Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books----her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!
There are 150 teacher years in Connie’s immediate family and her first book, written for Performance Learning Systems, Inc., in 1989, is entitled “Training the Teacher As A Champion.” In this day of Betsy DeVos, you can expect to hear some comments on how our educational system is being undermined from the top down.
I’m almost caught up from the recently concluded SXSW film festival.
I still have a review of a screened horror film (“Appendage”) and one that is embargoed until April 24th for a drama financed by National Geographic commencing May 1st that will focus on the brave young woman who helped hide Otto Frank and his family in war-torn Amsterdam. Most of us know the story of Anne Frank from her recovered diary and the many spin-off dramatizations that sprang from it. Most of us did not know about Miep Gies, however.
It was Miep Gies, then a 24-year-old secretary to Otto Frank at his business (a jam factory called Opetka) who agreed to hide Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber) and his family of four (Otto, Edith, Anne and Margot) and five other Dutch Jews from the Nazis during WWII and the occupation of Holland. They lived in hiding for 2 years, until they were turned in.
Only Otto Frank survived the war after the Nazis captured the family, hiding in a hidden annex built above Mr. Frank’s business establishment, Opetka. He and his family were sent to concentration camps, separated as a family, and only Otto survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Together with her colleague Bep Voskuijl, Miep retrieved Anne Frank’s diary after the family was arrested, and kept the papers safe, returning the papers to Otto Frank when he came back to Amsterdam from Auschwitz in June of 1945. Gies had stored Anne Frank’s papers in the hopes of returning them to the girl, but gave them to Otto Frank, instead, who compiled them into a diary first published in June of 1947,
Bel Powley, who portrays Miep Gies in “A Small Light.” (Photo by Connie Wilson)
In collaboration with Alison Leslie Gold, Gies wrote the book Anne Frank Remembered: The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family in 1987. Born in 1909, she died just one month shy of her 101st birthday in 2010, which was surprising, considering the fact that she was instrumental in saving many Dutch Jews from the Holocaust. [She denied any involvement in helping hide the Franks when their hiding place was discovered.]
Considering that anti-Semitism is at its highest point since the seventies, the choice to dramatize this story at this time in history is a timely one. The Anti-Defamation League began keeping records of anti-Semitic activity in 1979. In the past 5 years, the incidences of assaults or robberies or other crimes have increased 500%. On college campuses, the incidences have risen 4o% and in Kindergarten through 12th grade schools, the incidences of such wrongdoing are up 50%.
Specifically, incidents of violence against Orthodox Jews are up 67%. Incidents of vandalism are up 51%. General harassment is up 29% and assaults, in general, are up 26%. As the experts have said, “Extremists feel emboldened right now” and various other spokesmen called it a “battleground against bigotry.”
As one CNN expert said, “It may start with the Jews, but it doesn’t end with the Jews.” A super spreader of such hatred would be social media outlets. When social influencers (like Kanye West and Mel Gibson) express hatred for the Jewish people, there are surges in such evil acts. There is a reverberation effect within and among conspiracy groups; the actions condoned by the MAGA hordes are germane.
Signs of people in positions of authority condoning, explicitly or complicitly, man’s inhumanity to man contributes to the deep-seated problem and exposes a sickness in society. Kanye West today tried to dig himself out of the deep hole he had dug for himself with his anti-Semitic rants, saying that watching Jonah Hill in “21 Jump Street” had changed his opinion to one that is more positive. Not only is this a weak defense against his previous bigoted words and actions, but it hardly seems likely to stem the tide of actions like those that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia from August 11th to 12th in 2017. That Unite the Right rally was a white supremacist rally that seems, now, to have been a watershed moment in giving radical groups permission to act in uncivil and illegal manners. It is worth noting that it took place during Donald Trump’s presidency.
The focus on the heroic actions of the Miep Gies’ of the world comes at a time that should give the excellent production “A Small Light” a welcome platform. (Review to follow in April).
I have not received Red Carpet placement for Opening Night since 2017, so I executed Plan B, planning to take myself over to the Alamo Drafthouse on Lamar Boulevard to see “Confessions of a Good Samaritan.” This was a film about a woman who donated a kidney to a stranger. When I arrived, the film had begun, so I took myself to “Caterpillar,” instead.
This was a fascinating documentary about a new YouTube fad, changing one’s eye color, which is done, surgically, in India. It sounded very dicey, and, as it turns out, it is.
The documentary, written and directed by Liza Mandelup of the Parts & Labor film enterprise, followed the journey of Raymond David Taylor of Miami as he set off for India to have his brown eyes turned into a color described as “frost.”
It seems that there is a thriving cosmetic industry in Cairo, Mexico, Panama, and India and, of course, the recent deaths of two American citizens in Matamoros, Mexico, (we now know), was a trip for cosmetic surgery. A friend of mine flew to Costa Rica for dental work, so I’m surprised I had not heard of this latest vision fad, but I don’t spend much time watching videos on YouTube.
David had a very rough childhood, even getting kicked out of the house while young, at one point, and he (and most of the other patients) seem to think that “Changing me will change my outlook on life.” As David says, “If I feel sad one more day, I don’t know if I’m going to make it.”
He doesn’t have the money for the surgery, but a well-written letter to BrightOcular explaining his desire for the implants brings an offer from them to come have the cosmetic procedure for free, if he will let the company use his story and his photos for advertising purposes.
We then meet others on this medically unregulated journey, including Izzy, a woman from New Delhi, a young man from Japan, a male underwear model and a beautiful girl from Jamaica, but the focus is on David, which filmmaker/writer Mandelop explained was her attempt to initially start out with three main characters and trace their journeys, with one emerging as central to the story.
She described this engrossing film journey into eye surgery this way: “I wanted to visually convey it. I wanted to do something that people wouldn’t think was cinematic, like eye surgery, but make it cinematic. It became an emotional journey. David allowed me to make the film that I was craving.”
In the course of the journey, we meet David’s mother, who also suffered a rough, abusive life, but tried her best as a young single mother to care for her children on wages of $2.35 an hour. David’s mother and David don’t agree on a lot of things. She is okay with David’s being gay, but she says, “I cannot deal with that if you start cutting parts of your body off and adding stuff.” She adds that she thought he was a great female impersonator. Mom’s point-of-view is, “You’re stubborn. You don’t listen.” She adds, “You’re never satisfied with the way you look.” Others in the film describe the cosmetic procedure as “a bandaid to the past.” Most of the others have selected jade green as the color their brown eyes will be after surgery.
Writer/Director Liza Mandelup, “Caterpillar.”
It is a big blow to David when they do three patients’ surgeries simultaneously and, in the process, he is given jade green eye color by mistake, rather than frost. This will mean another eye surgery to fix the error.
If you are thinking, “This can’t be safe,” you’re right. It is only about four months post-surgery after David undergoes the procedure that he describes it as “the worst mistake of my life” when headaches and visual problems begin. All of the prospective patients seem to want to transform to some ideal person they have created in their heads. When the subject of the film appeared before us in person, however, the audience got the feeling that the subject of “Caterpillar” has, in fact, bettered his life, moving back to Brooklyn and now working as an EMT. He explained his mother’s absence from the showing as his way of “avoiding drama.”
Director Liza Mandelup and Raymond David Taylor, subject of the SXSW documentary “Caterpillar”on Opening Night, March 10, 2023.
Some other patients, we learn, who did not heed the United States opthalmalogists’ warning about the damage the implants have done (or are doing) to their eyes ended up blind or partially blind. One former patient whom David tracks down after he begins encountering headaches and blurry vision said that he woke up after 5 years with blood on his cornea. “I had to remove them or go blind.”
The unfettered access to the surgery and the patients seems quite unusual. That is, until we learn that the leadership of BrightOcular is very circumspect. No one ever comes forward to represent BrightOcular or another entity called Spectra. These agencies exist and are offering this service and heavily advertising how it will “change your life” on social media, with beautiful pictures of patients like David. They are not as forthcoming about the negatives of the procedure. The Indian physician who says he, personally, would not undergo the procedure knows this is a very risky way to change one’s outlook on life and seems to convey that through his reticence to heartily endorse the procedure.
David bought into it with words like, “This is my new beginning. I’m changing,” or “Beauty matters. Beauty gets you through the door.
Musical selections like “Stand By Me” and “I Want to Dance With Somebody,” selected by Music Supervisor Melissa Chapman, merge with the early upbeat theme of positive change seamlessly and add much to the extremely well-done production.
