Thursday, February 5, 2009

Slave Signal Songs and the Power of the Arts to Transform Lives

by Julia Smith

My post this week takes a look at the coded language of slave songs and their use by the Underground Railroad. I find this particularly moving this month as Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States of America.

The culture of the previous president showed his clear bias against anyone who used bigger words than he could. The Bush Administration attempted to limit free speech by making any dissent un-American. He ran a campaign on education, then two years later made $30 million in cuts to arts funding, affecting the National Endowment for the Arts and all school arts programs. Any conservative politician worth his salt knows that by demonizing the 'Liberal media', actual news will be passed over by loyal folk who wouldn't dream that their leader could be doing anything underhanded.

Canada's current Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has had a poisoned relationship with the media for years. He actually lost a majority three months ago after his infamous statement: "I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people at, you know, a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren't high enough, when they know those subsidies have actually gone up – I'm not sure that's something that resonates with ordinary people." (Julia's note: I thought Harper fancied himself as a wiley strategist, but a proposed $45 million in arts cuts doesn't equal subsidies going up. But that's just silly old me.)

So there I was, watching the inauguration of President Obama, listening to the glorious strains of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Izhak Perlman, pianist Gabriella Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill as they performed. And later that evening I went to choir rehearsal where we worked on a spiritual for our spring concert, Every Time I Feel The Spirit. Once a slave signal song for riders of the Underground Railroad, I thought just how powerful the arts really are. And no amount of George W. Bushes or Stephen Harpers can stop the arts from giving the people their voice - especially when it's at the gravest risk of being strangled.

The root of the slave spiritual as a signal song has its genesis across the sea and back through time, in African culture. "A change in perceptual alignment is needed in order to understand the role of the creative in African ritual music. The aesthetic that 'allows for meaning' in African culture does not recognize the divisions that underlie western assumptions of 'aesthetic-integration'.

(Julia's note: one concrete meaning cannot be assigned to African symbolism, because these symbols always carry multiple messages between the performer and the listener. As an example, the term 'father' automatically carries multiple meaning: it can be a daddy, a patriarchy or God. In an African sensibilty, a symbol may have three more added layers yet again, that are clear to the observer due to shared experience. In the same way that a jazz player will take a musical idea and riff on it as opposed to playing the written notes, the initial message is received - the melodic line - but a deeper dialogue begins between the players and the audience when improvisation begins.)

"The subject of African ritual music is not seen by Africans as a separate subject that can be isolated from the composite event in which it takes place. The challenge (for westerners) with African creative language, as it relates to symbolic participation, involves:

1) the use of musical language as a composite phenomenon that is 'trans-idomatic' (or 'across, over, or beyond' 'a distinct style or character')
2) the use of musical 'signals'
3) the mythological backdrop that defined the 'myth-relationships' that are reenacted in a given ceremony.

"African 'awareness of historical complexities' forms a means to maintain cultural harmony and balance. Ritual structure becomes the basis to pass on cultural belief. This phenomenon is part of the 'checks and balances' of the African aesthetic." (Anthony Braxton, musician, composer, philosopher and Wesleyan University professor)

This is a traditional dance from Zimbabwe recorded in 2001 by YouTube user MLBinwa. You can hear the musical roots of plantation work songs in this piece, as well as the signals the performers use between themselves and the audience. These include the African call-and-answer rhythm, whistles, changes in rhythm, changing from words to humming, calling with a horn, clapping sticks and eye contact - all of these signal the next part of the piece to one another, as well as layered meaning about the importance of the newly-introduced subject matter.

The tone and rhythms of the traditional African style was transferred to North American plantation work songs and spirituals. In the African symbolism inherent in this music, what may have seemed like an energetic work song may have had its roots in a tribal war chant. This allowed slaves a form of artistic protest.

This next piece is a prison work song recorded in 1947 at the Mississippi State Penitentiary by a prison work gang. It's easy to hear the same call-and-answer form of the Zimbabwe song, as well as the incorporation of the work rhythm into the music. It's interesting how a few seconds of silence are repeated between every call-and-answer section.

In keeping with the history of African cultural use of multi-layered symbolism in their music, here is an excerpt from Harriet: The Moses of Her People, a biography of Harriet Tubman, one of the most famous 'conductors' of the Underground Railroad. Her response to news of her imminent sale to another owner was to use the coded language of the slaves embedded within spiritual hymns.

