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Long Way Down

I just started reading Long Way Round, the memoir written by Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman about their motorcycle journey around the world. Very interesting stuff. They took a second trip as well, from Scotland to South Africa (the first went from London to New York), and, in addition to the book, filmed both journeys. The first documentary aired on the BBC - the second, Long Way Down, will show in a number of theaters on July 31, for one time only.

McGregor also talks with the /film podcast about the journey.

Under the Abbaya: Female Producers in Saudi Arabia

How did a group of women pull off a TV show in a country where women can’t drive, can’t vote, and really aren’t supposed to hang out with non-related males? Well, they have a saying in Danya’s hometown, "Jeddah is different." And for the record, so is she.

The producer of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, Amy Teuteberg, tells the tale of making an episode in Saudi Arabia.

Invest in a Girl and She Will Do the Rest

Not only is it a cause I'm behind one hundred percent, but The Girl Effect is also a beautifully-designed campaign with plenty of easily-shared links and media. Well done.

'We're going to have an expedition of our own!'

Fifty years ago three English housewives set off on a remarkable adventure. Anne Davies, 35, Eve Sims, 25, and Antonia Deacock, 26, who had no previous experience of overland expeditions, embarked on a journey everyone said could not be done by women: a 16,000-mile drive to India and back, and a 300-mile trek on foot into Zanskar, the remote Tibetan Buddhist kingdom.

The housewife explorers who climbed the Himalayas.

Iranian Filmmaker Tehmineh Milani

Her films have divided Iran, led to her arrest and seen her charged with four crimes that carry the death penalty. But Iranian filmmaker Tehmineh Milani refuses to be silenced. "She focuses on women's rights and shows things the way they are", states a fan. Milani's latest film, 'Payback', is her most contentious to date. It's about four women who meet in prison and form a vigilante gang, posing as prostitutes and handing out their own brand of justice to men. "I wrote the story but the characters are based on real people", Milani states. Although Milani is Iran's most commercially successful director, filmmaking for her is about much more than making money. As she explains: "I think I have an ability to make a positive cultural change."

Tehmineh Milani @ YouTube.

And for a bit of commentary - a woman is the most commercially successful film director in Iran and yet we have still to get one American female director even remotely on par with Spielberg or even Tarantino? What the hell is going on?

(Via DollyMix.)

Bourdain's Notes from the Road

The inimitable Anthony Bourdain has outdone himself with his most recent blog post straight from Tokyo. For the record, I think his "rather notorious" karaoke rendition of "White Wedding" would be a very welcome addition to a future show. Are you susceptible to online petitions, Tony? I'll happily start one.

Film and Honor Killings

At the Guardian - can film help put an end to honor killings?:

Turkey is not the only country where women are shot, stabbed, strangled and maimed in the name of honour. But it is the first one to really tackle the taboo issue up close. The artistic interest comes in the wake of increased coverage of honour killings by the Turkish media and a vast array of government-backed education programs. Suddenly even universities are encouraging students to highlight the issue in doctoral theses.

Fair Trade Vs. Direct Trade

Blog Coffee Tao offers a three-part, in-depth look at Fair Trade and direct trade and what's best to buy for coffee growers:

The Colors of Burma

The Colors of Burma

An excellent article over at COLOURlovers explores Burma through colors:

Colors are inherently symbolic. They seem to mean something. Sometimes this meaning becomes overtly political. In a similar way that the name (or re-naming) of a thing is an attempt to define it politically. And nowhere, perhaps, are these things more evident than in contemporary Burma. (Or Myanmar.)

The Miniature Earth Project

This has been online for a while now, but it's been making the rounds of the blogs again just recently, so I figured I'd jump on the bandwagon. I think I linked to it before but, a) I'm too lazy to find it, and b) I didn't actually embed it. So, behold! The embedded video of the Miniature Earth Project:

A Few More Notes on Burma

At the risk of running this topic into the ground, there are a few more thoughts on Burma that I wanted to share.

