Tag Archive | Human Rights

Movie Review: Grief is the backdrop for the wonderful film, “The Visitor”

Grief is both the thematic underpinning and the overarching aura in an absorbing, powerful film called “The Visitor.” While this low-key, underplayed film is humanistic and realistic in the extreme, memories of the dead loom over the characters like silent, watchful ghosts. The Visitor was written and directed by Tom McCarthy, who several years back gave us another extraordinary film, “The Station Agent.” Like that earlier film, The Visitor explores issues of identity and place, belonging and connection, but this film also looks at immigration and other post-9/11 issues, and indicts the US government for its arbitrary, callous policies. It is a mark of McCarthy’s mature sensibility that the film makes this indictment quietly and subtly, by engaging us with a charismatic and likable young man living an attractive, authentic life, and then arbitrarily taking that life away from him. This stands in contrast to more traditional “Hollywood” fare, a movie like “Rendition”, which makes its indictment with a bludgeon. And the immigration issues, while crucial to the plot and deeply disturbing, are clearly secondary to the psychological and interpersonal matters this gifted director wants to explore. His vision is psychologically sound, particularly evident in the way he deals with grief.

“The Visitor” revolves around a depressed, middle aged economics professor named Walter Vale, played by the subtle actor who so memorably played the ghostly Fisher patriarch in my favorite television series of all time, “Six Feet Under.” With his hunched shoulders, immobile expression, furrowed brow and everyman face, Richard Jenkins literally inhabits this character. It’s a restrained performance, yet highly effective. While neither the circumstances of Vale’s wife’s death nor when she died are ever specified, it is clear that Vale continues to carry the weight of his grief, and that grief has transformed him into a silent, somber, disaffected man, lonely and isolated, floating through life, or rather going through the motions of his life, teaching his class, attending faculty meetings, pretending to work on a fourth book, and returning every night to his neatly kept suburban home.

It’s not that he isn’t trying to find some avenue back into the world, and some enjoyment or at least engagement in life. He’s been taking piano lessons, but while it is clear here that both he and his wife loved music, she was the pianist, and as the movie opens we find him dismissing his fourth piano teacher, played to spinsterish perfection by veteran actress Marian Seldes. I can’t help mentioning here that Seldes eerily reminded me in this role of my own elderly spinsterish piano teacher of long ago. Her name was Alma Drum, and she used to place a pencil under my hands just the way this one does with Vale. Miss Drum was as petite as she was stern and humorless, with her helmet of gray hair. Miss Drum would by now be about a hundred and thirty years old. (Hmmm, maybe I should meditate on her for a while, and do a post on her.)

We get some sense that Vale must have been something in his heyday, and we find some hope that he can actually make a spiritual comeback when circumstance forces him goes to present a paper at New York University, and he arrives at a Village apartment he and his late wife owned, but he hasn’t been to in years. There he finds a pair of young, undocumented squatters in residence, Tarek, a Syrian musician played with winning charm and charisma by Haaz Slieiman, and his girlfriend Zainab, who is originally from Senegal and makes jewelry which she sells from a table on the street, the character played with with wary fierceness by exotic beauty Danai Guiria. These two freak out when he arrives; they think they were living in the apartment legally, and they offer to leave immediately. Walter agrees, but then realizes the couple has nowhere else to go, and changes his mind, for reasons even he doesn’t quite grasp. They stay, and Walter befriends them, first Tarek, who embodies youth in all its impetuous enthusiasm, and eventually Zainab, who is aloof and wary at first, but who gradually comes around. Now we begin to see some sparks of life in this graying, somber character, as Tarek introduces him to the lively New York City jazz scene, the filmaker here celebrating New York City in all its diversity. Finally, Walter Vale begins to take the first steps out of his isolation, most particularly in a scene of extraordinary power in which the reluctant Vail joins in an African drumming circle in Washington Square Park, a balding white man in a suit amidst the primarily black, hip drummers, dancers, and percussionists.

But then Tarek is arrested for no wrongdoing while with Walter in the subway, imprisoned in the kind of unnamed, unidentified detention center we’ve been hearing a lot about lately, this one somewhere in Queens. The arrest and the imprisonment are both arbitrary and capricious, a disturbing reminder that human rights are being violated every day in this country. Continue reading

Parental Grief in China. A call to action for its citizens?

After the devastating earthquake in China, the world was witness to horrifying scenes of parental loss. A May 28th Times article with a headline, PARENTS’ GRIEF TURNS TO RAGE AT CHINESE OFFICIALS, pointed out:

Bereaved parents whose children were crushed to death in their classrooms during the earthquake in Sichuan Province have turned mourning ceremonies into protests in recent days, forcing officials to address growing political repercussions over shoddy construction of public schools.

It seems parents who lost their children were doubly enraged at the Chinese government. Mourning the loss of their only children, these parents first blamed the government for limiting them to one child, and secondly, were enraged at the shoddy construction of their children’s schools, which were reduced to rubble amidst other buildings that remained standing.

Here’s an “if/only” thought: What if the United States had a little more patience and a lot more common sense? Instead of enacting elaborate democratization schemes that attempt the impossible task of imposing democracy at the muzzle of guns and tanks, what if we just “helped along” the righteous indignation of people who are victims of their own government in ways that matter to THEM? Abstract concepts and philosophies mean nothing to people when their babies are being killed. Human beings will eventually rise up naturally (perhaps with a little subtle, smart help) against whomever is killing them and their children. They will object to being killed whether the instrument of death is their own government treachery, or the United States government, however benign its motives, in its misguided wars.

The “resource curse” theory, according to Wikipedia, suggests that “states whose sole source of wealth derives from abundant natural resources, such as oil, often fail to democratize because the well-being of the elite depends more on the direct control of the resource than on the popular support.” This may be true. It is certainly true in the case of Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive regimes in the world and a so-called ally of the United States. But the answer is still that you can’t impose democracy at the muzzle of a gun.

Proportional Outrage in the Presidential Election

RJ Eskow, in a May 18 Huffington Post piece, used the term “selective outrage” in connection with Hillary Clinton’s tactics during this endless Democratic primary battle. While the accusation is ITSELF selective outrage, it is actually an accurate term for the way the spinners in our society disingenuously and selectively take note of some outrages at the expense of other outrages. Outrages abound in politics, and selective spinners on all sides focus only on those outrages that seem helpful to their own cause or candidate. I would, however, like to propose a different term that may be more useful in selecting our next President, or perhaps in analyzing how this should be done: PROPORTIONAL OUTRAGE. I touched on this idea in another context when talking about grief in my last post. I said that the “inoculation” effect of big time grief has helped me keep whatever trauma I’ve faced since the loss of my child in perspective. In other words, a strong sense of proportion keeps hysteria in check.

In the political arena, we unfortunately find an appalling lack of proportionality. Certainly one of the most disturbing bits of information to come down the pike in an era of disturbing information is that the latest polls show that a large proportion of Obama supporters say they won’t EVER support Hillary, and a similar percentage of Hillary supporters say they won’t EVER support Obama. Even scarier is the news that in certain quarters of Camp Hillary, they’re planning to actively work against Obama, should he be the candidate. I can only hope that this is all just talk in the heat of the moment, and that when the time comes, they will come to their senses.

To help them, I’d like to remind them that whatever offenses or outrages either or both of the Democratic candidates may have committed against one another, they are small potatoes compared to the big outrages committed by Republican George Bush and his outlaw Administration, outrages that with only few exceptions have been consistently seconded and supported by John McCain, who for all this talk of distancing, has agreed with George Bush 95% of the time. Taking this country to war under false pretenses, ruining our good name and reputation around the world, torturing people and holding them indefinitely without charges like the torturers all over the word do, squandering the good will we might have used to good purpose after September 11, 2001–these are some of the very BIG outrages of this (Republican) administration. These are outrages of policy. Outrages of tactics (which are used to greater and lesser degree on all sides) are ALWAYS small potatoes compared to outrages of policy. Tactical outrages affect only individuals, whereas policy outrages affect millions. Tactical outrages may be difficult for candidates to handle, or may upset their supporters, or arguably speak to character issues, but outrages of policy get people killed and maimed. And I haven’t even mentioned the Republican party’s ECONOMIC outrages of policy, which have ruined millions of lives.

This morning before the rain came, I got in a walk with my pooch, Molly, and was thrilled to run into some friends who have in the past self-identified as “staunch Republicans.” Surprise, surprise. They both told me that they will probably support Barack Obama in the general election. Asked their reasons, they both mentioned how impressive and smart Obama seems, and how he managed to keep mostly to the issues, rising above all the negative partisan attacks. One of also them said, “McCain is a war monger.” Yes. Indeed. In my view, this is the main reason to support the Democrat, whomever it may be. The policy differences between Hillary and Obama are miniscule. The policy differences between either Democrat and McCain/Bush are HUGE. l can only hope that Hillary and Obama supporters who claim they won’t support the other Democratic candidate will join with these two “staunch Republicans” and millions of other who understand proportional outrage, and will make the right choice for the country in the end–the Democrat, whomever it is.

We can all honor Senator McCain’s service to our country, but Senator McCain has learned the wrong lessons from his experiences. Senator McCain is a Bush clone, no matter how much lip service he pays to distancing himself from Bush. We saw this in stark relief during the recent, disgraceful “appeasement” episode. Winston Churchill said “It’s always better to jaw, jaw than to war, war.” Jaw, jawing, which involves having a dialogue, is NOT the same thing as appeasing, which involves substantive concessions, and it is proportionally OUTRAGEOUS that George Bush, whose own surrogates at this point are doing plenty of talking with whomever will talk to them, would equate the two in so sensitive a setting as the Israeli Knesset. It is OUTRAGEOUS that the so called straight-talking McCain would second such a misrepresentation, and further, try to distract the American public by calling Barack Obama naive for understanding the difference.

The Republican attack machine and its surrogates are already gearing up to throw everything they can dig up or make up at Obama, in an effort to distract Americans from the proportional outrage they should rightly feel at the Republican party for getting us into this mess, but with current polls showing that 81 per cent of the public believes the country is on the wrong track, and with McCain having sided with Bush 95% of the time, the country WILL make the right choice this time.

More on Amnesty

I’m supporting Amnesty because I’m sick of being spun, because we need some proportion in our lives, and because I can’t contain my anger any more. I’m supporting Amnesty because Amnesty is the true no spin zone. Amnesty supports human rights, what’s right and human–REGARDLESS of politics.

Here is Kerry Kennedy at the EDLC (Amnesty Executive Directors Leadership Council), talking to Tim Aiken, Legislative Director for Congressman James Moran of Virginia, about the URGENT need of the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) : “There’s genocide, and we can’t get 20 damned helicopters!”

We’re spending $5000 a second in Iraq and we can’t find a few helicoptors to save the people of Darfur?

Here is the charismatic Democratic Congressman Jim Moran of Virginia, addressing the Amnesty Delegation on the Bush Administration outrage known as Gitmo, where people are being held for YEARS without charges, without even knowing why they’re being held:”These detainees were brought to Guantanamo Bay in 2002 to avoid United States laws and public scrutiny. Most are innocent of any crime, and were captured by the Pakistanis when the US was giving cash rewards.”

Cash rewards? I’d bet my life that we could fill a Guantanamo exclusively with Americans prisoners if the US government offered Americans cash rewards of, say, $5000, to turn people in. Then maybe then we’ll set up a concentration camp to hold these people indefinitely and without charges. Maybe we should build it in Topaz, Utah, the place where Japanese Americans were held during the hysteria that followed Pearl Harbor.

Hysteria? You bet I’m hysterical. Who are we, and what way of life are we defending if America holds people without charges and tortures people like the torturers all over the world do?

Public scrutiny? Are we even a public any more? Or are we sheep, consuming and entertaining ourselves to death?

Who is going to be held accountable for all this? Are we so spun that we actually believe that wearing a flag pin has more to do with patriotism than exercising our right to speak out about outrages being committed in our name?

And here is Congressman Jim Moran on Gitmo detainees: “More have committed suicide than have been brought up on charges.”

And Congressman Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts on the issue of how America is viewed in the world, and on the broadening anti-American sentiment being a threat to American security: “We’re in trouble, folks.”

White-haired white men speaking truth.

And just in case you think I forgot what I said before about the non-partisan nature of Amnesty’s work, here’s a grim-faced Chris Shays, who happens to be my Connecticut Congressman, speaking about the last eight years: “There’s no excuse for the arrogance of Cheney and Rumsfield… We ALL think Gitmo should be closed.”

I did, of course, notice that he didn’t mention Bush along with Cheney and Rumsfield, but still……….. If you ALL think Gitmo should be closed, why isn’t it closed?

Chris Shays: “We should have no secret prisons and we should send (these people) back to their home countries.”

Bill Delahunt: We can’t send people back to their home countries. They’ll be tortured.”

SO YOU KEEP THEM INDEFINITELY? THIS IS NOT AN ANSWER. NOT IN THE UNITED STATE OF AMERICA. NOT EVEN JUST OFF SHORE. AND I SAY THAT AS A PATRIOT.

Yes, let’s do talk about grief. This is grief unbound.

Live from DC: The Amnesty International Leadership Council

The D.C. skies were clear and bright over the weekend, but in the St. Gregory hotel, the pall of grief was thick in the air. Over the course of an extraordinary weekend, Amnesty International human rights activists, along with witness after witness, spoke to an audience of about fifty committed supporters on the Executive Director’s Leadership Council. It was unspeakably depressing to listen to these human rights activists speak of the unbelievable abuses of human rights by the United States government, in violation of the rule of law–complicity in torture, extraordinary rendition, denial of the right of Habeas Corpus, and so much more. And it was terribly disturbing to hear these people of conscience recount the sad statistics about the state of human rights in the world—4 million affected in the Darfur genocide, one out of every three women in the world a victim of sexual violence, four million Iraqis displaced. But it was the first hand witnesses who moved me to tears.

Among them were the amazing Betty Makoni, Director and Founder of the Girl Child Network in Zimbabwe, a rape survivor herself, who volunteers her life to save others, who helps women come up with strategies of how to protect themselves from systematic rape and abuse that they confront every day in their villages and communities, who tells us that rape is a death sentence for women because of Aids, who bears witness to victims like the two year old girl who came to her office bleeding, her genitals destroyed by rape. Little girl bleeding. What can one say to such a thing?

And Sarah Deer, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, a victim advocate and legal specialist, whose words speak of a culture of abuse where Native American women, victims of sexual violence, have no access to even the most basic protections like forensic (rape) kits to help in prosecution for those who have the courage to report these crimes:

My grandmother was raped.

My mother was raped

I was raped.

My daughter was raped.

My daughter has just given birth

I do this work because I want to protect that child

And Garelnabi Abbas Abusikin, refugee from the Darfur genocide, whose father, brother, younger sister, grandmother, uncle and more than 60 friends and fellow Zaghawa tribesmen were killed by government-backed Janjawid forces, bearing witness with his extraordinary photographs.

And General Jose Gallardo, who was jailed for more than eight years for publishing a Master’s thesis that accused the Mexican army of corruption and human rights violations, who spoke through a translator. “They have tried to silence me,” he said, “but human rights are non-negotiable.” General Gallardo is one of THOUSANDS of prisoners of conscience across the globe.

I’ll blog more about these extraordinary people and the many others I heard, and the crucial work Amnesty is doing in my next post. I need time to process such suffering and courage.

On a happier note, I enjoyed time with fellow conference attendee, the great film director, raconteur, and human rights activist, Paul Mazursky, who was in his glory regaling us with tales of old Hollywood, complete with spot-on impressions of Orson Wells, Sidney Portier, Charlton Heston and Peter Sellers.

More on all this tomorrow. It was a long drive back from D.C.