Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Never mind sex - what are you teaching your kid about MY kid?

(I know I haven't blogged here in a long while, but this needed to be said long-form.)

I overheard a conversation between two women today about Ontario's new sex education curriculum. One had received one of those hyperbolic emails detailing the horrors that their children were going to be taught and she was wondering if she should sign a petition or go to a protest.

The other told her not to bother, that regardless of how they felt about it it was going to pass anyway. She suggested just making sure that she or her husband talk to their kids about these issues before they got it in school.

This, I think, is a reasonable response. I may not agree with what either of them might end up teaching their kids about things like homosexuality, but at least it will be discussed, and at least theirs won't be the only view their kids hear. Provided they don't choose to 'opt out'.

As usual, it's mainly the Catholic school boards and the Muslim community who are balking at this curriculum, saying it infringes on their religious rights. But even some parents with more liberal views of sexuality are uncomfortable with the idea of someone else discussing these issues with their child before they feel ready to do so themselves. The problem with that is, there are far too many other parents out there who either teach their children things about sexuality that most Canadians would find objectionable or at best inaccurate - or worse, choose to teach them nothing at all.

One could argue that it's none of my business what anybody else teaches their children. What IS my business, however, is what they are teaching their kid about MY kid.

If you are going to tell your child that "some people believe it's ok to do ________, but because we are ________ we believe that is wrong and we don't approve of it", then I can't stop you. But kids translate messages in their own way, and intentionally or not that message is likely to be interpreted as "anyone who does ________ is a bad person, or a slut, or otherwise not as good as you".  And then it becomes my problem.

Tell your child only that homosexuality is a Bad Thing, and in a few years they're beating the crap out of my kid for being gay - or perceived to be gay.

Tell your son that girls who kiss boys or dress in a certain way aren't nice, and in a few years he's assaulting my daughter because she wore a short skirt to school.

Neglect to tell him about condoms and my daughter ends up sick or pregnant.

Neglect to tell him that sharing naked pictures of his girlfriend on his phone is a crime and my daughter has killed herself.

These are not imaginary scenarios. These are things that happen to young people every single day. This is Rehtaeh Parsons. And Amanda Todd. And Jamie Hubley. And that nice young man on the Oscars the other night who tried to kill himself at 16.

All of these young people were victimized by other young people who somehow got the message that it was ok to humiliate and bully and sexually victimize others for being outside what they consider the social or sexual norm - or just for being female. They may have learned that either directly or inadvertently from their parents or from their peers, but they sure as hell didn't learn it from their school curriculum.

Which form of education, then, would you say is the most damaging?

Education is like a vaccine. It immunizes us against ignorance, and just like with measles it's the 'herd immunity' that is key. One or two kids with bad information or outmoded attitudes aren't likely to cause much of a problem if the rest of their peer group knows better. But get too many kids 'opting out' of something like this sex education curriculum and you wind up with those attitudes infecting others and spreading.

Sorry, but I don't want your kid infecting mine.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

EbertFest Dispatch #5: Take Shelter

I first noticed Michael Shannon in the movie 'Bug', which was marketed as a horror movie but is really much scarier than that. His performance was profoundly disturbing, so much so that I find it difficult to watch him in anything without feeling uneasy.

In both that film and this one, Shannon is contending with irrational fears of things that we are fairly certain are products of his own mind. But while that earlier character surrendered to those fears, in 'Take Shelter' he plays a man fully aware of what is happening and fighting desperately to keep his sanity.

Shannon plays Curtis, a loving husband and father, with a good job that he really needs to hang onto in these uncertain economic times. He has a happy, ordinary life, until he is plagued by ominous dreams about violent storms and attacks by shadowy figures. When these dreams start to intrude on his waking life, he begins to understand that something is terribly wrong.

During the Q&A after the film, director Jeff Nichols said that he considers this to be a movie about a marriage. And so it is, although not until well into the film. Before that, Curtis does his best to deal with his unraveling mind alone. He approaches his situation clinically, taking out books on mental illness from the library, seeking help from his family doctor and later a therapist. But his wife he keeps in the dark. Is this to protect her, or does he fear the loss of her normalizing influence?

Eventually his wife does learn the truth, and when Curtis' increasingly erratic behaviour begins to damage their financial situation, she takes charge in a way that is both admirable and unexpected. In any other movie she might have fled, but instead she insists that they confront this bizarre situation together.

Nichols, who also wrote the screenplay, tries to cram a lot into one movie. He's talking about marriage, commitment, mental illness, anxiety both personal and societal, economic injustice, even throwing in a subtle comment about the environmental crisis. It mostly works, although once in a while one of those themes will poke out awkwardly like a sock out of an overstuffed suitcase.

Still, the overall effect is devastating. It's one of those movies that leaves you thinking and talking about it long after the final credits.

And for the record, Michael Shannon is just as odd in person as he appears in his films. Or so he would have us believe.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

EbertFest Dispatch #4: It's Not You, It's Me

I was very much looking forward to seeing 'A Separation' last night. From everything I had heard, it was a moving and emotionally complex film experience that even its competitors felt deserved the Oscar it received.

I enjoyed it very much. The story was fascinating, the performances spot on. It's portrayal of Iranian culture was insightful and specific without being dumbed down for Western audiences. By the end of it, the woman next to me was sobbing and I heard nose-blowing from the gentleman behind.

And yet... it didn't get to me. Not like that.

I can't explain why. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic. Maybe I was just not in the right frame of mind to watch it. Maybe the emotional impact was greater for those who have suffered through the divorce of their parents.

Maybe I'm not cut out to be a film critic.

I was far more deeply moved and engaged by Thursday's 'Kinyarwanda', even though many others found the interweaving plot lines too complex to follow. Does that mean I think it was a better film than 'A Separation'? Certainly not. But it does raise some interesting questions about subjective and objective approaches to film criticism.

To begin with, I am hardly a professional film critic. I have no formal education in film studies, and my only paid gig as a reviewer was for 150 words a month for the Milton Champion. I know enough about film to render what I like to think are informed opinions and the occasional insightful analysis, but nothing more than that.

That said, I can't help but wonder: can any professional film critic claim to be providing a completely rational, objective analysis? Should they even try? This isn't science - it's art, and the emotional response of the viewer is key.

And therein lies the problem.

Human beings contain unique emotional landscapes that change constantly, even from day to day, and that can't help but affect how we respond to movies. I remember the first time I saw 'A.I.' with my husband. We both started crying about the time David's mother leaves him in the woods, and by the end we were sobbing uncontrollably. We talked about it for days, and it was a full year before I could bring myself to watch it again. I haven't had quite that intense a response in subsequent viewings, but I still have to leave the room during the abandonment scene.

Why? Possibly because our son was the same apparent age as David at the time.

I was shocked, therefore, when I read Roger Ebert's review of the film. It was like we hadn't seen the same movie. And it wasn't that he didn't like it (he did give it three stars) - he completely rejected the whole premise that David was supposed to be a robot that really did feel rather than imitating emotion like other Mechas, and therefore he had no reason to care about what happened to him.

The whole thing bothered me far more than it should have, but I think I understand now what was really going on. I was in an emotional state that let that movie in to a very deep place. Roger wasn't. I still say he missed or ignored the exposition in the first five minutes of the film, but ultimately it doesn't matter. It just didn't get to him. That doesn't make either of us wrong or right.

So I won't be reviewing 'A Separation', except to say that it was an excellent film, and everyone else I've heard from who saw it last night was deeply moved. I'm sure at some point I will watch it again, and perhaps then I will be in the right space to let it in.

EbertFest Dispatch #3: The Rules

I'm starting to get the hang of this whole 'Ebertfest' thing.

The first house rule I had to learn was the 'saving your seat' protocol. People will grab the best seat they can find as soon as they get into the theatre, and will mark their territory for the rest of the day by leaving a coat or bag or, most commonly, their program lying across the seat.

I made the mistake of getting up for a washroom break during a Q&A session yesterday without marking my turf. I didn't have my coat with me and I'd left my program in the motel room, but I figured I'd only be gone a minute or two.

I came back to find my seat taken.

When I politely pointed this out, the woman occupying it agreed to move, but she seemed rather put out.

The down side of this system is the 'phantom butt' who leaves a program on a seat in the morning but doesn't actually turn up until the last film of the day. I had one of these invisible friends next to me all day today. I let it slide while there were other seats open, but when they announced at 8:31 that they were letting the rush lines in for 'A Separation' I made an executive decision and removed the placeholder. Plus the two next to it. So there.

The food thing is working out better. There are a lot of great restaurants nearby, plus they actually have food tents in front of the theatre which are a great inexpensive option. And if you go to the far booth you get to be entertained by the comedy stylings of the lovely Charity. Although I think that was only a distraction while I waited twenty minutes for her to serve me my steak burger.

I'm still waiting for my Steak 'n Shake. Incredibly, there isn't one walking distance from the theatre, but I'm determined to go there for lunch tomorrow.

Being here on my own, I had been a little uncomfortable starting conversations with total strangers at first. But then I brought out my secret weapon: a Canadian flag patch which I clipped to my pass lanyard. It's a brilliant ice breaker. People see it and ask me where in Canada I'm from, what the weather's like up there (it was snowing two days before I left, in the 80s a week before that), whether I've been to TIFF. I had a fascinating conversation the other day about tuition costs (they're worse than I ever imagined here). And they're all astonished that I drove ten hours to be here. I thought Americans were big on driving? 

Socialization was also made easier once I changed my seating choice. I watched my first movie on Wednesday from a back row on the main floor, but since then I've been up in the balcony. The screen is huge so the view is just fine, and it turns out this is where all the hardcore EbertFest veterans congregate. Folks are much more affable and willing to chat up here, and I even ran across a couple of VIP pass holders who have chosen to sit up top rather than in their designated section down below.

Also we have knitters.

One last bit of trivia: the washrooms here are gorgeous. Or at least the Ladies' are. Spotless, roomy, gleaming vintage black & white tile. I'd take a picture if I wasn't certain to be thrown out. You almost expect an attendant to greet you with a warm towel and a spritz of cologne as you walk in.

Surely this is what it was like during the Golden Age of Cinema.

Friday, April 27, 2012

EbertFest Dispatch #2: Kinyarwanda

Kinyarwanda is different from any film you've seen about the Rwandan genocide. It starts not with bloodshed, but with a kiss.

Rwanda has pervaded our consciousness in Canada more so than elsewhere perhaps because of the role played by Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire and his subsequent humanitarian and advocacy work. But this is not his story. Nor is it the story of the other U.N. peacekeepers, or of the Hotel Rwanda.

These are the very personal stories of ordinary Rwandans, from both sides of the conflict.

That last bit is vital. As the director put it, he didn't want to make another film about heroes and villains because to truly understand and prevent such a thing in the future, you must first understand and humanize - and ultimately forgive - those who committed the atrocities.

This isn't a concept that we in the West are terribly comfortable with, but it's a lesson that needs to be learned. They have learned it well in South Africa, and are making great strides towards healing in Rwanda. The film shows that reconciliation process early on, before you see what these men actually did.

It's a neat trick of time manipulation that the writer uses deftly, together with interweaving story lines and the gradual revelation of relationships between the characters. It's a complex masterpiece of storytelling that drives home our understanding that these are all one people. They all suffered. They all have to live with the consequences. And they can only do it together.

One of the most moving scenes for me was at the mosque where the Imam has taken in anyone seeking asylum - Tutsi and Hutu, Muslim and Christian alike. A Catholic Tutsi priest, who was initially resistant to associating with either Hutus or Muslims, is leading Mass on one side of the worship space, while on the other, separated by the thinnest barrier, the Imam leads the Muslim prayer service.

The chants of Allahu Akbar and the Lord's Prayer are heard in counterpoint, like a canon, as the camera pans from one side to the other. Different, but completely harmonious.

During the Q&A, the director revealed that the film was shot in 16 days on a budget of $250,000, much of which came from film grants from Rwanda. Incredible. After that, I never want to hear the excuse that a filmmaker didn't have enough time or money to make a great film.

EbertFest Dispatch #1: On the Road Again

Excuse me while I remove my political blogger hat and replace it with my film critic and movie blogger hat...

there we go...

Greetings from the beautifully restored Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign, Illinois!

For those who aren't familiar with it, EbertFest, or more properly Roger Ebert's Film Festival, got it's start as the Overlooked Film Festival. It's Roger's way of bringing attention to smaller films, old and new, that he loves and finds worthy. Nothing more. No sales, no deals, more directors and screenwriters than actors - just great movies and people to talk about them.

"Is this heaven?"

"No, it's Illinois."

By the time I rolled into town yesterday after 10 hours of driving, checked into the motel, got a cab to the Virginia Theatre, grabbed some popcorn in lieu of dinner, found a seat, and watched my first two movies ('Joe Versus the Volcano' and 'Phunny Business'), I was too exhausted to write anything more than a couple of tweets.

So. Let's start with Day 2.

If only I'd had more American coin to fill the meter at the Illini Hall this morning, I could have stayed longer at the Far-Flung Correspondents' panel. As it was, I missed the first 5 minutes and had to leave about 45 minutes in.

The Far Flung Correspondents are Roger Ebert's network of movie critics and bloggers from around the world. I was thrilled to see that there were not one but two representatives from Canada - one from Montreal and one from Toronto. I wonder if they drove.

Olivia Collette from Montreal spoke glowingly of her province's vibrant film scene, where unbeknownst to the rest of the country they somehow manage to produce many hundreds of films every year which people there actually go to see. Unfortunately since there is clearly NO film making going on in English Canada, our Toronto rep Grace Wang was relegated to reporting on the burgeoning film scene in China which she had visited recently.
My faithful readers know how I feel about this sort of thing, but I shall reiterate.

English Canada seems to have some sort of perverse self-loathing when it comes to our own cinema - or television for that matter. As a former video store clerk and current Film Forum volunteer, I've seen this phenomenon first hand. Quirky little European or South American (or Quebecois) films of any decent quality are universally lauded by those who love film, and who pride themselves at having found this gem of a film that you simply must see.
And yet, an equally good English Canadian film, unless it's directed by David Cronenberg or Atom Egoyan or has a big name American cast (cough... Barney's Version...), is inevitably greeted by these same 'film lovers' with all the enthusiasm of a ten year old facing a plate of steamed Brussels sprouts.
I'm looking at you, 'The Trotsky'. And you, 'Edwin Boyd'.

I wish I could have stuck around for the Q&A to talk about some of this. I also wish I could have told them about the TIFF Film Circuit, although I've been doing my best to spread the word all day to anyone who will listen.
The biggest complaint from film lovers from nearly every country represented on the panel - from England to Egypt to Brazil - was the lack of access to anything other than big American blockbusters, especially in smaller centres. The Film Circuit model, which distributes film festival films to small towns and cities through groups of volunteers booking local venues with TIFF handling the messy distribution and rights stuff, is one that could - and should - be emulated around the world. Even in America. Perhaps especially in America.

After all, not every town is lucky enough to have its own Roger Ebert.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

True Grit: Why a meaningless boxing match just might mean everything

Voters are a fickle, shallow bunch sometimes. The least little thing can put them off. Nixon's sweaty lip during his televised debate with Kennedy. Stephane Dion's sad sack shrug. Stockwell Day's jet ski ride to political oblivion.

Political history is littered with the corpses of promising careers brought low by such seemingly trivial incidents. Oddly, they often seem to involve sports.

In 1974, Conservative candidate Robert Stanfield was photographed tossing a football around during a campaign rest stop in North Bay. While he caught the ball perfectly most of the time, it was the shot of his one awkward fumble that hit the front page of the papers the next morning. It gave Canadians an image of Stanfield as clumsy and inept, and is generally acknowledged to have cost him the election.

Far less common are the serendipitous moments that transform the public image of a candidate or a party for the better. I can think of two offhand. One was George W. Bush's brief moment of heroism-by-proxy as he stood wielding a bullhorn amid the ruins of the World Trade Centre, in solidarity with the first responders who he would later betray.

Another was when new Liberal leader Pierre Elliott Trudeau, regarded at the time as a charming but effete intellectual, attended the St Jean Baptiste Day Parade in Montreal the day before the 1968 election. Separatists started throwing rocks and bottles at the reviewing stand but Trudeau refused to budge, even after the other dignitaries fled. The footage was broadcast across the country, and Trudeau was suddenly perceived as not just charismatic but tough and fearless.

He won by a landslide.

We may have witnessed one of these rare moments on Saturday night, when Liberal heir apparent Justin Trudeau took on a trash-talking bruiser of a Conservative Senator in the boxing ring and, against all expectations, beat him soundly.

As a purely physical contest, the outcome really shouldn't have been as much of a surprise as it was. Brazeau might have looked like a beast from some UFC cage match, but by the time Trudeau had finished putting an extra 20 pounds on his lean frame, the two men were actually quite close in weight. Brazeau might have had a black belt in karate, but that clearly couldn't help him against Trudeau's 20 years of boxing experience. Add to that the taller man's longer reach, and Trudeau's victory wasn't really all that remarkable.

As a political metaphor, it's a whole other story. Because really, who expects the Liberals to win at anything anymore?

Certainly the Liberals didn't want to draw attention to the event, lest it turn into one more humiliating defeat. And it might have passed virtually unnoticed if the Conservatives themselves - and their media surrogates at SunTV - hadn't been so vocally and gleefully anticipating the beat-down of the son of their most hated political rival. They were the ones who invested the whole thing with symbolic and political importance, even to the extent of using it as a taunting non sequitor during Question Period.

If Trudeau had lost, we would never have heard the end of it. Like Dion's shrug, the image of Brazeau's glove smashing into that patrician Trudeau nose might even have inspired its own website. PunchTrudeauintheFace.ca perhaps?

Instead, we are left with a very different image. A positive image, which isn't nearly as easy to bottle and sell as a negative one. Nobody really cares enough about Senator Brazeau to gloat over his defeat, and it's a little ridiculous to try to deliberately craft a political narrative around the victory of brains over brawn, of quiet grace over braggadocio, of strength of character over mere muscle, of...

Ugh. See how easy it is to get carried away? Still, there's a reason why there are so many sports movies out there, and why so many of them are about boxing. Any good screenwriter will tell you, it's never really just a game, or just a fight.

If the Liberals are smart, they won't even try to manipulate this. They'll just let the image of Trudeau wiping the smirk off Brazeau's bleeding face sink in and work its magic. Images are insidious, and just like Dion's shrug or Stanfield's fumble, this one could slowly infect the national subconscious and, with any luck, subtly shift how Canadians perceive both the party and its young champion.

The biggest effect of all this might just be on the Liberals themselves. They've gotten used to thinking of themselves as losers, so nobody was more surprised than they to see Justin Trudeau triumph against such an adversary.  Somehow this unlikely victory has given Liberals a chance to do something they haven't done in a very long time.

They've started thinking of themselves as winners again. And that might make all the difference in the world.