"One day there were scared faces seen in the negro quarter, and hurried whispers passed from one to another. No one knew how it had come out, but someone had heard that Harriet and two of her brothers were very soon, perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow, to be sent far South with a gang, bought up for plantation work. Harriet was about twenty or twenty-five years old at this time, and the constantly recurring idea of escape at sometime, took sudden form that day.

Willing to start that very night for that far North, where, could she reach it in safety, freedom awaited; but she must first give some information of her purpose to the friends she was to leave behind. Slaves must not be seen talking together, and so it came about that their communication was often made by singing, and the words of their familiar hymns, telling of the heavenly journey, and the land of Canaan, while they did not attract the attention of the masters, conveyed to their brethren and sisters in bondage something more than met the ear. And so she sang, accompanying the words, when for a moment unwatched, with a meaningful look to one and another:

When that old chariot comes
I'm going to leave you
I'm bound for the promised land
Friends, I'm going to leave you

Again, as she passed the doors of the different cabins, she lifted up her well-known voice; and many a face appeared at door or window, with a wondering or scared expression; and thus she continued:

I'll meet you in the morning
When you reach the promised land
On the other side of Jordan
For I'm bound for the promised land"

- Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet: The Moses of Her People, 1886

Now we get to the spiritual that inspired this post. A spiritual is differentiated from a gospel song by the attribution of a known composer. Spirituals were composed by slaves whose names are lost in time but whose music reaches out to us through their intense explorations of humanity's relationship with God. Gospel songs do likewise, but their composers are attached to the music and lyrics.

Here is a traditional version of the lyrics, the same lyrics my choir will be singing. The clip shows a version that carries the same melody as the one I'm doing.

Every Time I Feel The Spirit

Every time I feel the spirit
Movin’ in my heart I will pray
Every time I feel the spirit
Movin’ in my heart I will pray

Up on the mountains my Lord spoke
Out of His mouth came fire and smoke
Looked all around me, it looked so fine
I asked the Lord could it be mine

Every time I feel the spirit
Movin’ in my heart I will pray

The Jordan river is chilly and cold.
It chills the body but not the soul.
There aint but one train upon this track.
It runs to heaven and then right back.

Every time I feel the spirit
Movin’ in my heart I will pray

Oh, I have sorrow and I have woe
I have heartaches here below
But while God leads me I’ll never fear
For I know that He is near

- Traditional spiritual

Victoria Soul Gospel Choir

The next clip is the exciting part. Recorded in 1952, this version has a slightly different melody. This is a perfect example of how the slaves would have used music to convey complex messages to their listeners.

The change in melody style would grab one's attention, an alert that a signal is being sent.

The call-and-answer format is altered by the succession of different singers picking up the song like a relay race.

The full text of the song is discarded.

Instead, the chorus is sung over and over, until 2/3 of the way into the song. At that point the only lyrics from any of the verses appears:

There aint but one train upon this track.
It runs to heaven and then right back.

A slave working next to the singer would continue on as if nothing untoward was happening, might even chime in to acknowledge the message was received. The overseer on horseback would only see slaves working and singing as was the norm. It was a Christian hymn, after all. What could be alarming in that?

But the power of the arts to change lives rang out in the dust of the cottonfields so many years ago. A slave escaped to Canada once again, demoralizing the Southern slave owners and crippling their economy one liberated person at a time.

Spirit of Memphis Quartet

Friday, January 2, 2009

My Forever Date With My Two Dads

by Julia Smith

Happiest of New Year's to all! Hope you had a wonderful time ringing in 2009. I had a warm and cozy one while a blizzard swirled and howled outside. This is me enjoying a delectable seafood chowder made by my mom, a cozy New Year's Eve dinner for two with my husband. My favorite way to greet the future.

Here are a few shots of the storm raging outside, taken through the front door window.

One of the things I'll be looking forward to is a new tradition I've begun with my two dads. Both of them passed away recently - my dad in March of 2007, and my father-in-law on this very day last year, Jan. 2nd, 2008.

When the first birthday for my dad rolled around on Dec. 29th, 2007 - the first without him - my husband and I were in Toronto to be with his dad who was in the hospital in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. We were just up the street along University Avenue from The Four Seasons Centre, where my beloved National Ballet of Canada had The Nutcracker in full swing.