Afterwards, the writer/director (Liza Mandelup) and David, the chief subject, answered questions about the inspiration for the film and its aftermath. Liza said she had been doing research on the apps that can change one’s appearance when she learned of this eye surgery. She sent the BrightOcular company an e-mail asking if she could do a documentary about the process. They were very positive in their response and never really surfaced as an entity. Their leadership remains a mystery.
She cautions that David was one of the few patients who listened to the warnings from U.S. eye doctors, post-surgery, and had his implants removed fairly quickly. Others have faced the need to have cornea transplants and some have gone blind because they refused to give up the implants over a period of years. One patient, asked what she would be content with in regards to improving her appearance, answered, “What am I content with? Just more.”
Among the best compliments of the terrific job the filmmaker did with this riveting documentary was a woman who stood up in the back during the Q&A and said, in heavily accented English, “You mean this was a documentary? I thought it was a movie!”
I’ve been in Chicago for a few days and have discovered that this may be one of the coolest cities of those I track. It was 101 in Austin (Tx), but my son and family were here with me. It was 100 in Nashville, but, likewise, my daughter flew in to join the group of 7 of us celebrating my birthday and attending a concert at Wrigley Field. The Chris Stapleton fans did that on Saturday night.
We also managed to have a wonderful dinner on the 70th floor of the Lake Point Tower restaurant,with a phenomenal view of the city and, afterwards, we were able to stroll over to Navy Pier and check on the fantastic growth of the small trees mid-plaza. I think it’s been a while since I hit Navy Pier and the trees have really matured.
Lastly, Stacey, Ava and Elise and Craig attended the Monet Immersive Exhibit with me and we dined, afterwards, at Corcoran’s Bar & Grill. Expect to see pictures from the fantastic Monet Exhibit for some time, as I took so many that my new phone may be full. We had taken in the Van Gogh Exhibit, and this one was just as impressive.
So, with those explanations, here are some photos from Wednesday through Saturday.
At the Germanium Club and the Monet Immersive Exhibit.
Nicole Carroll, the Editor-in-Chief of “USA Today” was on CNN this morning at 11:28 E.T., talking about the “Austin American Statesman’s” release of the Uvalde videocam footage of the school shooting in that city. “We are thankful for journalists for not stopping, but asking the tough questions that needed to be asked.” The Editor-in-Chief, Ms. Carroll, bemoaned the fact that authorities were misleading the public with press releases and, in particular, that the information coming out of Uvalde, Texas, after the slaughter of students and teachers in their school were erroneous and delayed. Her defense of the release of the video was that the Austin “American Statesman” newspaper felt that the public had a right to know the truth so that what happened in Uvalde would not be repeated.
In similar fashion, an earlier CNN story this morning (Sunday, July 17) went into a fair amount of detail about how a local reporter in Indianapolis was able to document the truth of the ten-year-old rape victim who had to travel to another state, from Ohio, to secure an abortion after she was raped (twice) and became pregnant by an illegal alien. At first, various sources such as Fox News flat out called the news false, making no effort to get to the bottom of the truth. It took a local reporter to notice on the court docket that an arraignment was going to happen in court that day of a male charged with rape of a female under 13. She went to the courthouse and learned that the story was absolutely true and the remarks of commentators like Tucker Carlson were based on nothing.
“The Boston Globe” and the “New York Times” are reporting that only 1 in 4 people who are Democrats want Biden to run again and only about half want to see Trump on a ticket again. (Next was DeSantis with 25%). Young voters have lost trust in it all and want nothing to do with the geriatric candidates they are being offered, according to 585 of those interviewed for a “New York Times” article. Only 3 in 10 (Biden) or 4 in 10 (Trump) want to see either of those men run for President again. The duo was considered too old the first time, so running them for a second time is not considered a good idea by the rank and file.
The stories in my first two paragraphs underline why a robust local media is a necessity. Without the enterprising news reporter who followed the 10-year-old rape story to its source, the public would not know the truth. Without the January 6th Commission hearings, the American public would not know the truth about who did what to cause the insurrection on January 6, 2021.