First off, there's a thorough article from ForeignAffairs.org that details the rise of the military junta, the effects the regime is having not only on the country itself but those near it, and what steps should be taken by the international community about it. Read the article here.

With this historical background in place, I also wanted to mention something that cropped up on The Daily Show the other day. Very rarely do I have issues with the sainted Mr. Stewart and company, but every once in a while I'm reminded that they are first and foremost a comedy show - because every once in a while, they have to make a choice between telling the whole truth and going for a quick joke. And, every once in a while, they go for the joke. I can't find a clip of it right now, but, when covering a President Bush speech that referred to the Burma situation, they joked that maybe Bush didn't know Burma is now Myanmar.

This is something I've been asked recently more than once, and it is a bit confusing, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to help set the record straight. In this instance at least, Bush spoke correctly. Myanmar is a local name the junta made the country's official title after their forceful takeover, and because of this (and the humanitarian disaster their rule has become), it is not officially recognized as such by either the US or the UK. It would actually be even more wrong for the president of the United States to refer to the country in any other way than the US's official policy regarding it. So - Burma it is, at least officially. Unofficially, I suppose it's whatever you choose. Most of the organizations on the side of the Burmese people stick with Burma as well, most likely in another form of rebellion against the junta.

Burma Is Important

A thoroughly upsetting update on the Burma situation from the Buddhist Channel - a senior defected official says:

"Many more people have been killed in recent days than you've heard about. The bodies can be counted in several thousand."

And Swedish diplomat Liselotte Agerlid says:

"The military regime won and a new generation has been violently repressed and violently denied democracy. The people in the street were young people, monks and civilians who were not participating during the 1988 revolt.

"Now the military has cracked down the revolt, and the result may very well be that the regime will enjoy another 20 years of silence, ruling by fear."

In the face of that, it's hard to feel that anything in one's power to do will actually make a difference. But awareness never hurts, and the excellent Buddhism-meets-pop-culture website The Worst Horse is putting together the Burma Is Important Project. I've donated a graphic to them (over in my sidebar), feel free to download it, or any of the others offered at the project page, and post it to your blog, MySpace, etc. If you need a hand doing so, just let me know.

Also, check out the Burma news and links on the front page of The Worst Horse.

Burma News & Action Round-up

As you have probably heard, there's some horrible things happening in Burma as of late. A concise description from the Guardian:

The protests began late last month after the government sharply raised fuel prices - an added hardship for people in one of Asia's poorest and most economically isolated countries.

Arrests and intimidation kept the demonstrations small and scattered until the monks entered the fray. On Sunday, around 20,000 people - including thousands of monks - filled the streets of Rangoon, stepping up their defiance by chanting support for the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ms Suu Kyi has been under almost continuous house arrest since 1990, when the military refused to recognise a landslide victory by her National League for Democracy party.

Within the past week, however, the situation has turned ugly. As of now, the government has cut off internet access, hundreds of monks have been beaten, arrested, and detained, and more deaths are being reported.

Other news and information:

Ways show support for the Burmese people:

If you're into that sort of thing, you can also watch the latest PSA about Burma from Jim Carrey:

Nothing But Red

Recently I posted my take on honor killings and torture porn, inspired by the murder of Dua Khalil and writer/filmmaker Joss Whedon's reaction to it. Before that, I had posted in my quote section a paragraph from his article:

All I ask is this: Do something. Try something. Speaking out, showing up, writing a letter, a check, a strongly worded e-mail. Pick a cause – there are few unworthy ones. And nudge yourself past the brink of tacit support to action. Once a month, once a year, or just once.... Even just learning enough about a subject so you can speak against an opponent eloquently makes you an unusual personage. Start with that. Any one of you would have cried out, would have intervened, had you been in that crowd in Bashiqa. Well thanks to digital technology, you’re all in it now.

His plea for action has in turn inspired a group of writers and like-minded people. Enter Nothing But Red, an anthology of essays, fiction, and artwork that will be published via Lulu and in digital format. All proceeds will go to charity. They're currently accepting submissions, as well as looking for volunteers to help support the book and spread the word.

