-known scenes in his films came from. For example, his sister remembered the image of a child being confronted with weird-colored sky and a monster when he opens the door was actually an episode of their childhood stories Spielberg created for their playtime.
From his colleagues’ points of view, who are prestigious film producers, stars and composers, Spielberg is someone who would always give people inspiration. The filmmaker’s legendary character was manifested by the same plot happened in different peoples’ lives – they all did not believe Spielberg’s talent until they met him at the first second – unexceptionally, everyone was intrigued by his creativity.
Photograph by Cynthia
It was these personal accounts and anecdotes that explained why Spielberg was able to survive after falling to the bottom from the top of a cliff and then climb higher again every time. For example, when Spielberg was shooting Jaws, he had no script, no shark and no crew. He ran out of time and resources. But surprisingly, just because of the lack of a satisfactory man-made shark, the film’s thrilling effect was even made more significant by only showing part of the shark. It was Spielberg’s passion and determination that predicted his great success.
Photograph by Cynthia
One of the most difficult tasks of producing a history documentary like Spielberg was to reconstruct the events of the past that were never recorded visually, but this documentary episode overcame the difficulty by skillfully using archival materials. Although actions that happened in the past can never be presented to the viewer as they were, the use of still photograph slideshows with special effects such as zooming and panning made the history alive and dynamic again. In order to prevent the dullness of the archival impression, the use of Spielberg’s film clips to accompany people’s recall and description adds great interest and pace to the documentary itself.
The filmmaker’s history answered the question posed at the beginning: The person who threw Spielberg a life vest when he was about to sink was nobody but himself.
Monday, September 14, 2009
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Friends versus enemies
Human beings make sense of an object by recognizing its opposite – the long established narrative structure of almost every story in every society – hero versus villain, the powerful versus the weak, and nature versus culture. Caves is by no means an exception.
Inside the world’s largest cave which is deeper and larger than the Empire State Building in New York, many creatures, like the cockroaches, never get to see the sun. Hundreds of thousands of them crawling on a slope depend on their friends – the bats which have regular contact with the outside world – to drop any tiny amount of nutrition to the mound.
However, the bats themselves, even in a quantity of forming a huge black storm when they fly out of the cave during the day, have fatal enemies: eagles and snakes. A montage of eagles swiftly capturing a few separated bats with their sharp claws and swallowing them alive in the sky, accompanied by intense background music of orchestral strings, truly reminds you the real-life chase scenes you saw. When snakes appear, the same tactic is used: Close-up shots of disturbing killing and ruthless eating, dark and nerve-racking music clearly show you once again that even in one of the least discovered corners on the planet, the basic law of jungle still applies.
But even in such a seemingly simple and cruel world, one complex philosophy implies: Beauty sometimes conceives the evilest purpose and danger. Thousands of silk threads hung from the ceiling of a cave just look like a pearl curtain, shining and alluring in the dark. But for many flying insects, they are the most deadly trap. The threads are made of glow worms’ mucus to glue the passing-by insects. Again, racking close-up shots of the worms slowly consuming the helpless, trapped preys strike you with the cruelty and perhaps force you to reflect on what is really meant by the powerful versus the weak.
Man versus Nature
During the entire episode, man appears as an observer most of the time. The nature neither seems to be a threat to human beings nor a vulnerable baby who needs to be protected. Nature is nature. Man is man. The two’s interaction and conflict isn’t shown until the production diary finally reveals, and this is where Planet Earth’s post-modern concept prevails.
The film crew’s preparation for shooting the cockroaches needed to be extremely careful: Crew members had to wear paper suit and use black tapes to seal any possible apertures to avoid cockroaches crawling into their neck and pants. In order to obtain a smooth, continuous shot of the carpet of cockroaches covering an entire slope, the crew had to work more than six days to install a device that would allow the camera to move steadily.
When a crew member got stuck in a narrow passageway, the only way to get him out was to break his bone so that he would be able to bend his body. When another crew member broke his ankle because of falling onto the slippery stalactites, it took 100 cave experts three days to rescue him. When the crew finally got down to the Chandelier Ballroom containing full of six-meter long crystals after two years of permission seeking, their number one priority was not to break even the tiniest part of the cave.
These facts seem to manifest one underlying theme: Man is not a threat and intruder to the nature. He does not seek to conquer the nature, nor does he exploits. Rather, he awes the nature, and tries to explore it. He might not be able to anticipate what danger and risks are waiting for him next, but he is not afraid and will not stop.
This rather positive image of a sensitive western explorer is also created by sacrificing that of the Mexican nest hunters, who build primitive wood ladders to access to the inside of a cave and grab the hardworking birds’ nests for money. Another binary opposition is therefore established: an intruder versus an explorer.
This is reinforced once again by David Attenborough’s concluding commentary: “Who knows how many Lechuguilla are still waiting to be discovered?”
Here is National Geographic wildlife photographer Nick Nichols standing in the middle of an African rainforest. His hands are covered by hundreds of crawling and flying bugs that keep invading into his eyes, ears and mouth despite his constant attempt to swipe them away. Bigger worms have dug into his feet – dug, literally – and a local guide has to help him dig those out again with a big needle. His legs are horrifying, too: There isn’t a single clean area left that hasn’t been bitten by various kinds of insects.
“Most of the time my job is not to take photos but to survive in the environment where I got my photos,” said Nichols.
Almost every National Geographic photographer is a one-man-band who is thrown into a strange world to figure out where to go, what to photograph and who to talk to by him or herself. Disease, danger, loneliness, fatigue, worries and frustrating pre-arrangement work are the photographers’ closest but haunting friends.
“Maybe the troubles are more glamorous,” photographer Jodi Cobb said and laughed, noting that her job is not really as romantic and cool as you might have imagined.
But what’s the point of putting oneself in such an awkward situation? You ask.
A number of National Geographic photographers would probably give you the same answer: “To capture the moment you might never see again in your life.”
William Allard pressed his shutter before his plane crashed onto the ground; Cobb stood on a moving train pulling half of her body outside the carriage; and Nichols took one last possible shot when his subject – a wild, angry and roaring elephant – started running toward him.
These are the moments that manifest National Geographic’s one-century-old, founding philosophy: The mind must see.
But seeing clearly and sharply human being’s personalities, lives, emotions, histories and conditions is not the whole goal Allard’s photos try to achieve - a group of south Asian girls dancing in a nightclub, a nude stripper shaking her body on a stage, and a prom-dressed blonde coming out of her luxury car - Allard wants his photos to move, smell and sound.
If these collages of human beings can present the mind with the opportunities to see what the self is like, then animals can probably tell the mind how to think the self.
Nichol’s wildlife photos completely abandon the previous static fashion. He incorporates the 60’s rock style so that his animals are singing, dancing, fighting and struggling, too – just like human beings.
“The static photos just don’t do the job, because the world is moving,” said Nichols.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
This was the crew’s field production trip to film the wild Bactrian camels, a critically endangered animal with a population of less than 1,000 on the earth, according to the recent assessment by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. However, these film characters were so uncooperative that they made the crew constantly experience two unpleasant words: difficulty and frustration.
The first word was never told by any of the crew members verbally in the documentary’s video dairy – it was shown.
Without either voiceover or on-camera commentary, long shots of the endless Gobi Desert, the crew members wondering around the wild land by car and foot and one cameraman suddenly falling over when he got his trapped car out of snow, not only set the scene, but told all to the audiences in front of television at their cozy homes.
Small logistics that seemed too unimportant to be noticed, such as a can of sardine and a hard loaf of bread, now became strong pieces of evidence to illustrate what “difficulty” really meant, when the crew members competed with each other to see who could warm up their breakfast first on a bonfire on a minus 20 C-day.
Frustration was another word that not only linked the various details of the video dairy but also gradually intensified the drama, as the crew’s search produced no result.
First, it came with a strange and awkward fight, as described by the crew’s researcher Tom Clarke, in a low and hesitating voice. This unrest next turned to a strong sense of uncertainty when the producer Huw Cordey asked the cameraman Henry Mix if he could do his best with the latter answering: “I don’t know.” The reality then became rather upsetting after another cameraman had walked hundreds of miles, carrying heavy equipment in his back.
His line “I didn’t get any footage in the past a few days” followed by a deep sigh pushed the story to a climax. Meanwhile, the seemingly simple subtitles describing time lapses – day 15, day 32 and day 35 – silently but powerfully stimulated the tension.
But suddenly, on day 36, a favorable turn occurred that the crew was able to get closer to their subjects. The extremely clear and closed images and sounds they got of the camels performing mating rituals and eating snow formed a sharp contrast to the faraway and blurred shots of the camels running away the crew got earlier. This also showcased the staff’s hard work finally paid off and the story resolved with a satisfactory ending.
Friday, July 3, 2009
This is their song: Fellow Classmates.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Since the 1980s, tens of thousands of Siberian seagulls have become a special group of guests to my hometown Kunming. They fly all the way from Russia to Kunming every winter to enjoy the city of eternal spring and fly back when their hometown is ready to welcome them home. They've been doing this for more than two decades, but it's still quite unknow how they found Kunming in the first place.
A winter day in 2004, just a few weeks before I was leaving home and heading off to England for the first time, suddenly struck me: I couldn't remember when was the last time I visited these little creatures! I was so used to seeing them coming every year and started to ignore them - It was not the seagulls that I ignored, it was the years that passed by.
Thanks to Yunnan Television of China. I was invited to write a story on the seagulls and also narrate it in an "MTV" in February 2004. Hope you enjoy it.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Sunday, April 26, 2009
A very high profile guest – probably the most high profile one "Dialogue" has ever had – is going to join me.
He is the president of the largest animal rescue organization in North America.
He has been on Larry King Live, Animal Planet, ABC, NBC and CBS Network as well as all the major national newspapers.
AND, he is going to be on Dialogue this Wednesday!
He is Gene Baur.
However, I promise you we will NOT have an easy conversation.
Listen to my show on KRUI 89.7 FM in Iowa City or worldwide through KRUI's Web stream at http://www.kruiradio.org/listen/
Central: Noon, April 29.
GMT: 6.p.m., April 29.
Beijing: 1 a.m. April 30.
Sunday, April 12, 2009