Since my father-in-law had a steady stream of family and friends in his room to share his departure from this world with him, my husband's family sent me off with their blessing to seek a few hours of respite - to one of the purest joys of my life.

For eight years I'd worked as an usher at the O'Keefe Centre (then the Hummingbird Centre, and now the Sony Centre) for one reason only. It was the home of the National Ballet of Canada. When the ballet held its spring, fall and winter seasons, and its Christmas run of The Nutcracker, all was right in my world. Even my father-in-law waved me on my way to a happy date with my dad on what would have been his 66th birthday.

It's my intention to fill a day when my thoughts naturally turn to missing someone so very, very precious with something that brings me great joy. And so last Dec. 29th began My Date With My Dad - a glorious matinee watching my favorite ballet company with my Dad along with me, sharing my joy.

When this Oct. 19th arrived, which would have been my father-in-law's 71st birthday, where did I find myself?

Rockin' out here in Halifax to Lenny Kravitz with my friend Annette from my writers' group.

Photo of Lenny Kravitz's Halifax concert by tvordj

I realized I'd been given another date with my other dad - my father-in-law.

How wonderful, I thought.

How perfect, I thought.

This is a picture of my husband as a boy, talking to his dad out at their cottage in the Ottawa Valley, flanked by his sister and brother.

This is a Christmas photo from a trip back to Toronto in 2003. That's my husband and me with my father-in-law standing beside us. And Brad's brother, mom, sister, sister-in-law and our nieces.

So this Dec. 29th, where did I go with my dad for our date?

Why, to see Valkyrie, of course. I was born on Remembrance Day, and my dad served in the US Army (as a registered alien - he was a Canadian at that time, living in Michigan, but got his dual Canadian and American citizenship later in life.) From a very young age I was interested in war movies, and my dad and I used to watch them all together.

He would have loved this new film. When it was released in time for our date, I merely smiled to myself - and felt his arm around me.

Friday, December 5, 2008

When a Breakout Author is One of Your RWA Chapter Mates - A Review of Broken Wing by Judith James

by Julia Smith

It is my very great pleasure to review an instant favorite/forever keeper written by a new breakout author - and a debut one, at that. Not only did her first book receive 4 1/2 stars from Romantic Times, but it got this review from Publisher's Weekly:

"The Napoleonic era comes brilliantly alive in James's debut adventure romance. The pace never falters... The extensive historical detail goes a long way, but Sarah and Gabriel's heart-wrenching struggle to keep their love alive is what will really keep readers entranced throughout this epic read."

Judith James is a fellow Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada chapter mate. Oh, how I look forward to our monthly lunch-and-meeting combo. And Judith has been someone who makes the lunch absolutely fly by when she sits across from me.

Judith was at the writers' retreat our chapter holds every summer. For the past few years it's been at a private cottage, 20 minutes' walk from White Point Beach Resort, where this photo was taken.

You can just see her saluting behind missmakeamovie blogger Kelly Boyce, front row, right. I'm front row, left. I had many wonderful conversations with Judith during the retreat, especially since I presented a workshop on The Gray Character and used BBC's Robin Hood's Sir Guy of Gisbourne to illustrate my observations. Judith mentioned that she thought her soon-to-be-released book had a character whom I'd love. That would be Gabriel from Broken Wing. And of course she was absolutely right.

Broken Wing is a Medallion Press release under the Jewel Imprint: Sapphire Historical Romance category. Set at the turn of the 19th century, just after the French Revolution and during Napoleon Bonaparte's rise to power, Judith's novel rides the changing tides of the power structure of Europe. Her two main characters echo this sense of tightrope-walking, indefinable and mercurial.

We meet Sarah, Lady Munroe, as unconventional a young widow as ever sailed the seas in men's clothing, alongside her privateering cousin Davey. Back on land and in gowns befitting her station, she travels to Paris with her older brother Ross to claim her younger brother Jamie, long held prisoner in an upscale brothel.