One GOP stalwart, speaking with me, tried to dismiss the January 6th Commission as “a joke,” admitting that he has not listened to the testimony of ALL REPUBLICAN INSIDERS on what really happened that cold January day after the 2020 election. He simply took one network’s directions on faith, without attempting to inform himself by exposure to all points of view, which is my journalism-based goal. (I tape 3 different main news channels and watch the fringe ones late at night for their viewpoint.)
Trump/Cheney/McCarthy: Three on a Match
The complaint he voiced to me was that all the panel members were “hand-picked.” He has missed the fact that every single person testifying was a GOP insider and the only reason that there aren’t more Republican members of the Commission (aside from Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger) asking the questions is that Nancy Pelosi warned GOP leader McCarthy that they could not be Republican lawmakers who might be implicated in the coup d’etat: Mo Brooks (R, Alabama) was involved, as were Mark Meadows and Rudy Giuiliani, Andy Biggs, Louis Gohmer, Jim Jordan, Scott Perry, Margie Taylor Greene, Brian Babbitt, Matt Gaetz, Paul Goser, Andy Harris, and Jody Heiss. All were involved in pushing for the role of the VP in illegally not certifying the electoral votes (“the Eastman Theory”). Quite obviously, a sitting VP does not have the power to simply throw out the vote of the people, as presented by their official electors. If this were a solid principle, why couldn’t Al Gore have declared himself the “winner” after Florida and the hanging chads in 2000? Obviously, the VP’s role on January 6th was ceremonial, as former Vice President Dan Quayle advised Pence, and the entire 38-page Eastman coup d’etat document was partisan, flawed, and illegal, constituting sedition if not treason, in trying to overthrow the duly elected government of the United States by hampering the peaceful transition of power.
When McCarthy learned that he could not appoint Trump loyalists (and probable conspirators) like Jim Jordan, he refused to appoint any other Republicans, so the relatively small number of GOP representatives asking the questions is because of McCarthy’s decision not to cooperate. McCarthy is also responsibl for, first, loudly denouncing January 6th and then scurrying off to Mar-A-Lago to kiss the DJT ring.
Sticking one’s head in the sand and denying that something really happened does not cause it to disappear as an issue, but that seems to be the current GOP strategy for the January 6th Commission, just as it was for the legal outcome of the 2020 presidential election. The panel has been hearing testimony from high-ranking GOP stalwarts who helped elect DJT and served him in office for 4 years, such as Mr. Cippolone, his Chief Counsel. Fox News won’t cover it, because they know how damaging it is to their appointed dictator-to-be, DJT.
There are several good documentaries about the importance of the local media and investigative reporters in fighting back against Fascism in all its form, one of which, that centered on Storm Lake, Iowa, I reported on for this blog. Storm Lake documentary – Weekly Wilson – Blog of Author Connie C. Wilson) A second one, “Writing with Fire,” detailed how Indian women are making valiant efforts to report on news in that country and are making news, themselves, for their efforts. (This documentary was Oscar-nominated.)
Liz Cheney within the Capitol (Photo courtesy of the Denver Post).
Finally, the commentator spoke sadly about the vast number of Americans who will only watch news from a channel that confirms their biases. This is a mistake, and one I do my best to overcome. I routinely watched OAN in the early morning hours, until cable refused to carry it any more because of the blatant mistruths it was spreading. I tune in Fox News on occasion. I tape “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation,” and “George Stephanopoulus” and “Fahreed Zakaria” (whose program seems to be airing earlier than it used to. I subscribe to the “Austin American-Statesman,” the “Chicago Tribune,” the “Quad City Times,” a Seattle newspaper, and the “New York Times” (which has, by far, the best and most-detailed Ukraine coverage.)
Make an effort. Try to get your news from a variety of sources, even if you don’t agree with the point-of-view of some of your sources. I was a journalism major in college and the recipient of that year’s Ferner-Hearst Journalism Scholarship. I care that truth comes out, and I hope you do, too.
When I received the July 8/July 15th issue (p. 14) of “The Week” magazine, I was most struck by the article on page 14 that relayed how the recent Roe v. Wade reversal is viewed by the rest of the world. There’s no question that a woman’s decision to have a child–whether intentional or unintentional—is probably the biggest economic decision that female will ever face.
