Sunday, January 16, 2011

"If you eliminate the scourge of bottled water, you'll be eliminating one of the biggest problems facing our environment."

A marine biologist said that in the documentary titled, "Tapped" (2009).  He has for many years been studying the dramatic decline of water quality in our oceans.

In 1999, they did a survey and found that there was 6x more plastic particles in the seawater than plankton. In 2008, they found there was 46x as much plastic as plankton.  And fish are consuming these smaller plastic fragments.  The researcher found 26 plastic pieces in a single fish.

Some may say that they always recycle their plastic bottles but they don't realize that in the U.S., less than 20% of water bottles get recycled (versus the 50% worldwide rate).  Part of this is due to low public funding.  Each city is responsible for recycling but with low funding and staff they cannot handle the demand, so then it just fills up a landfill or it goes to an incinerator.

Disregarding the environmental impact of bottled water though, you can take a look at the economics of it.  Most bottled waters have been shown to be nothing more than filtered municipal tap water and yet the major companies like Nestle, Coca Cola, and Pepsi charge 1900x the price of tap water.  Also, due to the plastic packaging additional chemicals are introduced to the drinking water.  Independent testing of various brands found there to be petrochemical compounds present like toulene, styrene, and pthalates, which are all carcinogenic and/or endocrine-disrupting.  This is due to the PET plastic bottles, many of which are made in Corpus Christi, Texas at an oil refinery plant called Flint Hills.  In Corpus Christi, the birth defects rate is 85% higher than the national average.  The cancer rates are also significantly higher.  Many of the residents were ignorant of the effects of living close to a plastics plant and now they cannot move elsewhere since they can't sell their houses; plus they already have health ailments.  A previous EPA employee quit due to his moral qualms over working at a regulatory agency that is being manipulated by special interests and corporations.  He stated that many of these chemical plants have ground level leaks, where the waste seeps into the groundwater -- in addition to the benzene and other volatile compounds spewing into the air from the smokestacks.

The bottled water industry has been remarkably adept at convincing the public that their product is superior to the municipal tap water through extensive marketing campaigns (i.e. Aquafina -- "Drink more water;" using models and celebrities in their magazine ads, promoting water's health-promoting attributes, etc.)  The municipal water plant on the other hand doesn't have the funds to compete with marketing ploys.  The municipal water processing plant is required by law to check the water quality several times a day and posts the results online for the public to see.  On the other hand, private bottled water companies are not required to provide any water quality tests to the public.  They send their own studies to the FDA and the FDA doesn't require or conduct any independent studies on their water quality.  There is only one person in the FDA that oversees the entire bottled water industry and that person also has to attend to other duties.  The FDA is severely understaffed and underfunded.  The big scandal with the FDA over this issue was when the bottled water industry and the petrochemical industry told the FDA that BPA was perfectly safe despite independent scientific organizations that said otherwise.

Then there is the social injustice aspect.  Due to these companies' cache of high-powered lawyers they found a loophole in the law, where Nestle can go into Maine and pump as much water as they want without paying a dime for it and then charging $19 per gallon for it.  The small rural community that was affected by this pumping requested Nestle pay 1 cent per gallon that they pumped so that it would return to the community but Nestle (operating under the name of Poland Springs or Ozark) refused.  Then in Atlanta when there was a water crisis and residents and local businesses had to follow stringent water restriction policies, Coca Cola was completely exempt and continued to pump millions of gallons from a lake that was already far below normal levels.

(The video, "How pharmaceuticals end up in our water?" is very interesting.)

I've always just carried a resuable water bottle to fill with filtered or tap water for environmental, health, and economic reasons, but after watching this documentary I feel compelled to do more and to spread the message.

("Blue Gold:  World Water Wars" (2009) was a similar movie and probably even better than this one but I didn't write a review on it.  "Blue Gold" was more comprehensive on the subject of commoditizing water, while "Tapped" focused in on the bottled water industry.  Both movies are highly recommended.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Beyond Hatred (2005) Olivier Meyrou

This French documentary discussed the murder of a 29 year old gay man by three skinheads in Rheims, France. It was interesting in that it worked in a distinct way from the way events such as this are normally covered by the press or in other films that portray the events as they happen like the melodramatic Matthew Shepard Story or Prayers For Bobby

that intentionally pull on heart strings for a big impact. The more introspective style of the documentary started 780 days after the death of Francois Chenu, and focused on the journey of the parents and the siblings of Francois as they reluctantly let go of their anger towards the perpetrators, and faced them in court to hear their testimony and defense. The documentary portrayed brilliantly the very banal nature of the proceedings surrounding the trial, and the way in which the grief played out for each member of the family. It cuts through the performative rhetoric of the victim, that one sees already polished whether in press releases and or in lawyer's prepared statements, by showing us the emotive discussion and preparation, even debate over a single word in the prepared statement. In this way the audience is brought to the realization that the strong face that the family show under the spotlight in the documentary is revealed to be more complex.

