Monday, January 30, 2006

New Addition! This American Life Link

One more thing before I go to bed! (I'm retiring early so I can get up and run tomorrow morning. The surgeon said Friday that I'd recovered enough from the hernia surgery to get the green light on "full activity", and I can't wait to be active again. Hey, will it jeopardize my rapport with Dharamsala and McLeod Ganj's residents if I run in the mornings there?)

Notice the link to the left that will take you to This American Life's website. Take a listen - it's entertaining, very smart, and very free! All you need is a RealPlayer. Enjoy!

Another Day Another Update

Winners at the
Sundance Film Festival were announced yesterday, and from what I'd heard I wasn't too surprised by the Grand Jury: Documentary prize. God Grew Tired of Us was by all accounts a really nice piece, and one I can't wait to see. With classes and three jobs, I was just too busy to make it up to Park City very much at all, though I did make it to pre-festival screenings of Good Night, And Good Luck. and angry monk - reflections on tibet, as well as a Thursday-afternoon screening of Christian Frei's The Giant Buddhas. (Here is a link to the film's official website.) Another of Frei's documentaries, War Photographer, was nominated a while back for the Best Documentary Oscar, and it's well worth your time.

I'm currently doing preliminary research for the field study and trying to get through the more logistical details so I can dedicate my thought to research. Talking to some of the folks in charge, I expressed my concern that two-and-a-half months might be pushing it quite a bit if I'm doing research and trying to put together a film of any feeling or meaning. Other groups going to places like Ghana or Guatemala, from what I've gathered, stay for as much as a month and a half longer than we would because we take a world religions tour of India, whereas they stay more in their immediate villages or areas.

I told the student facilitators what I thought about my situation, and they came across much more open to my ideas than I thought they might. Dave, the director (and an awfully nice guy!), was however not there, and the folks I did talk to urged me to speak with him. They insisted that he has a real knack for "crystalizing" the factors in weighing two options, and that he can help me see what I really need. It kind of sounded like they thought Dave would be able to change my mind and were passing me off to him, but I like these kids so much that I just can't believe that's what they were doing. So we'll see.

Finally, I've started in with a little bit of Hindi, and I found out that one of the student facilitators actually has the exact Tibetan-language materials I was hoping to buy on line. (I'll probably still get them for myself, but it's nice to know I'm getting something that someone else has found useful.) What's more, we're all getting excited about plugging in to the Tibetan population in Salt Lake City, where there is either one or two Tibetan restaurants currently in business. I can't wait to get up there and meet them. We'll probably go as a group, me and the other kids going to Dharamsala; tomorrow night we're getting together to play some games and get to know each other better. I have a good feeling, like we're really going to feel like a community by the time this whole thing's over with.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

25 General Questions - India & Dharamsala

The Student Facilitator who's working with my field study group asked us a few days ago to put together a quick list of 25 questions we have about our time in India, and to turn them in tomorrow. Here are mine. Please, if you've got some feedback or any answers, send me an email.

1 - How hard can Tibetan be? (ha ha)

2 – How in the world do I manage to build a relationship with a family that permits my filming them?

3 – If I do focus on a parental-filial relationship, how would Tibetans and other local residents take it if I have women as my subjects? Would any kind of taboo prevent me from creating the friend relationships with women that I would need to be able to film them comfortably?

4 – I’m hoping to find a family that has some recognition in the community, but I don’t necessarily mean money or power. Maybe musicians, artists, or anything else that might be common between generations of men or women. Is the Tibetan community one in which that kind of “recognition phenomenon” exists?

5 – I found a place in Delhi where I can get language materials cheap – like a $20 book here is around $6 there. But there’s no online checkout option, and I’m not sure how to place an order and get them the money the way an Indian would expect it. I’m also not sure about shipping costs and delays in arrival. Should I just order it stateside?

6 – How open are monasteries to those who are genuinely interested?

7 – How do we hold Church sacrament meetings there?

8 – How much will an Internet cafĂ© cost me when I need it?

9 – What shots will I need to take before leaving?

10 – (One of my really burning questions) I’ve been reading Born in Lhasa, and I can’t help but wonder about the similarities and differences between the actual homes I’ll see in Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj and those in Lhasa I’m reading about. I guess that’s not a question.

11 – What’s the significance of butter? Butter tea, butter sculptures, butter lamps… are these just arts and technologies because of the available livestock in Tibet? Even if they are due to local resources, do they hold any cultural and/or religious significance?

12 – How are prayer flags a part of (Tibetan) Buddhism? What about the several colors - does each carry a meaning, or are they all equal?

13 – Born in Lhasa’s author talks a lot about female deities. Is Buddhism polytheistic, and if so to what point is it?

14 – For that matter, was Buddha a prophet, a messenger, a deity, or something else? I hate to sound ignorant, but in this case I am.

15 – What is Buddhist scripture? Is there one sacred book, are there many, is there a canon?

16 – Where does Buddhist scripture come from?

17 – What is a Lama?

18 – How does reincarnation fit into Buddhist theology?

19 – How much difference is there between sects of Buddhism? Does “Tibetan Buddhism” have a more official name?

20 – Where do the several sects of Buddhism come from?

21 – Why do Buddhist monks wear the same burgundy robes?

22 – What purpose does circumambulation serve?

23 – How much ritual is there to prostrations? Are there certain times for them like in Muslim prayers? Is there a certain way to do prostrations?

24 – What are the houses in Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj constructed of? (Pictures on blogs seem to indicate cement, much like the construction I’m used to from my mission to northern Brazil, but it’s COLD up there in the winter, so I don’t know!)

25 – What kinds of things do they eat in the region?

I imagine all of these have answers I can find myself, but that's really okay. Getting them into vision, actually seeing the words, that gives me all the more reason and motivation to answer them.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Don't Forget to Contact Me

Hey all, I'll probably do this every once in a while. This is just a reminder to contact me at the address listed up top of this page or by following the link on the left. I'd love to hear from those that are reading - especially if you're interested in Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj, Tibet, or India. If you care to either hear what I have to say or tell me what I can expect, let me know. (Remember, I'm going for research and not tourism!)

Also, any ideas about what kind of camera to take? I originally considered an XL1, but a wise friend advised me that something smaller might be more flexible - and safer - for a project like this. GL1? (I'm limited on the budget side of things, so a new XL2 or GL2 is pretty much out of the picture.) Any other ideas?

Friday, January 20, 2006

Excitement about Research and Film Ideas!

Preparation for India and for the research there is going well. Between financial, mental, and academic preparations, this semester really
is focused on going to Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj, doing quality research, and putting together a quality film.

First a couple quick personal notes. Recovery from the surgery is going really splendidly, though a church tubing activity last night at Soldier Hollow (cross country skiing venue for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games) had me worried for a little while. I'm getting back into the swing of things and could be back to playing ultimate as soon as the 28th! I've been getting back into school mode as well, and that's required some effort to find balance. Long blog posts like the last one have intimidated me and probably kept me from coming back for the past two weeks. So we're going to take baby steps to keeping this thing updated regularly - small and consistent.

The most exciting development in my preparation for India is my research topic, germinating from a discussion with BYU's International Study Programs coordinator, Dave, and from some readings for my senior-level anthropology theories class. The conversation with Dave put a fire in my belly for thinking about the father- or grandfather-son cultural differences in Tibetans living in a community that's had plenty of Western focus and attention. All that attention likely means influence, and influence means change. Given the great malleability of youth relative to that of older individuals, there would likely be a number of differences between generations raised in "modernizing" India and those raised in traditionally reserved Tibet, and representing those differences - and the struggle to reconcile them - in one family might present some compelling and involving content.

Then readings for another course started me thinking about the concept of home - a topic I've been interested in all my life, but more in an emotional than academic way. Filming these men in their home setting might give me insights not just about a vague (and, quite frankly, obvious) "modernization" of culture, but more specifically about the nuances and semantics of the word "home" in Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj Tibetan populations. Moreover, I wonder about the same concept in North African populations in Paris, northeastern Brazilians in Sao Paulo, or New Orleans hurricane refugees in Chicago. Methodologies are obviously a challenge with this kind of research on the internal workings of culture, which of course I worry about. But I think presenting this as a film will make it accessible, and hopefully those watching will find something of themselves in my work.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Considerations of Visual Anthropology

I have some real concerns. Before I get to them, I should frame my thoughts in a couple recent experiences I've had.

I sent an email to my friend Ben at NYU yesterday with some questions about DVD authoring. But it had been a while since I'd talked to him at any length - my fault, really - so my simple technical question grew to a sizable update of my whole recent life. Though he's not in NYU's Culture and Media grad program, he hopes to work with one professor who is in fact the program's director and is taking several of the program's core courses. I informed Ben that, for better or for worse, I was planning on pursuing grad work in visual anthro, and that NYU was a pretty clear #1 on my list (though a couple other programs have caught my eye).

Ben's reply was affirming and still full of thoughtful reservation - both characteristics that I've come to appreciate (and should expect by now) in him. First, I guess I should (have) know(n), "visual anthropology" may be a dead or dying phrase. From an earlier communication with Ben I remember his telling me that anthropology itself is facing a sort of crossroads of identity. Also, some wind seems to be going out of "culture and media" (NYU's replacement label for "visual anthropology") programs' sails at institutions across the country. It wasn't clear, but I thought Ben was hinting that it was because some great people had been heading up these programs, people who have grown old and passed away. I'm not sure if it's really a question of the discipline's vigor or intrinsic worth. It may just be that its defenders and champions aren't being replaced by individuals of the same caliber. If that's so, I can understand how its strength might wane.

Also this week, I saw three films that have made an impact on my thinking. The first, which I saw with my friend Molly (music fan and film major) in Park City Thursday night was angry monk - reflections on india. The next night I went back to Park City with Molly and our buddy Rick. We failed to get locals-only Sundance ticket privileges, but we did see George Clooney's Good Night, And Good Luck. Then Saturday, after the date with my nurse, I came home and watched the first film on my new Netflix membership, Born Into Brothels (and please do take the time to follow that link).

The first, angry monk - reflections on tibet, promised to be everything I was looking to do with visual anthro - research on important aspects of cultures, presented in the form of motion picture. I appreciated the efforts to take a close look at an important figure in Tibetan history, and the filmmakers' efforts for creativity and quality of cinematography were not overlooked. However, I was distressed to find the Swiss director credited under nothing (that I found at the screening, at least) except direction. Research, interviews, writing, camerawork, and editing, from what I saw, were all done by others. I wondered if this was what anthropological filmmaking was. Was he even in Tibet and India? Or was he just being generous in crediting everyone else involved and not hogging the spotlight? This is, of course, probably a false dichotomy. In any case, if detached filmmaking is what he did on this project, it created a work containing significant content, the presentation of which was overarchingly flawed. The thesis and final purpose were unclear, the filmmaker's motive hazy, the messages taken away lacking any important affect. All in all, it was worth the drive and the free screening, but not much more.

I wondered if I would do better. Moreover, I wondered if there was better work to be done at all.

The next two films, you'll see, though far better, provided me with a deeper fear. Our return to Park City found us at a five-dollar screening of Good Night, And Good Luck., and on the way back we three found ourselves in as involved a discussion as I'd had in recent weeks, one about the cinematography and the writing and acting, and then about messages, media, and politics. In the middle of it we took a break for a metaconversation and pointed out that Clooney's film had done what it was probably supposed to, that is, getting the audience talking. And the next morning I woke up and in the shower (where I do all my best thinking) had some fun theorizing about the film and how its shots present and represent truth through negotiation of narrative levels. We had been uplifted, challenged, and propelled toward thought. In short, our boy George had given us a masterpiece.

Finally, there was Born Into Brothels. Follow the preceding link and the one above to find out more. (Please. This may not be because I want you to be wrapped up in these kids' lives, though that of course wouldn't be a bad thing. I'm just hoping to raise awareness about these kinds of things in general. Maybe I'm preaching to the choir.) To sum up, the brothels spoken of are in Kolkata, India, and the subjects of the film are children born into brothels, as indicated by the title, and have a photography class with a very kind English woman, also credited with directing the film. She becomes highly involved in the kids' (as they are referred to throughout) lives, and the audience can't help but find itself doing the same. I was shocked at how little I initially liked the cinematography, especially since I thought much of it was shot by the same woman, of course a photographer. (One other man is credited.) But as the film progressed I gave up my ideas of what the pictures "should" look like, and having embraced what I was seeing, I even began to love it. By film's end I was so enthralled that the next morning - this morning - found me unable to get those pictures out of my mind. The colors and people and objects and places kept racing around my brain, and I didn't really want them to leave. It was a moving film not only in its concept and execution, but also in its honesty as the photography teacher dedicated every energy she had to the kids' welfare.

Here are four photos taken by the film's kids, from the official website: 1 2 3 4 All

By the end of these two films,
I wondered if I could do as well.

Rick, who saw Good Night, And Good Luck. with me, told me that I was not only setting an unfair mark for myself, but that I was also doing prematurely, having as yet never really ventured into these things. I'll grant him that, for now. But those doubts and anxieties still exist.

Do I have a real voice here? Do I have it in me to put together the kind of quality found in those last two films, or is there only film like angry monk - reflections on tibet in my future? And moreover, if my work is more academic, if it distances itself from the social and political, does any of that matter? If it's meant to inform and not to persuade or to entertain or make (or raise) money, does any of that matter? (I doubt I've been entertaining enough to keep you reading up to this point!)

To me it does matter. I know myself well enough to know that I won't be happy unless people are happy watching my work. I don't want to simply produce entertainment - Clooney's film addresses that issue. But purely heady film doesn't work either. I do believe in the intrinsic value of education and learning, and strongly at that, but I know that folks want to like what they're reading or watching, and if I'm hoping to help people think, I hope I'm also helping them to feel and to love. Engaging entertainment , I think, can do just that.

Maybe important work that does entertain necessarily invites social change. Maybe I can't avoid getting political - at least a little bit - and maybe that's not a bad thing. I just hope I can be detailed and nuanced enough - and entertaining enough - to make these projects not only memorable for those involved, but also involving for those who view my work.

I guess I might not have so much to worry about after all when it comes to this film thing. Not as far as these issues are concerned. Not if I have such strong (and sound, I think) opinions about them already. Now I just need to figure out how to start my career.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Hurts So Good

This post will likely have nothing to do with India, Dharamsala, or anything Tibetan or Buddhist, but as promised, here's an update on the hernia surgery.

Jed and I got up at 5:00 am yesterday and headed for the surgical center, where I signed a mess of forms that said I had to be okay with dying during the operation. Then they took me back to change into a hospital robe and write "YES" with a permanent marker on the side of my body that they were supposed to operate on. I laid down and got prepped by the surgeon and anesthesiologist, and then the latter of the two wheeled me into the operation room. I talked with him for just a second, and the next thing I knew I was being woken up by a pretty young nurse.

It was funny to come out of this thing and realize I wasn't exactly conscious. I remember asking the nurse if the surgery went all right - she said yes - and then asking the same question again just a minute or two later. She said yes. I vaguely remembered already asking the question, and when I asked if I had she laughed and said I had. I asked my brother, who was in my recovery area with me, a couple of repeated questions as well.

Now I can't tell if it was really what I was thinking or if it was just the drugs, but I was really digging this nurse. A lot of it was that she was awfully confident and had what seemed like a pretty quick wit. I don't drink, so I'm not sure what the "drink 'em cute" phenomenon feels like, but this may have been the closest I've ever come to it. "Drink 'em clever." But then again, maybe not. I'm a pretty good judge of when my judgment's off, and besides, by the end of the whole ordeal I was pretty well back to normal. Anyway, I saw through the curtain around my recovery area that there was a whiteboard assigning the nurses to various patients, and that my nurse was named Breanna. Maybe I should think up an excuse to go back and talk to her again.

I can't tell you how many times Breanna repeated my post-operation instructions to me - when and how to take the drugs, how often to get up and walk around, etc. - but when I got to the pharmacy at BYU's Student Health Center I had to have my brother repeat it all to me a couple more times. I was really spacy.

My local anesthetic was still working, so Jed and I walked around the BYU Bookstore a while - he needed a sketchpad and we both wanted to look for this coming semester's textbooks. Then we picked up a couple of friends, Brooke (who was sick) and Brenda (who wasn't), and came back to my house to watch In Good Company. (The Weitz brothers put out some great stuff, I think, and a lot of it related to the process of becoming a man, which I dig.) Then a couple other friends, Molly from Portland and Beckie from Seattle, brought over Season 1 of Arrested Development on DVD. We watched it for the rest of the evening. I hadn't wasted time like that in a very long time, and while watching TV for 12 hours was painful, it hurt as badly as my groin when the anesthetic wore off.

I was supposed to take either one or two painkiller pills every four hours. I decided I was tough and that one would suffice. But at 4:00 this morning, when I got up to take a dose, I went to the bathroom and nearly wept, the incision hurt so badly. I decided that once I woke up for good this morning I would swallow some humble pie and take two pills at a time. Ouch.

Since then I've been feeling better. Jed has been over quite a bit to help out, I've been filling myself with Godiva ice cream and Fuji apples, and I think I'll be okay for the movie tomorrow night. Until then, I'll be doing some work and prepping myself for the next semester's advent. I'll tell you what I thought about the movie sometime tomorrow night or Friday. Maybe Saturday.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Affording India

I'm home in Indiana, but tomorrow (Monday) I fly out of Detroit, back to Provo. I'll be flying with my brother Jed, an animation major at Brigham Young, where I'm studying French and anthropology.

On Tuesday Jed and I get to leave my place in Provo at around 5:30 in the morning so I can go through with
hernia surgery. Apparently I've been living with this thing for a while, but it feels like it's gotten worse in the past couple weeks, so I went to the doctor, and we decided that it was probably time to go under the knife.

I'm not actually nervous about the surgery itself, I guess. Not as worried as I am about paying for the blasted thing. I'm expecting that this sucker's going to run me anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 dollars - maybe even more - and that's money I really needed for airfare and camera equipment. And tuition. Oh, and food. As I hope you've read in my post
Some Obstacles to Overcome, my GPA from the last few semesters (the last of which really took me by surprise) requires me to buckle down and focus on school even more than I had been; however, the only thing I can think to get rid of now is work, and that option only limits my chances to (A) get to Dharamsala and (B) take equipment to let me dip my toes into visual anthro.

I sat down with Mom and Dad, who have always supported my decisions (despite an understandable level of concern when my decisions take me to places far away), and they've offered to help pay for the surgery - at first out of savings, and then after rethinking things somehow given our current cashflow situation. My job is to try to negotiate with the insurance company to find some kind of payment plan besides the one-lump-sum method.

I'll keep you posted on how surgery went, how I'm dealing with the recovery, and anything else of relevance. Jed and I are hoping to go up to Park City on Thursday to see angry monk - reflections on tibet as part of the Sundance Institutute Documentary Film Series. The film is part of the World Documentary Competition for the 2006 Sundance Film Festival; there's a locals-only sneak preview that I hope is free. I'm determined to face the pain and get myself out of bed and get up there to see it. You never know whether you'll get the tickets to the films you want to see at Sundance, so this might be my only chance.

Thanks to the folks who've already checked out Indiana to India, especially those who've sent me feedback. I do want to build community here, so please do drop me a line either via comment or email.