Gabriel St. Croix was dropped off at the doorstep of Madame Etienne's discreet establishment when he was a very small boy. His beauty makes him a favorite of every depraved customer who frequents the brothel he calls home. Grown to manhood, he feels dead inside - until the arrival of another young boy (Sarah's brother Jamie) awakens a desire to spare an innocent from facing his own fate. Jamie keeps a spark alive inside of Gabriel. When news arrives that the boy's family has finally located him, and is coming to take him home, all that's left of Gabriel's heart crushes to pieces inside of him.

Judith's previous career as a counselor gave her a deep understanding of the confusing array of emotions swirling inside survivors of childhood sexual and physical abuse. Her portrayal of Gabriel rings with authenticity and shoots off into unpredictable directions.

She has a special dedication at the front of her book:

"This book is dedicated to the lost boys. God bless them. May they all find a place to belong, and someone to love them as they deserve." - Judith James

I especially appreciated the darker undertones to Judith's book. When it comes to tortured heroes, I'm rather gothic. I really want him to suffer. I want my heart to be crushed into tiny shards for him.

Gabriel is so perfect for me, it's scary.

Something I rejoice! Rejoice! in are the ways Judith flies in the face of most historical romance convention. As far as romance novels go, I'm historical-romance oriented. And as far as historical romances are concerned, I really only read the unconventional ones. There aren't really that many of them, to be honest. Judith's book takes me to all the places the major romance publishers would never dare to go.

What's also refreshing is Judith's portrayal of Sarah. She often surprises Gabriel with her reactions to him and his behavior. Though her actions and words make absolute sense to the reader, they still have a sense of originality that infuses every scene with discovery. We have not been down Judith's road before.

All the things that make Judith's book work are things for which the major houses would have requested rewrites. But do most conventional historicals get a stunning review from Publishers' Weekly?

Judith doesn't shy away from the emotional pain of surviving abuse. If that seems too edgy and harsh for a romance novel, to me it makes the healing power of love all the more precious and deeply moving. Though Madame Etienne's most valuable prostitute is undeniably, smoulderingly attractive, and Sarah herself knows how to fill out a pair of men's breeches as well as a frock, the true draw for these characters is their internal thoughts and feelings. Knowing what Gabriel thinks before he acts makes him utterly compelling, and there's no way to resist falling hard for him as a reader.

Though the characters' internal landscapes are vividly drawn and rich with authenticity, Judith doesn't scrimp on serving up a rollicking story. She takes us to locales that dare to exist beyond the confines of the English ton. The plot slices along like a rapier, and the cast of secondary characters is so vivid and solid you'll wonder how she managed to pack so much into one novel.

Judith had a book signing at the Indigo bookstore in Bedford's Sunnyside Mall last weekend. I dropped by to share her thrilling moment of actually being behind the table as a debut author.

Judith is part of a group blog which will be launching in the very near future. Hoydens and Firebrands will explore the world of the 17th century and features authors:
Anita Davison
Sandra Gulland
Kim Murphy
Mary Sharratt
Alison Stuart and
Holly Tucker as well as Judith.

I leave you with a final excerpt. Enjoy!

" 'You're drunk!'

'Completely foxed,' he agreed with a genial grin.

'How did you get in here?'

He crooked a finger toward the balcony. 'Tree.'

'What's wrong?' she asked gently.

'A bad dream,' he said tiredly. 'Nothing more.'

'Well, now that you're here, why don't you tell me about it? It might help you sleep.'

'Christ, woman, I came here for some peace, to escape it, not to wallow in it!' He pulled himself to his feet. This had clearly been a mistake.

'You don't honestly think you can escape it by ignoring it, or running away, do you?'

No, he'd never thought that. Only hoped. He'd hoped he might escape for awhile, by running to her, and hoping was the thing that would destroy him in the end. He knew it. He turned, glaring at her in the dark. 'Shall I tell you then, Sarah? Do you really want to know? Would you like to know what I was doing the night before you and your saintly brother arrived at Madame Etienne's?'

Her silence drove him on.

'I was auctioned off that night, my services for the evening, to the highest bidder. I did my best to appeal, as half the proceeds were mine to keep. I was a very valuable asset there, you know. I'm surprised she released me.'

