Tuesday, 15 December 2015

JAMAICAN SINGERS LEND VOICE FOR CLIMATE SOLUTIONS

For long-time reporters of environmental issues, it was something of a surprise to see the massive mobilisation of artists, and people from all sectors of society, at COP 21 – the United Nations Climate Change Conference that took place in Paris, France, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12.

Sean Paul at COP 21. (Photo: UNFCCC)
Artists from a host of countries participated in discussions on the sidelines of the official talks, giving support to civil society groups and to national delegations. Jamaican rapper-singer and songwriter Sean Paul was there, for instance, as was Aaron Silk who belted out at the Caribbean Pavilion that we need “1.5 to stay alive”.

This figure refers to the appeal from small island states to limit the rise of average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius or below. Previous to COP 21, the goal had been 2 degrees Celsius, but faced with the inexorable rise in sea levels and the increase in extreme weather conditions, island nations have pushed for the lower target.

The 196 state parties in Paris finally agreed on the aim of keeping the average global temperature rise this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Throughout the conference, which was extended an extra day, artists sang and took part in debates. One evening, at a meeting of delegations from islands around the world – Palau to Curaçao – Silk joined two guitarists from Oceania to perform Bob Marley hits including “Redemption Song”. As everyone crooned along, a delegate from Curaçao remarked that we have more that links us than divides us, and that we all need to be in the fight together.

Jamaican singer Aaron Silk (centre) performs at an
"island" event at COP 21. (Photo: McKenzie)
Sean Paul arrived at the climate conference on Dec. 10, the day before it was scheduled to end, dressed mostly in black and wearing dark glasses.

Flanked by UN representatives and environmental activists, he took part in a press conference, telling journalists and fans that governments need to take greater action on combating climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“In Jamaica, we are known for our athletes, but they need clean air when they’re training,” he said. “I’m a singer, and I have asthma, so I need clean air for my lungs.”

Paul said he was concerned about the burning of a huge garbage dump (called Riverton) in Kingston this year, which covered large parts of the city with choking smoke, and he urged action on getting man-made disasters such as this under control.

He told listeners that he was in Paris to learn more about environmental issues and that apart from using his music to raise awareness, he was trying to set an example by his own behaviour: using solar panels to provide electricity in a house he’s building, for example.

Sean Paul discusses climate change. (Photo: McKenzie)
Later, at a packed UN event to recognize developers of innovative solutions for climate change, Paul performed “Love Song to the Earth”, alongside the recorded images of fellow artists Paul McCartney, Leona Lewis and others.

Available for download from iTunes and Apple Music, the track, which Sean co-wrote, will help to raise funds for environmental group Friends of the Earth US and the UN Foundation, officials said.

Paul was probably the most high-profile Caribbean artist at COP 21, but the conference also heard the voices of singers, writers and actors from other regions, with personalities such as Angelique Kidjo, Alec Baldwin and Robert Redford giving their support to indigenous peoples, small island states and other vulnerable communities.

“Success for this conference will be action,” said Benin-born singer Kidjo, who participated in a symposium titled Earth to Paris that comprised participants and coalitions from all over the world. (See previous article.)

It’s anyone’s guess how much of an effect artist-activists had on the final Paris Agreement, and there’s always a measure of cynicism among the public when “stars” get involved in certain issues. But, as Paul said, “celebrities have influence, and they can use their influence to raise awareness.” – A.M. (Follow us on Twitter @mckenzie_ale)

Paris' Eiffel Tower sends a message at the end of the climate change talks. (Photo: McKenzie)

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

ARTISTS CALL FOR LESS TALK, MORE ACTION ON CLIMATE

Artists have been out in force, making their voices heard at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) which began Nov. 30 in Paris, France, and runs until Dec. 11.

Singer Angelique Kidjo (photo: McKenzie)
Urging governments to take effective action and reach a global accord, personalities such as Angelique Kidjo, Alec Baldwin, Robert Redford and Adrian Grenier have spoken out at various events, giving their support to indigenous peoples, small island states and other vulnerable communities.

“Success for this conference will be action,” said Benin-born singer Kidjo, who participated in a high-profile symposium titled Earth to Paris that gathered diverse global coalitions.

“Talk is cheap,” she added. “When I go back to my continent, I see how the farmers are struggling. I see the effects of climate change. People aren’t able to produce or eat what they used to.”

Kidjo told SWAN that for her, art and activism are linked. “Before you’re an artist, you’re a human being, and what happens around you affects your art,” she said. “For me to speak about climate change and the rights of children and women is a natural thing.”

Actor Alec Baldwin (left) with Maya activist Christine Coc
and United Nations rep Aaron Sherinian (photo: McKenzie)
She said that art and activism “nourish and enrich each other”.

American actor Alec Baldwin also spoke at Earth to Paris, alongside indigenous activist Christine Coc of Belize, who described the struggles of the Maya people to get recognition for their culture, traditions, lands and ecological achievements.

“Earth is our mother, and you don’t destroy your mother, you don’t sell your mother,” said Coc, who received the Equator Prize in Paris -  an award to recognize those who work to advance innovative solutions for people, nature and resilient communities.

“No amount of money in this world can give us back clean water when it's poisoned. No amount of money in this world can give us back clean air when we need to breathe and live," Coc said. "Our struggle is for our children, for the future generation."

Baldwin, joking that he would campaign for Coc as president, said it was important for artists to learn about global issues and to use their art to help educate and inform others. "I want the awareness to spread," he said.

Actor Robert Redford at UNESCO (photo: McKenzie)
Earlier, legendary American actor Robert Redford discussed his environmental activism at a separate, public event, held at the Paris headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

In an onstage conversation with Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) which co-organized the event with UNESCO, Redford said that “effective storytelling can overcome cynicism” and help to change minds.

He joined indigenous peoples’ representatives Mundiya Kepenga of Papua New Guinea, Mina Setra of Indonesia, and poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner of the Marshall Islands to send a message that the rights of these groups should be taken into account when governments agree on the binding document to combat climate change and limit global warming.

Activists from indigenous groups and small island states
speak at UNESCO
“I’m not a politician,” Redford said. “I think I can classify myself as a storyteller. Telling stories and supporting other people to tell stories is the core of what I do. One of the reasons why I am in Paris is to draw attention to indigenous cultures and to their values; to say why we need to pay attention to them, why we need to recognize how vulnerable they are because of climate change. They are probably the most vulnerable of all. They need our help now and fast.”

Although Redford was supposed to be the star of the UNESCO event, traditional leader Kepenga stole the show, presenting his own “little film” - as he termed it - about the ravages of climate change and industry-led deforestation on his community.

Setra, a long-time campaigner, meanwhile gave an emotional account of how monoculture plantations have affected the lives of indigenous people, and Jetnil-Kijiner performed poetry that highlighted the stakes of a half-degree rise in global temperatures.

Small island states, at risk of rising sea levels, would particularly like to see an agreement to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius, in contrast to the previous goal of keeping such temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius.

Actor and activist Adrian Greier (photo: McKenzie)
On the waste front, actor and filmmaker Adrian Grenier issued a call for individuals to reduce their waste and to help protect the oceans. “I would like to see name tags on the waste that people generate, so that when you see all those plastic bottles popping up in the ocean it would have the names of the people responsible,” Grenier said at Earth to Paris.

Shortly before arriving in the French city, the actor launched his Lonely Whale Foundation, to promote education and awareness about issues affecting marine life and the “health” of the world’s oceans. Grenier said the creation of the foundation was inspired by the story of the 52 Hertz Whale, a mammal that has spent its whole life alone. 

One of the high points of the various COP side events, including Earth to Paris, was hearing Kidjo sing. At the request of UNICEF’s Executive Director Tony Lake, Kidjo - a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador - performed a short a cappella song, to the delight of participants in the Earth to Paris conference.

“Music is a way of speaking up,” she told SWAN afterwards. “Music is a weapon of peace.” – A.M.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

ARTIST USES EIFFEL TOWER TO SEND CLIMATE MESSAGE


On the eve of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in Paris, the city's iconic Eiffel Tower was used to transmit an urgent message calling for climate solutions.

The installation, created by the Paris-based Belgian-Tunisian artist Naziha Mestaoui, uses 3D mapping techniques projected onto the tower. It “celebrates the power of natural energy sources and potential for a global shift to 100% renewable energy”, says project partner Here Now - a “movement lab” working to heighten public mobilization on climate, clean energy and sustainable solutions.

The launch of the artwork coincided with climate marches around the world, as environmental campaigners called for forest protection and a 100% renewable energy future.

Although marches in France were banned because of security concerns following the Nov. 13 attacks in the city that killed 130 people, some activists still took to the streets, and clashes between demonstrators and the police occurred in the French capital.

But artists have been urging peace alongside calls for climate justice. Mestaoui incorporated messages of unity and the hashtag #NousSommesUnis (We Are United) in her work. The aim is to engage citizens to help drive an ambitious global deal on climate change, as world leaders gather for the conference.

Artists are increasingly among those at the forefront of the movement pushing for an international accord that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep global warming below 2°C.

“The arts can make us act”, says Saint Lucian poet Kendel Hippolyte, one of the leading campaigners in the Caribbean. “We need action in response to the threats, the realities of climate change.”

Scientists say that global warming of more than 2°C could have serious consequences for the planet, such as an increase in the number of extreme climate events including typhoons and floods.

Mestaoui's installation “1 Heart 1 Tree” will run until Dec 4, during the first week of the climate talks. Her work merges space, imagery and technological advances to create innovative immersive and sensory experiences, according to Here Now.

The lights reflect a “virtual forest” and viewers around the world are being asked to plant a virtual tree, which will be transformed into a real tree in one of seven reforestation programs.

“1 Heart 1 Tree” ambassadors include Academy Award-winning actress Marion Cotillard, and French environmentalist Nicolas Hulot. 

Friday, 23 October 2015

REVIEW: 'SAND DOLLARS' SHOWS POISONED PARADISE

By Dimitri Keramitas

Sand Dollars, directed by Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, is an assured, lushly filmed story set in the Dominican Republic, and one can see why it won the Best Fiction Feature prize at the recent 2015 trinidad+tobago film festival, an annual event in the Caribbean.

Noeli and Anne - actors Mojica and Chaplin
But despite the cinematography, this is a story of inequality and sexual exploitation, even if the setting seems unspoiled.

The movie, loosely based on a book by French author Jean-Noël Pancrazi, portrays the taut relationship between a Western, cosmopolitan grandmother (one of those upper-class seniors who remain svelte and well-coiffed) and a young local woman who’s sensual, though still rather coltish.

The exploitation may seem mutual and consenting - the girl, Noeli (Yanet Mojica) can be manipulative, while the older woman Anne (Geraldine Chaplin) appears vulnerable and well meaning. But the power relationship framing the couple is one-sided: Anne is a wealthy French citizen who can afford a plush Caribbean vacation house and domestic, while Noeli’s one prized possession is a motor scooter. Her dream is to move to France, with the aid of her lover. 

Noeli and boyfriend Yeremi.
The movie spells things out even further: it opens with a scene in which Noeli parts from another Westerner, once more a gentle senior, but this time a man. He leaves her money, but also a necklace as a sentimental gift. The necklace promptly finds its way into a pawnshop. The directors also provide glimpses of her life with Yeremi (Ricardo Ariel Toribio), her young boyfriend. At first he seems to be little more than a pimp, but it turns out that Yeremi is an aspiring percussionist.

Despite what might seem like a stark situation, the movie is something of a pastoral. The Dominican setting doesn’t seem poverty-mired, but a tropical paradise by the sea. Even the poverty we do glimpse seems mellow, like exotic fruit (just as the Spanish spoken by the locals sounds oddly Brazilian with its languid phonemes).

Inequality summed up in a greathouse.
The classic pastoral typically featured innocent youths and animals such as sheep and goats. Here, adults including Anne are portrayed as childlike. (Geraldine Chaplin still does that funny eye thing - a half-yearning, half-empathetic gaze - that she’s been doing since Dr. Zhivago a half-century ago). There’s even a lovely shot of a pair of horses on the idyllic grounds of a beach house.

This dreamy, soft-focus approach is effective for showing the seductive nature of the local environment. Cárdenas and Guzmán film nature beautifully and imaginatively. But the theme is defanged in the process. We get the idea of sexual exploitation but there’s no actual sex to drive home what is at stake.

Geraldine Chaplin is an excellent actress who gives a knock-out performance, but we don’t really believe her as a lesbian. She seems to have more of a mentor relationship with Noeli. The directors shoot Chaplin’s body in a way that brings out her age, wrinkles and all, but is it plausible that such a worldly woman would never have recourse to make-up? It’s ultimately an affectation. It may be that Anne is a cunning manipulator, but this remains vague, like so much in the movie

Noeli and her prized possession - a scooter.
We never see Noeli making love with Yeremi, either. While Mojica and Toribio give marvellous natural performances in their first acting roles, both seem pre-sexual (except in the scenes where Noeli is dancing - but she’s most erotic when dancing alone). There’s no real electricity between them. When Noeli finds out that she’s pregnant we almost take it as a virgin birth. Even her boyfriend is surprised.

At least the pregnancy serves as a catalyst to upset the casual triangular romance that’s been playing out. Noeli decides that she will have the baby, and she gets serious about going to Europe, while her boyfriend wants to keep her at home. Anne, after temporarily rejecting Noeli when she sees her cavorting in a dance club, does all she can to help her. But though there’s talk about continuing their relationship in France, Anne seems more motherly and mentor-like than ever.

The movie poster, in French.
What’s particularly strange in the story of Noeli and Anne is that they’re supposed to have been together for three years. In the case of Noeli this would mean that at the beginning she was very young, with Anne’s attentions bordering on paedophilia. But again, we don’t have a sense of Anne as a genuinely sexual being. And we aren’t given any information about how the relationship has evolved, an inkling, perhaps, that all passion has been spent.

The story of this triangular relationship is interrupted by the arrival of an old friend of Anne’s, a man who brings along a young woman. They are both vaguely Eurotrash. The man seems to be American but speaks with finishing school intonations. The young woman speaks (and sings in one sequence) with just enough of an accent to be off (like Geraldine Chaplin trying to speak American), but not enough to identify her with a real place. From some of the talk, we get the idea of a seedy set that systematically exploits locals for sex (the word-play of the title has already given us the idea), but this is muffled with the usual vagueness.

A work that uses the pastoral form, but within the real world, should at least bring input from that real world, through exposition, description, flashback. Anne has had issues with her 42-year-old son, which has made them estranged. But we get no more than a teasing hint. It may be true that both exploiters and exploited use indirection as an emotional survival tool, or even a weapon. But we expect more from the filmmakers. The directors may think they’re being ambiguous and oblique, but in the end all that vagueness makes the film itself a kind of a tease.

Pancrazi and Chaplin in Paris. Photo: Espagnolas en Paris.
In explaining their aim, the directors have in fact said that they wanted to “depict a world full of contradictions: pay to have company, pay too for the happiness of those who accompany one … and feel the powerlessness that comes with always being a foreigner”. They refer to the story as one of “impossible love”.

Sand Dollars (Dólares de Arena / Les Dollars des Sables) doesn’t really begin or end, however. Like a pastoral, it just starts and stops. The directors frame the film with footage of an elderly singer named Ramon Cordero crooning about his mournful but passionate love. We feel the passion in his voice, and see the results on his face and in his eyes. It’s not pastoral fantasy but life, and this alone is worth the price of admission.

Photos are by courtesy of the filmmakers, unless otherwise indicated. Production: Canana Films/Rei Cine/Foprocine/Conaculta. Distribution: Tucuman Films. Pancrazi’s book (published by Gallimard) has been re-issued in French with a picture from the film on the front cover. 

Friday, 16 October 2015

A POSTHUMOUS CARIBBEAN NOVEL, AND TWO DIAPORAS

By Kathleen Gyssels

In 2006, the death of the French-Jewish author André Schwarz-Bart (born in 1928 in Metz) went by virtually unnoticed in the French media, which were much more preoccupied with the Goncourt Prize awarded to Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes that year.

One of the reasons for this lack of coverage was the author’s retreat to the island of Guadeloupe, where he spent most of the year, alternating his time between his Parisian apartment and the plantation house in Goyave owned by his wife, Simone Schwarz-Bart.

The cover of the new book. 
The absence of obituaries for André Schwarz-Bart, who had been the 1959 Goncourt winner for a masterpiece on the Holocaust titled The Last of the Just, contrasted sharply with the enormous presence of Littell's Les Bienveillantes, whose content was strikingly similar to that of Schwarz-Bart’s book.

In 2015, readers who had long waited for a sequel to The Last of the Just, or another volume of the author’s works set in the French Antilles, received a happy surprise with L’Ancêtre en Solitude, a novel that has now gone on to win prizes in both the Caribbean and France.

This new historical work about three generations of Guadeloupean women is introduced by Simone who is listed as co-author. But this is ultimately a collaborative project started after André’s death, and Simone expresses gratitude to a couple of people who helped and encouraged her to get the files left by her late husband in order.

The novel begins with a historical portrait, and we recognize the distinct “plume” of André Schwarz-Bart. The protagonist is Louise, nicknamed Solite, whose dreadful experiences are related in third-person narrative, in a way that reminds us of the stream of consciousness that shaped La Mulâtresse Solitude (A Woman Named Solitude) with a fascinating power and kept the reader hooked until the tragic ending.

In many ways, Louise/Solite resembles Solitude, the protagonist of the 1972 novel which André described as his first “Caribbean novel”. Of this book, which almost was adapted into a movie by novelist Lisa de St Auban de Teran, critic Alan Friedman said: “Reading is believing. ["A Woman Named Solitude"] must be read to be believed. Surely it shouldn't be possible to tell the tortures of slavery in the manner of a fairy tale and still convey the extent of the atrocity.”

Simone Schwarz-Bart (© Hermance Triay)
L’Ancêtre en Solitude takes off where Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes (A Dish of Pork with Green Bananas / 1967, co-authored by husband and wife) ended: Mariotte is an elderly Martinican woman dying in Paris in the late Fifties. She appears to be the granddaughter of the unhappy and miserable Solitude of the earlier novel.

André Schwarz-Bart had planned a huge family chronicle that would span centuries of Guadeloupean, Caribbean, and even world history, as Mariotte is a world traveler. Africa and Latin America are some of the places mentioned in her diary full of blanks and abruptly finished with what the reader can only presume is Mariotte’s sudden death on a frozen square somewhere in Paris.

What is even more intriguing is the friendship between the only Black female character imprisoned in this “Trou” (Hole) and a certain Louise Duployé who gets hysterical each time some of the other characters make jokes about the Jews and their treatment during World War II. This leads us to believe that Louise might be Jewish herself, and we see the authors’ intertwining of both tragedies: French colonialism, with the slave trade and the terrible harrowing experiences on the plantations, and the deportation and extermination of Jews in the concentration camps.

While the co-authors clearly made a statement by dedicating their 1967 novel to Elie Wiesel and Aimé Césaire, two of the most emblematic figures for both oppressed communities, the narrative itself in the books remains implicit.

One single element, however, clearly links this so-called Martinican novel to the Holocaust and the cycle of novels: in her wanderings Mariotte seems to recognize in the streets of the Latin Quarter a certain Moritz Levy, and those who’ve read The Last of the Just will remember him as the elder brother of Ernie, the character who seemed to have survived the Shoah.

The Schwarz-Barts as a young couple. (© D.R.)
Readers of the new novel, however, may find that this half-posthumous work does not always possess the coherence, poetic style, and historic density of both The Last of the Just and La Mulâtresse Solitude. So one could ask this question: why does Simone Schwarz-Bart continue to publish the material found in her husband’s library?

Simone clearly considers this project as the fulfillment of André’s secret desire. The intention of bringing to the public unpublished work is explained in several recent, yet short, interviews Simone has given. In these conversations, it is striking that the Guadeloupian novelist does not mention any of her own novels - the classic Bridge of Beyond and the epic Ti Jean L’Horizon  / Between Two Worlds, or her beautiful play Ton beau capitaine / Your Handsome Captain. It seems as if Simone deliberately situates herself as the author of a couple who takes satisfaction in completing the other’s work. One would hope that she has not given up her own imaginative and creative output.

But to come back to her late husband: by bridging the Caribbean “plantation universe” and the Jewish concentration camps, André Schwarz-Bart was first and foremost a pioneer. Today, authors such as the Algerian Boualem Sansal, the Canadian Nancy Huston, the American Toni Morrison, and so many others, can deal with the “dangerous parallels” between Shoah and slavery, between (French) colonialism in Algeria, apartheid and segregation in the States, and the Holocaust.

Simone receiving a literary prize in Guadeloupe, 2015.
But perennially excluded from the canon of Shoah-literature, at least in French criticism, André Schwarz-Bart would similarly be excluded from another literary canon, i.e. that of the Caribbean, and this in spite of his French-Caribbean novels La Mulâtresse Solitude and the co-authored Un plat de porc aux bananes vertes.


As a matter of fact, Simone’s own successful first novel Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle / A Bridge of Beyond is modeled on her husband’s prize-winning début. In her following novel, Ti Jean L’Horizon, echoes run so deep that one can think of a co-authorship once more.

André thus associated his wife to a large “opus” in which the “Black Atlantic” and the persecution and pogroms of Jews in the larger Europe are interwoven. For him, as he explained to the Parisian journalist Robert Kanters, the Africans deported to the New World were the Jews’, expelled from Egypt under Pharaoh, and so brethren.

Referring to reviews of the latest work, writer Paul West has this to say: "French reviewers (a predictable lot) haven't failed to point out how this new novel renews Schwarz-Bart's commitment to the walking wounded of history, to martyrs and victims, and how it supplies an overt analogy between the tragedy of deported slaves and that of persecuted Jews. All true; but the book's appeal (and major virtue) isn't historical, ideological, or even moral, but psychological."

The prize-winning debut.
West continues, "From Gabriel García Márquez we not so long ago had One Hundred Years of Solitude, and now we have 179 pages of what sounds like the same. I wish there had been more: as much of this one as of the other. Schwarz-Bart is the severer writer of the two, but his exoticism is just as compelling as that of [García] Márquez…"

This is an unbelievable comment since the Colombian Nobel Prize winner had in fact been inspired by The Last of the Just. His One Hundred Years of Solitude actually has an identical long sentence describing the massacre of poor banana-workers enslaved by the Yankees, and Garcia Marquez’s “magical realism” is very much indebted to André’s first Goncourt Prize-winning novel.

But while the Latin-American literary giant never mentioned this particular model, the intertextual play proves that instead of having Schwarz-Bart compared to Garcia Marquez, it is the reverse perspective one should adopt. This and many other examples, notably in the author’s French Caribbean fiction, could be given. It any case, the Schwarz-Barts have always remained discreet and have considered their texts as “shared knowledge” of the “lived experience of the Black” (to quote Frantz Fanon) as well as of the expelled Jew, both in the past and in modern times. 

L’Ancêtre en Solitude contradicts some of the previous conclusions in textbooks. While the earlier co-authorship resulted in more fame for Simone, as several critics have noticed, the new posthumous sequel might, despite some weaknesses, reverse the situation and put the emphasis back on André.

Prof. Dr. Kathleen Gyssels is a scholar at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, and the author of several books and articles on Black and Jewish Diasporas.

Edited / Copyright SWAN

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

WHAT HAPPENED TO CULTURE IN DEVELOPMENT GOALS?

The United Nations’ member states this month adopted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as the world tries to build on the successes – and surmount the failures – of the previous eight Millennium Development Goals, which should have been achieved by 2015.

Culture is just a shadow in SDGs.
The new global objectives still focus on eradicating poverty and hunger, achieving gender equality, and providing good healthcare and universal education. But they now include access to affordable, clean energy, and place much greater emphasis on protecting the environment.

A glaring oversight, however, is culture – mentioned just a few times in the 169 subordinate aims or targets. This is a lapse that many in the cultural sector see as unfortunate, especially when one considers the destruction of cultural heritage taking place in some parts of the world. It seems that the voices appealing for recognition of culture’s role got lost in the UN babel.

At a high-profile meeting last year for instance, Irina Bokova, the director-general of the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO, joined policy makers from different countries in calling for culture to be integrated into the Post-2015 development agenda.

Irina Bokova, UNESCO's DG.
During this special thematic debate on culture and sustainable development held May 5, 2014, in New York, speakers used data and national examples to emphasize that culture “drives and enables the social, environmental and economic pillars of sustainable development”.

Participants also recognized that culture is “the thread that binds together the social fabric of our societies”, as Acting President of the UN General Assembly Khaled Khiari put it at the time. Bokova warned, too, of the dangers of repeating the “mistakes” of 2000, when culture was omitted from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Last October as well, UNESCO hosted its third Forum on Culture and Cultural Industries, in Florence, Italy, where representatives from a range of countries discussed the contributions that culture can make to a “sustainable future” through stimulating employment, economic growth and innovation. (For the full article on this conference, please see: http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/10/sustaining-the-future-through-culture/)

All this seems to have borne little fruit, however, as culture is mentioned in the SDGs only as a subtext to education, tourism and making cities sustainable.

Is tourism the main reason for promoting culture?
In Goal 4 – to ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning – the objective is that by 2030, all learners will have acquired the “knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including … appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development”.

Apart from this, there’s Goal 8 – to promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all – in which the member states aim to “devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.

A similar idea is repeated in Goal 12 – to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns. Here, states undertake to “develop and implement tools to monitor sustainable development impacts for sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.
Seventeen goals and little space for culture.

Such wording, of course, raises the question: do governments see the promotion of culture only as a way to boost tourism?  Is tourism necessary for promoting culture? The sad answer to both appears to be “yes”, and the SDGs aren’t helping to change this mindset.

The only really clear aim for culture comes in Goal 11: to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Among the 10 targets here is to "strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world's cultural and natural heritage". One wonders if the protection of culture could not have been a goal itself.

In an interview, a UNESCO official said that while some people may be disappointed that the language is not detailed enough, the new development agenda does reflect the role of culture throughout.

"This is a substantial step forward from the MDGs, when there was no mention of culture," she said, while acknowledging that greater action could still have been taken. - A.M.

Monday, 21 September 2015

GRIPPING BIOPIC OF WRITER MANTO DISTURBS VIEWERS

By Zofeen T. Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan - Though much-rejected and scorned during his lifetime, the great South Asian short-story writer and iconoclast Saadat Hasan Manto is making inroads into the hearts and minds of a new generation of Pakistanis, thanks to a biopic by filmmaker-director Sarmad Sultan Khoosat.

Sarmad Khoosat talking about his film. (Photo: Z.T. Ebrahim)
Written by the playwright Shahid Nadeem, and with Khoosat playing the protagonist, the film “Manto” comes 60 years after the Urdu-speaking author's death. It focuses on the last four years of his tormented life, as he drinks himself to oblivion.

But while the film has taken Pakistani cinema-goers by storm, it has also left them bruised and disturbed.

The movie shows Manto’s life juxtaposed with some seven to eight of his short stories and screen and radio plays, where his characters come and haunt him. The scenes are then interwoven with appearances by an alter-ego (who understands his inner torment and agony), played by the celebrated actor Nimra Bucha.

Many say it was not alcohol but the tragic events of the partition of the sub-continent that killed Manto. He was born in what is now present-day India, but he left, like millions of others, for Pakistan in 1948. 

The Manto poster: the rebel, the writer.
Some of his finest writings chronicle the partition period, and they touch a raw nerve even today as they force readers to re-live that era through the writer's words.

Manto put human suffering above everything else, beyond religion and patriotism, and he scathingly laid bare hypocrisy and pretense. This and other factors make the film disturbing.

"It's too intense and there is too much blood," said Ali, a young lawyer coming out of the theatre.

But this view is not the only one. After watching the film, television actor Saba Hameed said in an interview: "...it's the truth that really jolts you."

If this is so, half of Khoosat's job is done and even rewarded. On a recent promotional talk show, when someone in the audience got up to tell him the film had too many disturbing visuals, the director was in fact quite pleased: "I want the audience to be disturbed and if it was, it means the movie has worked," he said, adding as an afterthought: "Manto would have approved of the stress given!"

The film does not portray Manto as an iconic figure but instead humanises him - for the person he was with all his flaws and faults.

Samad Khoosat makes another point. (Photo: Z.T. Ebrahim)
He is shown as an arrogant individual, who knows he is a great writer, honest to the point of being hurtful, an alcoholic who, in his weakest of moments, buys himself a bottle rather than precious medicine for his seriously ill daughter. He is also shown as a family man in one scene, painting a wall with his daughters.

Manto is equally seen surrounded by showbiz types and celebrities but they don't interest him - the underdogs do: people like a horse-carriage driver, the men at a mental hospital where he was admitted, prostitutes, even pimps.

He is obsessed with writing and conveying the truth in all its severity. In fact, it seemed he could foresee that he had much work to do, much to show, but time was running out.

A book of essays by Manto.
He was just 43 when he died in 1955, leaving behind 22 collections of short stories, several radio plays, a novel, collections of essays and personal sketches, and many film scripts.

For Khoosat, whose love affair with Manto began at a young age, this "passion project" was like a "dream come true". It got better when he was asked to play the lead role. "Who'd want to miss this opportunity?" he asked.

Calling it an unbelievable, almost "cosmic" journey that he was destined to undertake, Khoosat said he worked on the film for three years and termed that time as "living with Manto". While it took him just three months to shoot the film, it took over two-and-a-half years on the editing table meticulously going through hours upon hours of footage which he said "wasn't easy". 

It took Pakistan's government 57 years to acknowledge Manto as a short story writer of the Urdu language when he was posthumously bestowed with a Nishan-e-Imtiaz (Distinguished Service to Pakistan award) on August 14, 2012, the year of his centenary. That same year the idea to make a film on him was born.

Now that the movie has been released, how does it feel for Khoosat to be sharing his creation with the public? "I want to share him without fear," the filmmaker said.

Samad Khoosat signs a movie goer's book. (Photo Z.T. Ebrahim)
Sania Saeed, who plays Manto's wife Safiah, interrupted saying that Khoosat was “slowly and dangerously becoming really Mantoesque", and she thought that this breaking away from the protagonist was much needed.

While Khoosat may have immortalised the legend, to Saeed the bigger victory is to be able to present the film to the public and see their acceptance of a non-conformist. "Today, people can identify him for the person he was - someone who thought ahead of time," she said.

Ironically, while India and Pakistan squabble over just about everything, for years neither India (where Manto spent most of his life) nor Pakistan (where he spent the last few years) deemed it necessary to own and claim  the sizeable literary treasure that he produced.

But today Manto lovers have found it in them to pay tribute to this giant of an Urdu writer in a befitting manner. The film is expected to be released internationally in the coming months, with screenings in the United States and other countries.

Zofeen T. Ebrahim is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

ARTISTS RELEASE 'LOVE SONG' FOR CLIMATE AGREEMENT

Several internationally renowned artists, including Jamaica’s Sean Paul and Benin’s Angelique Kidjo, have released a song urging world leaders to reach an effective global accord during the next United Nations climate conference taking place Nov. 30 - Dec. 11 in Paris.

Jamaican singer-rapper Sean Paul.
The track, titled “Love Song to the Earth”, is now available for download from iTunes and Apple Music.

The UN said that the artists, producers and directors of the song – as well as Apple – are donating their respective proceeds to environmental group Friends of the Earth US and to the UN Foundation.

With vocals too from Paul McCartney, Leona Lewis and Jon Bon Jovi, among others, the song “aims to reach new audiences with the message that the time to act on climate change is now”, the UN added.

Listeners are encouraged to share the song and to sign a petition that will be delivered to world leaders at the beginning of the climate summit.

The initiative is part of an international rallying of artists ahead of the conference (COP 21), where 195 states will try to reach a universal accord on reducing carbon emissions to curb global warming.

President Hollande (Photo: SWAN)
The French government also launched its own mobilization on Sept. 10, with filmmakers, musicians and others participating in a high-profile ceremony at the Élysée Palace, the official presidential residence.

With his top ministers in attendance, French President François Hollande emphasized his commitment to making COP 21 a success, but he also warned about the possibility of failure.

“There is no miracle … there is a chance we’ll succeed but also a great risk we might fail,” Hollande said.

To avoid failure, all sectors of the society have to get involved, including artists, the president added.

Spearheading some of France’s cultural happenings is a group called ArtCOP21, which plans to “stage city-wide events that address climate as a people’s challenge and work to create a cultural blueprint of positive and sustainable change”.

Pharrell Williams (Photo: courtesy of Live Earth)
The group’s director, Lauranne Germond, said that sometimes artists can connect with those that politicians can’t reach.

On Sept. 19, Paris was scheduled to host a huge public concert in front of the Eiffel Tower as part of “Live Earth: Road to Paris”  a movement co-founded by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, with singer Pharrell Williams as creative director.

The event would've come 30 years after Live Aid, when artists mobilized massively to raise funds for millions of people affected by famine in Africa.

But the show has reportedly been cancelled, although Live Earth’s organizers are still urging that "now is the time to deliver a single message to world leaders: Take Climate Action Now.” 

Watch "Love Song to the Earth": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSnOXbaXzfM