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Posted by John on

The Art of Storytelling

For Boulder filmmakers, last Monday was New Years’ Day — the day after the biggest and best celebration of the year, hosted by impresarios extraordinaires Robin and Kathy Beeck.  This year’s Boulder International Film Festival (BIFF) was their latest annual triumph, turning Boulder into an ever-enlarging red dot on the world filmmaking map (disclosure: I edited one of the documentaries screened).  BIFF’s roster served a delicious elixir of cosmopolitan entertainment and social awareness. We all got smashed.

Hopefully it’s not amiss, as we nurse our happy hangovers, to reflect on the stories we tell and consume at such festivals.  We believe, as makers and watchers, that film is an agent for social change.  Films flagged as “call2action” at BIFF featured talkbacks at which local activists brainstormed with the audience to translate message into movement.  At several such gatherings, a participant would ask: how can we get Trump to watch this film?  As if the simple act of watching would change his mind. 

Of course, we know it wouldn’t.  But beyond a little healthy reality-check, it’s appropriate to ask: what is the power of our craft?  Is there a trade-off between telling stories that open others’ eyes and ones that simply make ourselves feel more righteous?  Are the objectives of persuasion and entertainment aligned or in tension?  I worry that it’s the latter – that if our narratives entertain by congratulating us and preaching to others, instead of challenging us and connecting with others, we end up diminishing our power to accomplish the social change to which our projects aspire. 

Take for example the festival’s runaway favorite film, “Chasing Coral” — a vitally important movie that won the Audience Award at Sundance as well as three awards at BIFF.  It follows a team of filmmakers racing to document, through time-lapse videography, a cataclysmic “mass bleaching” event in 2016 that killed 22% of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef due to rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change.  The images they took, shown in the last fifteen minutes of the film, devastate the viewer.  The scope of this silent catastrophe is beyond words, and the “Chasing Coral” team has done an inestimable service in capturing it.

Yet the 75 preceding minutes focus heavily on the exploits of attractive, white Boulderites building gadgets, making witty repartee, jetting to exotic locales and strapping on adventure gear.  It’s “The Amazing Race” for the Patagonia set.  Of course Sundancers and BIFFers love it, because it’s all about us, or who we fancy ourselves to be.        

And we, almost to a person, already understand and agree with the film’s central thesis that climate change is killing corals worldwide.  Indeed, the film pretty much assumes this viewer knowledge and orientation from the opening frame.  The first character it introduces is a former advertising executive who has been a scuba diver for many years (i.e., a very wealthy person) and who has decided to leave corporate advertising and dedicate himself to publicizing the plight of climate-caused coral death. The film assumes viewers will cheer this choice without question or exploration.

It is only at the end of the film, after the devastating time-lapse images, that the film lays out the science of CO2 loading of the atmosphere that causes warming of the oceans, and makes the connection to fossil fuels.  And it does so through a montage of talking-head scientists who lecture nearly to the point of scolding.

Let’s rewind for a minute.  Place yourself in the shoes of a person who is not from Boulder and does not particularly like Boulderites or Sundancers.  A person, more importantly, who thinks the theory of fossil fuel-induced climate change may be a hoax, and that ocean warming may be the result of natural cycles.  Does “Chasing Coral” change your mind?  My worry is that you are so alienated by the assumed politics and liberal cultural markers of the first half-hour that you will never get to the denouement.   You will turn away, just as I do when I try to watch a documentary by Dinesh D’Souza or a debate on Fox News.  If I were watching a documentary on abortion that opened on a group of filmmakers on a mission to “expose abortionists”, I’d have a hard time not immediately turning the channel, even if the film had more nuanced content later on.   I can’t abide the cover, so I never read the book. 

It’s not just a problem for filmmakers.  We all struggle to persuade others across political and cultural divides.  We often try to do so by pointing at ourselves – our superior style, education, numerosity, power.   In bygone days, we could efface ourselves and “let the facts speak for themselves” – that is, back when facts were, well, facts.  Now, it’s undeniably harder.  I still believe in the power of an honestly-told story – but sometimes the teller needs to get out of the way.  

John, Boulder Daily Camera guest editorial

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Posted by John on

Travel Bug

Travel Bug

They’ve spruced this concourse
say si bon big bowl and tapas bar
mall you into sharpened nooks
spaces hard and private

But I am sick
to see codes of color in every crack
every wheelchair driver black
every kitchen worker brown
asian every gadget seller
only the bartenders white
we fliers an iced decaf grande
skinny vanilla mocha-shot pinoccio

Still the palette’s nothing new
what poisoned me is getting here
how coding isn’t just in stores
now it rules the checkpoints
my pale queue gliding
past the darker grinding line
our shoes comfortably tied
their bags splayed for dissection

Perhaps I’ve got it backwards
and was just stoned before
because three months ago
these colors merely blended
the lines looked mostly safe
the vestibule I’d glimpsed
at my pre-clearance interview   
seemed more haunted house than gulag
maybe I was just popping rainbow pills
that if the guy in charge was brown
I didn’t have to see the rest

No more.
The hangover pounds my brain
and on the on the train from terminal to C
no brown-to-blue eyes met
my health-conscious love avoided the grab-bars
but I held the cool metal
seeking the traces
of things in common like a cold
to inoculate the deeper virus
for which we have no mask

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Posted by John on

Cinequest Premiere

Cinequest Premiere

We had a lovely evening showing of Sauti in San Jose. The highlight for me was the presence of Joshua and Favourite, two of the refugees featured in the film. They got to meet other directors, see themselves on the big screen, and tour Stanford campus that afternoon.

“I’m starving,” I said, after the screening, as we repaired to a celebratory dinner of steak and sashimi, chicken piccata and champagne.
“What do they eat in the camp?” One of our companions asked over the main course. “I suppose it’s only chicken and rice.”
“Oh no. No chicken. No rice. We eat posho. It’s a white corn meal. We eat that. And some beans.”
“What about protein?”
“What is protein?  We just fill our belly to the next day, that is all.”
Earlier in the day, Joshua had mentioned to me receiving a text from a friend in the camp that things are very bad right now, that there is no food. “You know, it is sometimes hard to really enjoy what you have when your friends are starving.”
Two worlds, connected by the synapse of media, still thousands of miles apart.

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