I thought one scene was particularly interesting, in which the mother tells the camera that some part of her does not want to confront the perpetrators, because she knows when she sees them her anger will be dissipated by hearing of their deprived background, and the anger and rage will be diluted by pity or a desire to comprehend. She felt that, by the very fact of communicating and talking about the case, she was being dragged forward to a more rational place than the pure desire for vengeance. She realises the necessity of moving forward but is reluctant to leave that state of mind.

During the trial in the film, the audience observes that the family are torn by their rational democratic and humanistic principles and horror at the loss of someone they love at the hands of imbeciles. The better angels of their nature draw them to sympathize with the destitution of the perpetrators' lives, and the irresponsible actions and indifference of the parents of the accused.

Another interesting aspect to the trial was that the youngest perpetrator's legal representative was a Frenchman of "Arabic" descent. Given that the skinhead gang was intensely anti-Arab (one of their friends had pushed an Arab into the Seine where he then drowned), I thought it was extremely interesting to see how much the lawyer was involved with the young man and how much he pushed for leniency towards him. I also thought that his frank discussion with the family and about the remorse (or lack of) felt by the boys was incredibly powerful in that he was able to acknowledge their grief and appealed to their conscience at the same time, which he was able to do in part, because of his ethnic origin. During this discussion we can recognise the family's internal struggle, in that they want to know how to forgive, but are unsure of the remorse of the skinheads.

The whole structure of the courtroom and the way the case was handled, gave a lie to the way that these things are represented on television. The grief shouldered by relations of the victims as they go through proceedings makes all the little details and the minutiae of the law heavy with melancholy. There are several shots of office spaces, and corridors, which in their dreariness, replace the dramatics of the murder with the dull realization of the reality of this kind of loss.

In contrast to more traditional media outlets, the focus on the film, was on those left behind, and the grief and justice process. Francois never appears in the film, nor do the aggressors, or any photos of the violence committed. In this way, we stand in the place of the parents, who are left imagining the pain that their son went through, but the film ends with an open letter to the perpetrators. It is hard to know how the family's actions are perceived by the killers, and at times the family seems worried that they are laughing at the liberal values of the family that compel them to get involved in the lives of the attackers rather than maintaining distance.

Definitely worth watching 4/5

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Legend of Liu Mingchuan

2005 Outdoor Taiwanese Opera Company Festival - The Legend of Liu Mingchuan
2005 外台戲歌仔戲匯演: 烽火英雄-劉銘傳

Performed by 一心戲劇團 (One Heart Theatre Troupe)

I saw this DVD in the library had English subtitles and my curiosity got the better of me. For 3 years now I have glimpsed bits of Taiwanese Opera performances in parks, in crowded night markets, and in the street where I live, but given that the scripting of the performances isn't very rigid by all reports and there is a lot of impromptu dialogue and improvising, they are rarely subtitled in Chinese let alone in English (and the language used is for the majority Taiwanese or Southern Min Dialect). The performances are quite kitsch to the Western (or even the Taiwanese) viewer, very brash colours and lots of women playing male leads. The performance I watched on DVD was selected from a festival of outdoor performances which meant that it was probably of a higher quality than your average Taiwanese Opera.

The Opera opened with photos of old Taipei with the modern place names in brackets which I thought was cool.

The opera turned out to be a dramatization of the adventures of Liu Mingchuan in Taiwan. I took a module on Taiwanese History last year (the teacher was amazing and really funny, if anyone's at NTU and has an interest in history I recommend you to take one of his classes Li Wenliang 李文良, he's got a class called Maritime East Asia and Taiwan (東亞海域與臺灣)) and the opera was laced with historical references to events that actually happened as well as to the folk mythology that surrounds Liu Mingchuan.

One doesn't really need to understand Taiwanese to realise that there is a lot of overacting and melodrama in Taiwanese Operas, but that is part of their charm in a way. The play reminded me in some ways of Brian Friel's (Yes, another Brian Friel reference, god help us all) Making History which deals with the legendary Hugh O'Neill, a major figure in Ulster's history. Both the opera and the play make history more accessible to the reader by endowing the characters with modern humour. The dryness of historical record comes to life in the (overly) dramatic style of the opera, much as Li Wenliang's comic delivery made history class so much more interesting. This is also a historiographical approach to history, wherein one realises the human frailty and doubt behind the great cycles of history that seem perhaps, in retrospect, to be predetermined.

The opera still deifies the wisdom of Liu Mingchuan and sets out from a determined ideological standpoint: Taiwan is a great new land of opportunity, Hoklo, Hakka and aborigines should unite against the evil French invaders. Although the segregation of different groups is brought up, it is very much underplayed, and Liu Mingchuan is an advocate of unity and a bringer of development (although a lot of Liu Mingchuan's fiscal reforms weren't actually realised fully due to the Japanese handover). Liu Mingchuan is definitely idealised, and the oppression of the aborigines seemingly ends with his arrival, and the aborigines in the opera seem to be treated in a similar way to Hoklo and Hakka, when in fact they weren't even considered human by the Qing. I remember one lecture in the history course when I happened to be sitting behind two of the girls from the younger year in my institute, one Aborigine and one Hoklo. The teacher told a story about two Han men who came across an aborigine and killed him, then buried him. Later they regretted wasting all that good meat, so they went back and cooked and ate the guy. They were brought to court, but were found innocent of murder because aborigines were not "people" (人). It was interesting to think how differently people could conceive of aborigines then, the two men wouldn't have even thought of eating a fellow Hoklo or Hakka, but they genuinely thought aborigines were some sort of animal. The difference was emphasized when the Hoklo girl leaned over and pretended to eat the ear of the aboriginal girl, much to my amusement.

The Liu Mingchuan love story was far from moving, and the soppy romance between his nephew and the aboriginal girl lacked any realism, but these two parts did not dominate the opera and if you know to expect a bit of melodrama then you can find it amusing in a kitsch kind of way.

Would recommend it as an interesting way to understand the way Taiwanese people collectively conceive of their own history.

It's on tudou with Chinese subtitles only if anyone is interested.

Soundless Wind Chime (無聲風鈴) Directed by Kit Hung (洪榮傑)

This film had the same atmosphere as Lanyu (藍宇) and Miss Kicki (霓虹心), although it was slightly lighter and more self indulgent than the former and not as driven and funny as the latter. The film was low on dialogue and the plot was confusing, the denouement, as with a ton of recent indie films, lacked any sense of clarity. What the director seems to drive towards is an ambiance rather than telling a story, which takes away from the enjoyment of the film, as the typical indie desire to challenge the audience to come up with their own interpretation of the plot can often lead the audience to respond with indifference rather than curiosity. The film felt as if the director had thought up some good ideas for screen shots, and vague ideas of the relationship that was featured in the film, but these ideas were fractured and never really developed on from this point, so that the characters appear two dimensional to some extent. I appreciated the aesthetic and the music in the film, but it could have done with a clearer direction editing wise, and less indulgent crying shots.

By the end of the film I was confused as to which bits were real and which bits were fantasy or flashbacks, especially the Pascal/Ueli plot line which just ended without any hint of resolution. There were two possibilities I guess, the first that Pascal had died, and Ricky had traveled to Switzerland to grieve for him, then projected his memories of Pascal onto a Swiss guy. The other possibility was that Pascal lost his memory and returned to Switzerland. The former fits in more clearly with Ueli coming for his mother (taking her to her death). Neither is obvious, however, and by the time one reached this point in the film it is quite hard to care because there has already been too much jumping around in the film's narration.

The cross-cultural gay relationship was done slightly better in Miss Kicki, a film I enjoyed a lot more. I did think there was a good depiction of cross cultural relationships, and the inevitable problems that they run into.

It's not a film that is particularly worth watching, but it's not unpleasant to watch either, nice music, some nice shots of Hong Kong and China.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Black Swan 2010 Darren Aronofsky

Black Swan is an interesting if confusing movie about ballet. The film portrays a ballerina cast as the Swan Queen in Swan Lake, as well as the trouble she has embodying the black swan's seductive vices in contrast to the white swan's perfection and innocence, which is more fitting with her character. As the performance draws nearer the stress weighs heavier and heavier upon her, and she starts questioning her reality and the motives of another dancer who for her embodies the lust of the black swan and also acts as a vessel for her repressed desires.

The film seemed to point to the unnatural nature of beauty, such as that of ballet, which wreaks havoc on the protagonist's psyche and body. The film's dénouement is as tragic as it is puzzling, and one is left with many unanswered questions, which seems apt given the repressed psyche of the protagonist.

The ending was brilliant and beautiful, and it made me think of the way people strive for perfection, and the ephemeral nature of that perfection. In a way one could understand her final decision when one contemplated the retired Beth, who now incapacitated by a car crash would never again be perfect. Life then needn't necessarily be about grand ambitions or acheiving greatness (which the insane glean in the eyes of failed American Idol contestents is testament to) but rather more about the more mundane yet brilliant things in life.


It's definitely worth watching. Can't think of much else to say about it though.