It’s pretty powerful. Here it is:
How They See Us: U.S. Rolls Back Women’s Human Rights
By reversing Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court’s radical conservative majority has delivered “a profound and ominous setback” for women’s rights”—and for democracy, said The Irish Times in an editorial. Even though more than 60% of Americans believe abortion should be legal “in all or most circumstances,” the court’s life-tenure far-right justices have now cleared the way for abortion bans to take effect in about half of the 50 states.
The U.S. thus joins Catholic El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Poland as the only countries to roll back abortion rights in decades. Some European countries, it’s true, restrict abortion at 12 or 16 weeks, earlier than Roe, but we also have largely free health care, so in practice, European women have easy access to abortion. Here in Ireland, the procedure was legalized by a referendum in 2018, spurred by the 2012 death of Savita Halappanavar, who was denied the abortion that would have saved her life as she miscarried an unviable, wanted pregnancy. Halappanavar died in an Irish hospital as her husband begged doctors to help her. The U.S. has doomed itself to a future of similar tragedies.
For any European who has ever been pregnant, said Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett in The Guardian (U.K.), the news from America “felt visceral, as vicious misogyny often does.” Pregnancy is a wholesale takeover of the body. I wanted my child, but having been through it, I know that forced birth would “amount to torture.” American women and girls, henceforth, will suffer, and at the explicit direction of the state. But not all of them, said Marius Oprea in Mediafax (Romania). Most rich women will still get the care they need, even if they have to travel out of state. But poor—especially Black, women—will either have unwanted children or try to self-abort. The U.S. health care system “is utterly unprepared” for the wave of abandoned newborns and mothers in crisis. Expect a health crisis of “apocalyptic proportions.”
The ruling is further evidence of America’s “democratic collapse,” said Le Monde (France). The extremist Catholic majority on the court is the product of “the tyranny of a minority permitted by an electoral system outrageously favorable to the most conservative states.” Donald Trump was defeated in the popular vote, yet became president anyway. He then nominated 3 ultraconservative justices who were confirmed by a Senate whose makeup is permanently skewed to favor rural voters at the expense of the Democratic majority.
President Biden often talks of a world at war “between democracies and autocracies,” said Mariam Martinez-Bascuan in “El Pais” (Spain), “but we can no longer be sure the U.S. is in the former camp.”The repeal of Roe is just the latest example of Republican “obstinacy,” from the Jan. 6th assault on the Capitol to the “dying rage over firearms” and efforts to restrict the Black vote. And like the other examples, the abortion ruling will surely hurt America’s standing in the world. How can the U.S. pose as the beacon of freedom against the authoritarian darkness of Russia or China, when it denies its own female citizens their basic human rights?”
The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot released new details Thursday about its first hearing, scheduled to kick off in prime time on Thursday, June 9.
June 9th, television-watchers, is this coming Thursday (as I write this on Sunday, 6/5) and the timing for those of us in the Midwest on MSNBC, Channel 356, will be 7 p.m. CDT.
“The committee will present previously unseen material documenting January 6th, receive witness testimony, preview additional hearings, and provide the American people a summary of its findings about the coordinated, multi-step effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and prevent the transfer of power,” the panel said.
Additional information about witnesses will be released this coming week, the committee said.
The hearing, scheduled to start at 8 p.m. ET, is expected to focus on former President Donald Trump’s role in the violence that unfolded at the Capitol during the official counting of the Electoral College votes before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021. In a civil court filing in March, the House committee argued it has “a good-faith basis for concluding that [Trump] and members of his Campaign engaged in a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States.”
The panel’s chairman, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has said the hearings will include testimony from witnesses “we’ve not heard from before.”
One of those witnesses, who was hauled off a plane in leg irons as a flight risk, may be Peter Navarro, one of Trump’s inner circle who was among the most obnoxious spokespeople ever to grace the air waves. Navarro emerged as a legend in his own mind, moving away from the trade issues he was supposed to be expert in, to talk about matters as diverse as Covid-19 and the economy. Where he was supposedly going when apprehended at the airport has been variously reported as Nashville, but apparently those in a position of power had misgivings about his attitude towards telling the truth about his involvement in the January 6th coup d’etat.
There is a rumor that Jared and Ivanka Trump may take center stage via video-taped testimony during the televised hearings, although we will all have to wait and see if they say anything of note. Rachael Maddow and others will be handling the broadcast duties Thursday night.