He stalked toward her, his body tense, vibrating. His voice became cooler, deliberately seductive and compelling. 'It was a husband and wife, or a man and his mistress, a playful pair. I was the wicked footman' - despite his obvious tension, his voice sounded amused - 'burning with lust for my haughty countess. I was...tasting her, pleasuring her, a thing I'm very good at, when her husband arrived, catching us in the act. Naturally he was furious and determined to punish us both. I, the insolent servant, was taught to regret my impertinence by being bound to the bed and whipped by his lordship as his lady knelt between his legs. Fortunately, she was thorough enough that he was not inclined to complete his amorous designs upon my person.'

Silence. It continued unabated, except for their breathing. He knew he'd shocked her, had strangled something delicate that had been growing between them, and he wasn't done yet. 'And do you know what else, my dear?' he asked, his voice mocking. 'I thoroughly enjoyed it.' He wasn't sure what he expected from her - horror, condemnation and disgust, certainly not a reply as cool and detached as his own.

'Well, now, if you'd enjoyed it, it wouldn't be giving you nightmares, would it?'

Rage blasted through him, demolishing years of hard-won control. The bottle flew from his hand, shattering in the corner as a distant part of his brain noted that broken glass was becoming a habit, a different form of comfort. Damn her! Damn her! He took a ragged breath, then another, clenching his fists, refusing to look at her lest she provoke him to further violence. Stiffly he turned toward the balcony and disappeared into the night."

- Judith James, 2008

Friday, November 7, 2008

Vigil 1914-1918

by Julia Smith

"It will be one long and final march home for 68,000 lost Canadian souls.

As the sun set over the British capital Tuesday night, an ambitious act of remembrance began when the first name was projected against the walls of Canada House in Trafalgar Square. One after another, the names of each Canadian to fall in World War I followed.

As the sun moved westward to Canada, the names went with it, projected against buildings in six cities. The sequence continues with 9,700 names per night spread across 13-hour, sunset-to-sunrise vigils until the last name appears at the break of dawn on Nov. 11." - Mitch Potter, Toronto Star

The cities participating in Vigil 1914-1918 are:

Halifax, at St. Paul's Anglican Church.
Fredericton, in Alumni Hall at the University of New Brunswick.
Ottawa, at the National War Memorial.
Toronto, in Nathan Phillips Square.
Regina, at the Saskatchewan legislature.
Edmonton, at the Alberta legislature.

"The Ottawa National Vigil will stream live from the National War Memorial. It will run for seven nights, starting at 5:00pm Nov. 4th and each evening afterward. The first name appears at 5:15pm. Each night’s vigil will be 13 hours long, ending at sunrise the following day. The vigil will then recommence at 5:00pm and run another 13 hours. The last name will appear as dawn breaks on November 11th." - Vigil 1914-1918 (this link takes you to the streaming video)

"The Queen, Prince Philip, the Canadian High Commissioner to Britain and war veterans stood and watched the beginning of the vigil Tuesday night from a darkened Trafalgar Square. Canadian actor R.H. Thomson was on hand for the opening ceremony in London. Along with lighting designer Martin Conboy, Thomson created this memorial to Canada's soldiers from the Great War.

Speaking at Canada House just before the names began appearing, the Queen said, 'Through the Internet - technology undreamt of by those who served in the First World War - the deep personal resonance of this imaginative transatlantic act of remembering will reach across time and space to be shared by many people in Canada, in Britain and around the world as we join together in looking to the future by reminding ourselves of how the past can inform the present.'

The project has special resonance for Thomson: He lost several great uncles in the First World War. On his father's side of the family, five brothers went to war and four died - two on the battlefield and two in a sanatorium, the victims of gassing, after they had returned to Canada.

Thomson remembers the surviving brother as 'magical Uncle Art,' who never really regained his footing, and turned his back on society to become a trapper and guide. He taught the Thomson children to gamble on Christmas holidays and let them feel the bullet lodged in his back." - Elizabeth Renzetti, Globe and Mail

If you're in one of the participating cities or viewing the event online, join with R.H. Thomson as he welcomes the soldiers of the War to End All Wars back home to the Land of The Maple Leaf.

Friday, October 10, 2008

"Then what are we fighting for?"

by Julia Smith

"During the Second World War, Winston Churchill's finance minister said Britain should cut arts funding to support the war effort.

Churchill's response: 'Then what are we fighting for?' " - Mark Leiren-Young, The Vancouver Sun, Oct.4-08

The current Canadian federal election spun into historic new territory last week when arts funding became a galvanizing issue. It all started when "Stephen Harper, casting himself as the voice of the common man, decried the arts community as elitist. At a recent campaign stop in Saskatchewan, Harper said, "I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people, you know, at a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren't high enough - when they know those subsidies have actually gone up - I'm not sure that's something that resonates with ordinary people." ' - Jeet Heer, National Post, Oct. 6-08

" 'When Stephen Harper talks about the ordinary Quebecker who supposedly does not care about culture and about artists attending galas, he is not only insulting people, he is missing the point,' said Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe. 'In Quebec, and I think in Canada, not only is culture the backbone of our national identity, it is also a huge part of our economy,' Mr. Duceppe said, referring to a recent Conference Board of Canada study that said cultural activities contribute $84-billion to the economy. 'Our culture cannot be outsourced. Culture is our future, as much to nourish our souls as to nourish our stomachs. We don't want to live on Planet Hollywood.' " - Joe Friesen and Omar El Akkad and Bill Curry, The Globe and Mail - Oct. 4

"In Quebec, they get it. No culture equals no country. In our English language leadership debate, Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe declared, 'Culture is the soul of a nation.' Have you seen Les 3 P'tits Cochons? I doubt it. But it made $4.6 million last year and was the highest grossing Canadian film of 2007 - and Quebec's sixth-highest grosser overall, including Hollywood blockbusters.

If you don't think culture matters and sincerely believe Canada isn't supposed to be anything more than America with a better medical plan, a smaller army and Don Cherry, let's look at that bottom line Tories are always so fond of referring to. The Conference Board of Canada estimates that last year the economic impact of arts and culture was 7.4 per cent of our gross domestic product. Arts and culture employs over one million Canadians.

All those movie trucks making it impossible to find a parking space - they're injecting more tax dollars into our economy than logging trucks." - Mark Leiren-Young, The Vancouver Sun, Oct.4-08

Very quickly, the arts community grabbed the political ball and ran with it - in the form of Wrecking Ball political theatre events across the country. Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax and Corner Brook, N.L. took part in " 'an evening of fresh theatre with uncensored content,' said Koby Rogers-Hall, co-ordinator of an artist-run political organization, the Department of Culture, in Montreal. 'We're hoping Canadians will respond to it. Whatever audiences put out there, we hope to have a dialogue.'

Writers donated their work and actors donated their time to get the works on stage. 'We didn't want to just sit on election night and hear about how the rest of the country voted. We wanted to make our own form of political participation,' said Michael Wheeler, the Toronto-based central co-ordinator of the Department of Culture." - - Oct.6

Actor Eric Peterson was one of the actors who spoke at a Toronto rally. He worked alongside Prime Minister Harper when he did a cameo on the popular series Corner Gas. Here's Stephen Harper's cameo:

Here's Eric Peterson's open letter to Stephen Harper:

Here's a clip from Corner Gas showcasing Eric Peterson's character, Oscar Leroy:

" 'Harper has decided not to impose censorship — but that's not anything we should be grateful for,' Kids in the Hall comedian Mark McKinney told a rally in Toronto on Wednesday. Some people at the rally carried signs that said Vote culture, eh? and Workers, not whiners at the rally, organized by actors' union ACTRA and the Writers Guild of Canada.

McKinney argued that TV and filmmaking in Canada are vital industries that are growing because of arts funding from past governments. 'We have had arts funding that allows young people to train in their profession and has brought us to a cusp of being a world leader in TV and film,' said McKinney, who is now a producer and screenwriter. 'This is a good business. Don't ruin it,' he urged." -

Here's a clip from Mark McKinney's 1990's comedy show The Kids in The Hall which tackles the Canadian culture/taxpayer relationship.

And here's a wonderful piece from YouTube which puts everything into the most marvellous perspective with a quote from French Canadian author Gabrielle Roy:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Two Powerful Documentaries Look at 9/11

by Julia Smith

With the seventh anniversary of 9/11, I find myself thinking of two very powerful documentaries about this terrible day. One is simply named 9/11 and is the result of one of those universal intervention things. Two French filmmaker brothers were in New York City, shooting a documentary about a rookie fire fighter, when the first plane struck the north tower. Their film subject promptly took a complete 180 degree turn.

The result is a combined effort by James Hanlon, Rob Klug and the two French brothers, Gedeon Naudet and Jules Naudet.

The second film is a documentary based upon a photograph called The Falling Man by Richard Drew. Because of its subject matter - the last moments of a man's life - I've linked to it rather than post it here.

*Link to the photograph The Falling Man*

This second film - also called The Falling Man - was directed by Henry Singer, an American-born filmmaker approached by Britain's Channel 4 to make a documentary about the disturbing power of a single frame taken by a stills camera.

My post today is actually about the power of the documentary form to make sense of an event like 9/11. I'm turning this over to the reactions of other viewers whose responses are so very moving and eloquent.

Reactions to 9/11 taken from Internet Movie Database User Comments:

"New York holds a special place in my heart. I travel there whenever I can. I have had good times there. The last time I was at the WTC was a mere 5 months before the attack. I remember standing on the roof and enjoying the view of the Hudson River on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Whenever I watch 9/11 on DVD I sometimes find it difficult to accept that the very same place is shown falling apart and in flames.

I had a cousin in the WTC on the day of the attacks. He was on the 92nd floor. Suffice it to say he did not survive.

Six months after the attacks I returned to Ground Zero. As emotional an experience as it was it did not affect me as much as this film." - Barry Weir from London, England

"9/11 is a classic example of cinema verite. It's all tiny, unobtrusive, hand-held video cameras, often betrayed by the poor quality of most of the filming (and by the director Naudet's hand frequently wiping the screen).

The viewpoint and camera angle is usually from amidst the firemen, which is interesting and there is some excellent footage from inside the lobby of WTC1 while Pfeiffer and his team plan what to do next - this is classic cinema verite. There is also the eerie, haunting sound of the occasional human body crashing against the portico outside. It is then that an increasingly forlorn Fire Chief Pfeiffer realises that his task is desperate and probably hopeless - and this is before WTC2 collapses. You have to give credit to Naudet for knowing which faces to film and at which moment.

The sound of the neighbouring WTC2 collapsing is so awfully sad, poignant and terrifying that you realise what an ordeal this is for the firemen. From the lobby, it looks, feels and sounds like the end of the world and the poor firemen look so utterly bewildered and frightened. You hear an enormous rumbling, trembling maelstrom - like that of a giant, monolithic beast slowly falling to the ground after being so mortally wounded - the neighbouring tower has collapsed." - Frankie Hudson from UK

"With the camera crew in the lobby of one building, there was a slow, constant rhythm of HUGE, explosive bangs that could be heard just outside… people jumping to their deaths, having chosen this over burning. In fact, the bodies were falling at such a fast rate soon, that firefighters and others who were now told to "MAY DAY MAY DAY!! EVACUATE!!!!" had to wait for police, who were standing on the outside, to signal WHEN they could run out of the building, so no one was killed by those hitting the ground from 80 or more stories up." - Ronn Ives, Norfolk, VA

"The courage that it took to shoot this film is most notable. We find that the two brothers are split up when that moment happened. They continue to document the bravest of the brave without knowing about their own and each other's safety.

This is why the art of filming was created! This movie shows, not embellishes, the natural bravery of real people acting in unreal times. It is art without question or questions." - Justin Fincher from San Antoni, Texas, USA

Reactions to The Falling Man taken from CBC's The Passionate Eye film discussion:

"I watched the documentary aired on The Passionate Eye called The Falling Man. I think it was a great documentary. It made me think of individual souls instead of two big buildings that were landmarks/workplaces in a great city." - Denise Griffin (CBC viewer)

"I don't think the pictures should be banned. Although disturbing they are very intriguing - I think they are life art and I'd love to see them in a museum, for all to realize how precious life is and just how quickly it can be taken away. Because to those people the day was the same as any other, an average day at work until in a split second they're all in a different frame of mind and jumping obviously felt so right and I agree with their decisions." - Stevie Leigh (CBC viewer)

"I personally witnessed 8 years of bloody war between Iran and Iraq with no result but over a million innocent people killed. Terrorists never show the unpleasant details of the damages they make and try to exploit it as a victory by saying it is slapping U.S. in the face. U.S. also tries to hide these impacts to prevent public fear and distrust in American glory. The more people see this type of pictures, the more they will hate violence, terrorists and politicians!

Seeing this picture causes more heart ache than hearing thousands of people were killed on 9/11." - Ali Afkhami (CBC viewer)

"T.S.Eliot said that 'Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.' The poetically horrific image of the Falling Man does just that: it says what words cannot. It has entered - one would hope forever - the lexicon of humanity's conscience." - Jerry Wowk (CBC viewer)

"I pray that he understands that his photo affected me deeply and that is not a bad thing." - Susan Miller (CBC viewer)

"Here in North America, let's face it, we avoid death and we live our lives as if we can avoid it. This man seems to have chosen how he will die and yet did he? It helps me decide how to live my life!" - V. C. (CBC viewer)

"the falling man
desperation freed
in mid flight" - Michelle Alkerton (CBC viewer)

"In the end, they all fell.
Either of their own Free Will,
or because time had run out.
All at peace with their God,
and their God with them." - John Spence (CBC viewer)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

BBC's Robin Hood Rocks the Forest

by Julia Smith

Last Friday I came home from work to the very-much-appreciated surprise of a DVD box set delivered right to my very door. Imagine that. Previously having to pick up jobs as I could get them made my husband and I a cash-only couple. I'm not used to ordering anything off the Internet with a credit card.

But with the help of a fabulous friend of mine, two orders were placed to when I called her in the midst of a full blown Richard Armitage emergency. Luckily, she's both a writer and a woman who can appreciate a Richard Armitage emergency.

I'd been watching as much of BBC's Robin Hood on YouTube as I could. It all got to be too much, however, and when another friend of mine mentioned that BBC was having a sale on their DVD box sets, well...

Season 1 of BBC's Robin Hood arrived just in time for me to take it to my writers' retreat in July. I used clips from episode 7 to have a look at the character of Sir Guy of Gisborne. It was part of the writing craft workshop I gave on The Gray Character, one who exhibits equal measures of light and dark characteristics. Someone who by nature is unpredictable, because he follows neither the hero's nor the villain's path precisely.

The release of the second season coincides with the conclusion of Season 2 on BBC America.

And this box set came just in time for my ongoing Richard Armitage emergency. If you're not familiar with what that could be, I'm currently writing a fictional character who resembles Richard Armitage, and watching him obsessively in Robin Hood helps me with my own scenes.

The series follows Robin of Locksley who returns from the Holy Land, having served in King Richard's private guard. Robin is played by Irish newcomer Jonas Armstrong.

Dredging up some show of enthusiasm at Robin's return, Sir Guy of Gisborne had been enjoying Robin's estate in his crusading absence. He's also been wooing Robin's former betrothed, Lady Marian. Gisborne can hardly contain his glee when Robin finds himself on the wrong side of the law, as carved out by the Sheriff of Nottingham. Gisborne is played by English actor Richard Armitage, shown here at right.

Lady Marian is still enamoured of Robin, but chooses to stay in Nottingham with her father, the former sheriff. She keeps watch for Robin while protecting the villagers and her father from the wrath of the new sheriff. Marian is played by English newcomer Lucy Griffiths.

Gisborne, meanwhile, pursues Marian with the zeal of a man determined to keep his enemy from reclaiming the woman he once left behind. Robin, Marian and Guy form an intense love triangle which - for me - is one of two engines that drive this series.

The other relationship that I cannot resist is the skewed father/son dynamic between the Sheriff of Nottingham and Gisborne. Played with an equal measure of scene-chewing fun and spine-chilling scariness by Welsh-born English actor Keith Allen, the sheriff delights in nastiness for its own sake.

The sheriff uses Gisborne as his enforcer, but he doesn't shy away from getting his own hands dirty. He's just as likely to put Gisborne through the wringer as anyone else.

The sheriff is in his element when he can stage a grand spectacle of terror for the citizens of Nottingham.

Because he so loves to be in the thick of things, a hands-on man and all that, the sheriff can find himself at the mercy of Robin and his battle-trained gang. This series excells in fight scenes, sword play and archery that hold up well in this new era of martial arts film combat.

You can check out a sequence from Season 2 that gives a good sense of the Robin/Marian/Guy love triangle:

Click here to watch a clip featuring the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir Guy of Gisborne, Lady Marian and Allen a Dale.

Season 3 is currently shooting over in Hungary. Huzzah to that!