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.

War Films Make You Think

I started and ended my DIFF 2017 viewing with two war documentaries/films.

The first one was Troupes of War – Diturupa. This documentary features the journey of South African journalist Lucas Ledwaba as he examines the experience of black South African soldiers in World War I. A fascinating aspect to the tale is that of the modern-day ‘Diturupa’ festival in which villagers in Makapanstad dress up in Scottish and military regalia. How incongruous it is to see these villagers participating in a seemingly European custom. This peculiarity is further emphasised by an observation in the film that black South Africans participated in WWI to ostensibly free the world of tyrants, only to return to their homeland and not participate in those benefits.

The second war film I saw was Viceroy’s House which was directed by Gurinder Chadha. The movie tells the story of how Lord Mountbatten of England oversaw the independence of India from Great Britain in 1947. Mountbatten was the ‘last viceroy’ in India and his ‘plan’ involved splitting India into India and Pakistan. The split was prefaced and followed by enormous violence and led to a massive migration of people. The film opens with the subtitle ‘history is written by the victors’. Viceroy’s House is an attempt, I think, to tell the real story behind the independence and split and rewrite that history. An absurdity in this film was seeing the servants in Viceroy’s House splitting the contents of the house between ‘India’ and ‘Pakistan’.

Both films challenged my thinking but both had serious flaws. Troupes of War – Diturupa had all the elements of an interesting story but failed to make the connections for the viewer clearly enough. Viceroy’s House, according to The Guardian, http://bit.ly/2nDq8BV, ‘is unlikely to do very well at the box office’ because of the liberties it takes with the facts. ‘Even so,’ the article goes on to say, ‘it will attract a far larger audience than any book on partition, and for many people it will be their only understanding of the subject. As with “fake news”, so with “fake history”. Detecting it needs curiosity – critical rather than passive consumption – otherwise it never gets found out.’

I don’t know. Go and see Viceroy’s House and see what you think. It opens at cinemas in South Africa on 27 July 2017.