Meanwhile, a lot of buzz has been created by a comedy duo who took the microphone during the NRA’s ill-advised Texas convention and more-or-less chastised the NRA for getting a lot of us killed by opposing sensible gun control laws. (The look on Wayne LaPierre’s face as they sound off on ” how Wayne LaPierre has offered thoughts AND prayers” is priceless. Check it out on YouTube or wherever you seek out memorable news moments.)
As described yesterday, we struck off for Memorial Day in Chicago on Friday, May 28th.
Museum of Science & Industry
Museum of Science & Industry
Museum of Science & Industry
Museum of Science & Industry, Memorial Day, 2022.
Easter Island face, from Legos.
Stacey provides scale for the statues.
Starry, Starry Night
Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”
“The Girl With the Pearl Earring”
We did see part of the Memorial Day Parade on Saturday, primarily because we were trapped in a Lyft car on our way to the downtown Macy’s store, where I had a mission to see if they could repair the strap to a purse that is, otherwise. I bought the original purse downtown at Water Tower Place at Macy’s and, if you don’t know this, Water Tower Place has become a bit of a Ghost Town, since Macy’s pulled out. We were headed for the old State Street store and dined in the Walnut Room (chicken pot pie, $15).
It took quite a while to navigate the extremely crowded streets, as many of them had been shut down for the parade. The weather, however, was terrific!
I got nowhere trying to find replacement straps or some form of repair for my brand-name purse, but I’m not done trying to fix the Michael Kors bag. If you know of someone in the Quad Cities that works with leather and can repair a 1/2 inch strap, let me know. (Most of the replacement straps on Amazon are wider at .56 Centimeters, and they mention something about “sewing,” which confuses me. Also, the original straps have attractive studs on them, which replacement straps would not have.
We saw Tom Cruise’s new “Maverick” movie on Saturday night, which I will talk about in another article. On Sunday, we trekked over to the Museum of Science & Industry to see the Lego exhibit that is on display. It is truly remarkable to see a lawyer hang up his law degree to, instead, spend major time and effort on building replicas of a variety of great art works. The artist, Nathan Sawaya, created this critically acclaimed collection of creative and inspiring pieces in a display entitled “The Art of the Brick.”
While you pay about $15 per person to enter the Museum of Science and Industry, you have to pay another $42 to see the Lego art, but the captured German submarine, a Museum staple, is free, and the various WWII aircraft, including Japanese Zero(s) and half of a large United 727 are free, as was the replica of the Wright Brothers first plane flown at Kitty Hawk in 1903 (for about a minute), which I portrayed pictures of on yesterday’s post.
I checked out the special for my favorite XmasCats.com book and it is 99 cents in e-book this coming weekend, for three days only. I have to admit that this one, in hard cover (which is a limited edition and only available in hard cover by contacting me) is my favorite. I had it done by a small Indiana press and the illustrations and color are superb.
The NEXT book (#5), “The Christmas Cats Care for the Bear” may be the most timely, as it is an anti-bullying tome, but I really love “The Christmas Cats Fear for the Deer,” which is a true story about the deer in Scott County Park and rescuing them, flying them to the North Pole, and making it possible for them to fly with Santa.
The sixth (and final) book will be the final FREE offering in a couple weeks, but this coming Thursday, Friday and Saturday (Dec. 2, 3 and 4) pick up a 99 cent copy of “The Christmas Cats Fear for the Deer.” And the following week, check out “The Christmas Cats Care for the Bear.”
Last FREE book will be “The Christmas Cats Flee the Bee,” and I’ll have more to say about that as that weekend gets closer.
Two new documentaries detail the gradual death of journalism in this country and the rise of digital journalism in India. Both agree that newspapers—whether print or digital—can make a difference and that, without them democracy is at risk.
Rintu Thomas ad Sushmit Ghosh shepherded “Writing with Fire” through to completion and this story of women in India who started a newspaper in 2002 and risked their lives to make it successful won the Audience and the Grand Jury prize at Sundance.
The newspaper, Khabar Lahariya (which translates to “Waves of News”) is the only all-female newspaper in India and its chief reporter, Meera, put it this way: “I believe journalism is the essence of democracy…This is how one fights for justice in a democracy. “ She adds, “Journalists must use this power responsibly. Otherwise, the media will become like any other business.”
Watching the India documentary at the same time as the PBS documentary set in Storm Lake, Iowa and entitled “Storm Lake” provided an interesting contrast.
Art Cullen, the Editor-in-Chief of the “Storm Lake Times” for 40 years would agree with Meera, but the problems of Storm Lake, Iowa—the town where my Aunt and Uncle lived out their lives—seem infinitely less dire than those in Meera’s northern Indian Utar Pradesh area. The saying in India about the area where Meera and her team are writing and working is “as Utar Pradesh goes, so goes the country.”
For Art Cullen’s newspaper, which won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, “The newspaper weaves the fabric of the community in ways large and small.” When Art’s paper won the Pulitzer, it made it harder—not easier—for Whitney Robinson, Sales and Circulation Manager,to sell advertising, because one of the crowning achievements of the “Storm Lake Times” was to trace the life path of a young man who was deported from Storm Lake after a raid at the large Tyson Meat Packing Plant, which was an IBP plant, at that time (Iowa Beef Products).
Julio Barroso was a smiling, happy second-grader, age 8, and then he was gone. Art and his team investigated to find out where Art ended up and discovered him living in Guadalajara, Mexico, twenty-two years later, married, with three children.
Art’s writing about how Julio’s life trajectory was changed by the raid for illegal immigrants and his subsequent deportation may have earned kudos from the awards-panel, but the residents of Storm Lake in northwest Iowa don’t hold with Art’s Democratic-leaning views.
Storm Lake is Trump country. The immigrants who flock to work in meat processing plants in places like Storm Lake and Columbus Junction (the poorest town in the state) have a strong streak of anti-immigrant prejudice. There are 2200 packing plant workers. In the local elementary school 50% speak Spanish and 10% speak “other” languages besides English. (The documentary was filmed in 2019).
It is easy to imagine the residents griping about their formerly lily-white town gradually being infiltrated by Mexican (and other) immigrants. I grew up in such a town—although one without a meat-packing plant—and many of the residents of northwest Iowa were Dutch immigrants or from other largely white European countries. With good-paying jobs being out-sourced to other countries, the locals tend to get restless about losing out to immigrants from anywhere, (even though the locals aren’t generally likely to take on the back-breaking work in the meat packing plants, which offer no medical insurance).
During the pandemic, Iowa’s Republican Governor, Kim Reynolds, forced workers back into unsafe working conditions at meat-packing plants. The meat-packing company let it be known that workers who did not show up for work, perhaps because they were sick, would not get paid. I remember when the medical students at the University of Iowa were volunteering to staff a van to drive to Columbus Junction (IA) to offer workers in that town health screenings for pap smears and the like, because the meat-packing companies offer no health insurance.
There is a discussion of how Big Agra has bought up small family farms and, whereas, a decade ago in the 90s, a farmer could survive on 350 to 400 acres, now he would have to own 1,000 acres. The big companies now control both the raising of the hogs or cattle and the processing of them. I remember when Rath Packing Plant in Waterloo, Iowa, had unions, but the big companies have all but stomped out concerns that tried to look out for the workers and their welfare.
The other continuing theme in “Storm Lake” dealt with candidate visits from the likes of Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Andrew Yang. Dr. Jill Biden. They all make appearances at places like the Better Day Café and we are shown caucus night, 2020, in Storm Lake, Iowa.
Art Cullen—who has a dimpled grin like Billy Bob Thornton, but a shock of white hair like Mark Twain—says, “The main anxiety in Iowa was, ‘We’re gonna’ screw this up. And we did.” The father-son team agrees, onscreen, that Iowa will probably lose its “first-in-the-nation” status in presidential elections as a result of the colossal screw-up caused by trying to integrate new technology into the voting process without a series of dry runs, first. You might liken it to the roll-out of Obamacare, which was not without hiccups.
We hear a lot about the 300 “news deserts” that are springing up in the Hawkeye State as one in four local newspapers fold. Two-thirds of Iowa counties are declining in population and, as people move to the cities, small local papers fold. Mom and Pop stores are gone because of the corporate take-over of corporate agriculture and so are Mom and Pop newspapers. Still, those who majored in Journalism, as I did, write because it is what we do. (*Admission: I am a card-carrying member of the National Women’s Press Association, Illinois chapter, and was the official photographer at the 2019 Baton Rouge convention.) So, Art and his team attempt to cut wherever they can, thereby preserving their small hometown newspaper. They were always a “break even” newspaper and, once the pandemic hit ( advertising revenue plunges 50% in March), the question is whether they can keep the lights on. They do, but at what price glory?
INDIA’S “Khabar Lahariya” NEWSPAPER
On the other side of the world in India, the women who started this journalistic enterprise are of the Dalit, or “Untouchable,” caste. India has four main castes: priests, warriors, traders, and labourers. Woe unto you if you are born into the Dalit caste.
The opening interview is with a married woman of that caste who is being repeatedly raped by the men of her village. Although she has reported this to the local police, they refuse to do anything. Her husband even initiated a hunger strike to get sympathy for their plight. As the victim, Rampal Yadov, says, “These men can do anything. They can even kill both of us.”
Meena, who was married at 14, has a Master’s degree in Political Science and Teaching. She says, “Working was important for me, and I did not want to waste my education. And we needed the money.” She adds, “Power is very important. Being a journalist gives me the power tofight for justice.” Her husband (representative of the males of India, it seems) is quoted this way: “I never expected them to achieve anything. They’ll have to shut down soon.”
Meena’s husband is wrong. She leads the group into digital posts on YouTube and the hits on their stories rise from one million to 150 million over time. Meera Devi leads a staff of 24 who seem to be having great difficulty trying to use cell phones to write, illustrate, and post their stories. The stories deal with rape, murder, illegal Mafia mining operations, and, ultimately, the election being held that puts a Trump-like figure named Yogi Aditajanath of the BJP Party into power. The parallels are unmistakable.
Yogi stirs up chaos by making much of the election be about protecting sacred cows, rather than the real issues of the area. Here is one of Yogi’s pronouncements: “When the law of the land becomes ineffective, then society must take matters into its own hands, and I believe the time has come now.”
One of the reporters dares to ask him what he would do about Hindus who misbehave and he answers, “Hindus can never be terrorists” with a straight face. Meena says, “Freedom of women will be snatced. A climate of fear is being created. Everything is about religion and discord.”This seemed very much like the United States of America at this point in history.
Meena insightfully points out that “The symbolism of the cow is a distraction for this government’s corrupt policies.” She is more interested in the average Indian household being able to have “a toilet in every house.” (Reminded me of “a chicken in every pot” from the Hoover years.)
Reporter Shiyankali does a story on the police failure to investigate rape accusations and, one week after her story, a suspect is arrested on a rape charge.
The brave women of “Khabar Lahariya” face real risk. A female journalist in Bangalore who had been critical of the Hindu national party was murdered. Meera, herself, says, “Neither are we a democracy nor are the women free. Hail Mother India.”
However, by film’s end, she says with justifiable pride: “We made our journalism the voice of democracy. We didn’t let the Fourth Pillar fall, and we continue to hold a mirror to society.”
“Writing with Fire” won both the Audience and the Jury Prize at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. ‘Storm Lake” is going to be screened (and available virtually) at the upcoming Denver Film Festival.
The Van Gogh Immersive Exhibit in Chicago is now touring various cities in the U.S.
I tried to get tickets for the showing in Chicago for my July 23rd birthday, but the soonest I could get us in was August 17th. The price for 2 tickets with a “flex” schedule option was about $131.00.
This allowed us to show up at 3 p.m. or slightly before or after and stay pretty much as long as we wished, although the actual program itself seemed to run about 35 to 45 minutes.
First, be advised that there are a lot of steps to gain entrance to the building. This would not be a good exhibit (in Chicago, anyway) if you have difficulty climbing stairs.
They route you through the gift shop and there were many very nice things in the gift shop. They were priced as high as you would expect. A reproduction of a Van Gogh painting on a silk scarf ended up costing $83.
You are handed a cushion and the seating is primarily benches scattered throughout the building. It is much like drifting through a regular museum with the occasional seating in front of a painting. There were also some folding chairs with backs that one could retrieve from along the walls, which turned out to be a nice relief after being seated for quite a while with no back on the benches.
Van Gogh on floors and walls in Chicago.
We entered when the program, which is paired with music, was about 20 minutes from being over. We stayed through a brief intermission and then watched the entire program from the beginning. I would say that we were there roughly an hour, from start to finish.