If this is a cause you're into - visit, sumbit, volunteer, link, blog. It doesn't take much to help.

Honor Killings and Tortune Porn

Du'a Khalil AswadA couple of weeks ago, I posted a quote by Joss Whedon, from a recently posted article called "Let's Watch a Girl Get Beaten to Death." The incident that inspired the article was the 7 April murder of seventeen-year-old Du’a Khalil Aswad, who was stoned to death. What made her death so notable was the fact that it was recorded by a camera phone and uploaded to the internet. Not only can you find still images of the attack, but video. You can literally watch a girl get beaten to death, from the point of view of someone standing amidst the crowd that killed her.

Honor killings are a huge challenge to human rights, and, because they generally (although not exclusively) target women, they are also often a special cause of women's rights movements. But Whedon's piece is not just about honor killings. To him, the phenomenon of digitally recording a woman's murder and sharing it across the internet for everyone to see is inextricably tied to a current Hollywood trend - that of extreme horror movies, such as Captivity and Hostel: Part II - movies that have been labeled "torture porn" for their almost fetishistic concentration on gore for gore's sake.

Whedon goes much farther into a panic of real-life misogyny (he's right, for all intents and purposes, but the issues he raises are too complex to address fairly in a single website post), but I'm branching off the discussion into a consideration of the connection between filmed fictional violence and filmed violence in reality. It's a question at the very least worth asking. What exactly is the difference between our desire to see girls on movie screens mutilated, tortured and killed, and the desire of those swapping footage of a girl being kicked, stoned, and beat to bloody death in a public street? Is there one? And if there is, is it smaller than it should be?

I have never been a fan of extreme horror films. The first I saw is, well, Saw. It's probably the most credible of the genre, but I still found it both trite and disgusting. I am, however, a long-time fan of horror, both print and screen, in general, and I don't have a problem with gore and explicit violence within the course of a worthwhile story. Or even with an artistic twist. I can appreciate Dario Argento and George Romero. Surprisingly (and to no one more than me), I can even handle some Rob Zombie. I didn't expect his film work to have the creativity and perspective it does.

That last, though, might just be my impression, considering that Zombie is an outspoken defender of extreme horror movies. In a recent NPR piece, he described the genre as harmless "escapism." Maybe so. But is this the best world to which we can offer an escape? One of senseless violence and death? And what precisely are we escaping? The drudgery of our daily lives, as Zombie suggests - or, as others suggest, the distant terror of war, persecution, and tragedy that already inhabits our collective unconscious? If that latter is the case, experiencing fictional violence can help make the real violence more distant and less important. Which can make us feel superficially better, but doesn't do much to solve the real problems, either in besieged foreign lands or within our restless minds.

Where is the line drawn, anyway? What makes a horror movie cross into "extreme" territory? I don't think it's just the equation of how much violence it contains. I think the difference between good horror and torture porn, between cinematic violence and real violence is very simple: context. Real violence is so shockingly horrendous because of the context in which it was done - which is, namely, reality. Fake violence gets a pass because it's not real and thus doesn't really matter. But what about distinctions within the realm of fake violence? Is there ever a point where it becomes just as reprehensible as real violence? Definitely. It happens when the context in which the violence is placed - artistic context, historical context, even a decidedly escapist context - becomes less context and more backdrop, or just an excuse for the violence. When that happens, essentially the same dynamics are working as are during instances of real violence. In both cases, the end is violence that fulfills a base human need, and it has no higher purpose than that - or a morally supportable purpose at all.

Of course, I've readily admitted I've personally seen very few of the entries in the torture porn genre, so it's possible my opinions are off the mark when it comes to the individual films. However, I also couldn't bring myself to view the online video of Du’a Khalil Aswad, struggling, screaming, and ultimately dying at the hands of a vicious mob. If it's the same impulse that keeps me from both, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing.

Some other discussions on the merit (or lack thereof) of extreme horror, inspired mostly by the release of Hostel II: