Telling Tales that Make You Sit Up & Listen

In this stirring video Sir David Attenborough tells us humans how we can save our planet from destruction. How we can provide a sustainable future. To do it, says Attenborough in the video, we need to ‘rewild’ our planet. Rewilding will help people move back into a harmonious balance with nature.

Attenborough outlines three other ‘simple’ ways to save our planet: phase out fossil fuels, produce food more efficiently, and correctly manage our oceans.

Attenborough’s video has helped raise the profile of a crisis that most of us simply ignore.the wolf wilder

In light of this heightened awareness I found it interesting that – shortly before I saw this video – I read a children’s book called The Wolf Wilder. Author, Katherine Rundell, bases this exotic adventure on the real concept of ‘rewilding’ wild animals who have formerly been tamed. In the story the wolf wilder is actually a feisty young girl called Feodora who lives in freezing Russia with her wolf-wilding mother and a pack of wolves. When Feo’s mother is kidnapped Feo chases after her with the wolves, making friends as she goes and starting a revolution. It’s an entrancing, almost bizarre story in which children – and wild wolves – are firmly the heroes. I highly recommend it.

Reading fiction – especially in the Wolf Wilder’s case – is an entertaining way of confronting very serious issues. Likewise, non-fiction told in narrative form can be an effective way of holding and at the same teaching an audience. The Radium Girls by Kate Moore is a case in point.

the radium girlsAs recently as 2011 a bronze statue was unveiled in Ottawa, Illinois to commemorate a group of women ‘dial painters’ known as the ‘radium girls’. Kate Moore tells in her book The Dial Painters the horrific story of young women who were employed in America during World War I to paint dials on watches and clocks used in the war effort. The paint these women used contained radium. The poisonous effects of the radium on the women were astounding. Bones became brittle, teeth loosened, jawbones cracked and fell out of the gums, cancers grew to huge proportions and blood markers changed. Many died excruciatingly painful deaths. And even in death the women’s skeletons glowed with radium.

What was even more astounding was their employers’ cover-up, denial and outright lies regarding the dangers of radium. It was the bravery of a handful of these women that finally resulted in proper workplace safety standards and government legislation regarding radium. The contribution to science – thanks to the girls’ suffering – has been invaluable.

All of this was told in an easy-reading style – as a story – as opposed to history. The characters were written by Moore as real, individual – and therefore relatable – people. I also highly recommend this book.

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The Least of These: A Story of Enduring Love

The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story is based on the true story of the murder of Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in 1999. The film is set in India and is directed by Aneesh Daniel. South African, Bruce Retief, was responsible for the stirring soundtrack.

Decades before his death Graham Staines and his wife Gladys started and ran a leprosy mission in India. They imbued the patients with dignity, defying conventional wisdom that treated lepers as outcasts. In the 1990s religious tensions rose, when, in Hindu areas, accusations of ‘illegal conversions’ were levelled at Christians.

The action in The Least of These starts at this point and centres on journalist Manav Banerjee (Sharman Joshi) who has a wife and a new baby. Banerjee is an ambitious writer with desperate living conditions and he tries to make it big by covering the sensationalist rumours of the aforementioned illegal Christian conversions. Urged on by his editor, Kedar Mishra (Prakash Belawardi), Banerjee searches for evidence linking Staines (Stephen Baldwin) to these accusations. Along the way Banerjee unwittingly speaks inflammatory words to a listening crowd, and influences a serious outcome.

Banerjee’s own journey in the story takes him from scepticism and suspicion, through regret, to realisation and putting things right. The journalist’s journey also acts as a vehicle for highlighting the role of the media in political and religious tensions.

Ultimately, though, The Least of These is a gently told story of relationships, of faithfulness, of genuine, selfless love, and of forgiveness.

Some of the acting in The Least of These is stilted – particularly from Stephen Baldwin and Shari Rigby (who plays Gladys Staines). The focus on a White ‘saviour-type’ missionary in an Indian environment is racially uncomfortable. But the setting in the suburbs of Odisha, India, is authentic and the storyline well-rounded. The Least of These is worthwhile viewing and is currently on at cinemas in South Africa countrywide.

Middlesex and the Subject of Intersex

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides is now one of my most memorable reads. I read this 2002 novel for the first time in 2015 and listened recently to the audio version. The latter was brilliantly narrated by Kristoffer Tabori. Tabori appears to know the text intimately and gives just the right inflection. Because of Tabori’s reading I realised just how funny Middlesex really is. One of the most amusing scenes comes right near the end when the main character’s father, Milton Stephanides, dies in a car crash while chasing another vehicle. Milton’s life stretches out before him in his last moments and, in some way, his thoughts act as a summary of the different strands the text of Middlesex explores.

These strands include the troubling subject of intersex conditions, cultural prejudices in Detroit USA, and the replacement of an older generation (and its viewpoint) by a younger one. The scene is also a fine example of the intriguing narrative technique used by Eugenides. Eugenides uses a combination of first person and third-person omniscient narrative viewpoint. This has the effect of casting Cal Stephanides, the ‘I’ in the book, as an omniscient narrator of his own life, from before conception to present day. So, in the scene when Cal’s father, Milton, meets his end, it appears as if Cal has entered his own father’s head. I loved this masterful narrative technique.

Of course, the opening scene of the book is one readers of Middlesex are also likely never to forget: ‘I was born twice: first, as a baby girl…. and then again, as a teenage boy…’ Readers immediately have an idea of the subject that is to follow. Eugenides employs this foreshadowing method throughout. It functions to draw the reader in, and in no way spoils the experience of this complex, highly thought-provoking novel.

It is thought-provoking in large part because of its treatment of the sensitive subject of intersex conditions. Middlesex attributes the abnormal development of intersex to incest. But then goes on to portray the main character (Cal Stephanides) as choosing to embrace the facets of his condition, rather than trying to change it.

One viewpoint that endorses embracing intersex conditions rather than trying to change them is the Christian ‘The Reformation Project’. The speakers in this Youtube video say that God created all variations of gender and should therefore be accepted as they are.

For a slightly different perspective a very thoughtful Christian talk from the Gospel Coalition on the subject can be listened to here. Andrew Wilson, the speaker, emphasises what a loving Christian response should be to intersex conditions and how to live with them.

 

 

Beautiful Ugly Women

It was really strange to see Nicole Kidman ‘dressed down’ in the film Destroyer. It reminded me of Charlize Theron in the 2003 Monster for which Theron won an Oscar. Kidman and Theron are both beautiful women who have to be made up to look ugly. (Most of us I think need to be made up to look beautiful!) There is the notion that playing gritty roles like those in Monster and Destroyer shows how serious these actresses are. That they be judged on the merit of their acting and not just the appeal of their faces. Much like Harry Potter author J K Rowling writing under the nom de plume Robert Galbraith, with the idea that she be praised for her writing rather than her former fame.

Kidman’s character in Destroyer wore manly clothes that hung on her thin frame. Her short, brown shaggy hair was annoying. And her skin was full of pigmentation. The only thing the make-up artists didn’t do was cover up Kidman’s bright blue eyes.

Kidman does a good job of portraying sad, desperate, hardened cop Erin Bell who has a past. Bell is by no means a one-dimensional character, something that comes to light as the woman’s history is slowly revealed in the movie through flashbacks. There is a good twist right at the end that makes the plot believable. Despite her hard exterior Bell is actually motivated by love – both romantic and filial. Unfortunately, this incentive, undermines the plausibility of the story.

Destroyer is currently showing at cinemas in South Africa.

Captain Marvel Makes a Human (Not a Feminist) Statement

Captain Marvel is a superhero also known as Carol Danvers. Before she became Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers was a fighter pilot. A human with quirks, vulnerabilities and friendships. As a superhero Captain Marvel has a streaming light source that courses through her body and makes her a powerful fighter. In Captain Marvel the film, Captain Marvel learns to understand and appreciate these two parts of herself.

Marvel is a woman, and her former sidekick and boss were also women. Marvel has little problem beating up men and male aliens. This setting and characterisation is a great platform for a feminist statement. And yet Captain Marvel is not that. The film makes more of a comment about ordinary people who become heroes. It’s just that the main character in this story happens to be a woman.

I liked that. It’s not a film about women proving who they are. Or about women being better than men. Or women being just as good as men in male-dominated roles. It’s as if Captain Marvel has leapfrogged over aggressive feminist debates to a future world where women, and men, are just humans (or in this case superheroes).

There are problems with the film. From the jarring over-the-top, future-world, Star-Trek like sequences in the beginning it’s a relief when Marvel, followed by warring Skrulls and Krees, arrives on Earth (planet C53). And yet this change in scenery is also a plot weakness. It’s as if the superhero stuff in the beginning couldn’t be believably sustained and so the story switches to something audiences can easily identify with.

But plenty of lighthearted humour in the explosive outer-world scenes and in the down-to-earth ones, do make Captain Marvel fun to watch. Marvel (Brie Larson) herself is quite funny, and Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), a cop that Marvel teams up with, is very amusing. As is a sweet ginger cat who is not quite as he would seem, and who travels into space with Marvel and her cohorts.

I enjoyed Captain Marvel. The film opens at cinemas in South Africa on 8 March 2019.

Oscars 2019: Focusing on those in ‘Second’ Place

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody

The 2019 Oscars have come and gone. Number ones for best picture, best actor and actress, best animation feature and so on will be remembered. They are, respectively, Green Book, Rami Malek, Olivia Colman, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (see my review here). But what of those who came ‘second’? Are they just as memorable, if not more so?

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz in The Favourite

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice

Two of the films nominated for best picture for this year’s awards were Vice and The Favourite. Neither of them won Best Picture. Interestingly, though, both films were about the people behind the main political leaders of the time, those in second place. In Vice, the story concerns Dick Cheney who became Vice President of the USA in the G W Bush era. In The Favourite, the main focus is on the two women in 18th Century England who get closest to Queen Anne. The women are Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham.

Not only do the films focus on these ‘vice-leaders’, they also show how exceptionally powerful the vices were. Political machinations go on behind the scenes that make George W Bush and Queen Anne, respectively, look like weak, easily manipulated puppets. The films were an excellent depiction of how leaders of countries/institutions can be merely figureheads, with the real power devolving from influential people who work cunningly to get their own objectives met.

Other similarities between the movies were how they were filmed. Vice breaks the fourth wall constantly with a quirky narrator whose identity is revealed in shocking fashion three quarters of the way through. There is also an amusing section when credits begin to roll as if the film had ended, when in fact it hadn’t. The Favourite uses wide-angle lens shots, gloomy lighting, and lurid details often hidden from the camera to depict reality and confront the viewer.

Olivia Colman – who played Queen Anne in The Favourite – won 2019 Best Actress (read about her acceptance speech). She was excellent as the ill, dithering, batty, very sad Queen Anne. In addition to her performance it’s the stories of the aspirations of those in ‘second place’ that make The Favourite and Vice riveting viewing.

 

What do We Communicate to our Children?

I read two books this month aimed at vastly different audiences. One was The Secret Garden, a children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett published in 1911. The other was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, a book for adults written by Gail Honeyman and published in 2017.

Despite being written in different centuries and for different audiences there was one particular theme that ran through both of them. This was: neglectful parents and the effect that neglect can have on what children believe about themselves.

The main characters in The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox and Colin Craven, both have distant parents. Mary’s mother is a socialite who is too busy to bother with her daughter. When Mary’s parents both die, their absence makes little sentimental difference to the already lonely, emotionally stunted girl. Her cousin, Colin, is actually physically stunted because of his father’s neglect. After Colin’s mother dies Mr Craven withdraws from his son. Craven firmly believes that Colin will become a hunchback like himself and die young. Despite having nothing biologically wrong with him Colin appropriates his father’s beliefs and subsequently lives the miserable life of an invalid.

In Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, main character Eleanor is likewise disregarded by a delinquent, powerful mother. Eleanor’s mother is in fact cruel and abusive, the full extent of which is gradually revealed as the book progresses. And into adulthood it is ‘Mummy’s’ voice in her own head that Eleanor simply can’t shake. A voice that constantly tells Eleanor she’s a bad, insipid, useless individual who will never amount to anything. Like Mary and Colin, Eleanor takes on board her parent’s beliefs about herself. And she becomes a friendless, tactless, emotionally immature person.

Happily, there is a positive resolution for all three characters. In each case it is the ministrations of friendship that launches a change. Much else could be said of both books and their tropes and themes. But having read them alongside each other this theme of parental influence on self-belief (or unbelief) is what stood out for me. The books are a sobering example of how parental treatment of, and communication with, our children can have such a powerful and material influence on who they become.

By Brenda Daniels