Saturday, October 10, 2015

East-side Sushi: Challenging Traditions

I love a good foody movie. Yummy!  But this festival favorite transcends the usual foody fare with its timely themes.

East-side Sushi” shows a Mexican-American family making their own way in Oakland, California.  They don’t get any handouts (despite what the corporate media would have us believe).  The little family works hard at two jobs just to eke out a living.  Working long hours is killing the old man, but he has no choice. The company keeps lowering his pay and increasing his hours.  At 4 a.m. every morning, Juana drags her sleeping daughter (Kaya Jade Aguirra)  along as she and her father do food prep for their fruit cart.  Juana’s (Diana Elizabeth Torres) integrity is apparent as she selects the best fruit. She offers a quality product, rather than skimping by using bottled lemon juice just to make a little more profit.

What I especially love about this film is how writer/director Anthony Lucero uses Juana’s actions to drive the story.  When Juana happens on to a sushi restaurant looking for help, she impulsively applies. She has grown bored of working prep for Mexican restaurants and making the same old tacos. She is ready for a new challenge.  She is hired because she can carry a fifty pound bag of rice, but she soon proves herself with her expert knife skills.  She has never even had sushi, but she quickly adapts to the new culture.

At home, her father (Rodrigo Duarte Clark) keeps insisting that she get a normal job working at a Mexican restaurant and do what’s best for her daughter.  She reminds him that she always does what is best for the family.  She goes on, “Sometimes I think you are happy with working and never succeeding.”  Her father has been taught to stay in his place.

It is her own skill, moxie, determination, la fuerza, and talent that allow her to rise above her "place" in the restaurant world. She studies independently - learning the Japanese names of the various kinds of sushi and following sushi making tutorials online.  It is only when she can’t figure out how to make the sushi rice stick, that she asks a sympathetic sushi chef for advice.   She experiments on her unsuspecting family (who are mystified by this strange foreign food – raw fish!), making innovations that her family will enjoy.

She finally finds the strength to stand up to the discrimination at the restaurant and demand the promotion she deserves – to be hired as a sushi chef.  “I’m trying to have an opportunity like everyone else. I deserve an opportunity like everyone else. You know, behind every great restaurant there are great Latinos in the back, in the kitchen, hidden, preparing the food, making you look good.  Well, I don’t want to be in the back anymore."

She calls them on their excuse that “it is tradition” that only Japanese are sushi chefs - when two of the chefs are Chinese and Korean.  She calls them on their sexist traditions. “Sure you say women can’t be sushi chefs because their hands are too warm - that their perfume affects the taste of the food” - while one of the male chefs smells like an ash tray.

When Juana challenges racist and sexist traditions by pursuing her dream and standing up for herself, she is an inspiration to everyone around her: the Japanese hostess, the Latino prep cook, her wide-eyed daughter, her traditional father, and eventually even her boss. The result is a delicious blending of two culinary cultures at, "East-side Sushi."

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Celebrating Together at "Jimmy's Hall."

Having just walked a sweltering mile and a half to the Loft Cinema, I was keenly aware of the riders’ plight due to the long bus strike. I thought about those who had lost their jobs because they couldn’t get to work on time and the angry young woman I met waiting an hour at the bus stop (before giving up and walking.)  She was mad at the drivers for striking when they made “a hell of a lot more” than she made. “They should all be fired!” she raged. This woman was working two full-time jobs to support herself and her child.  I pointed out how the media was making out poor single mothers as lazy. “I work damn hard,” she spat back.  I challenged her, “Don’t you think you deserve enough money to live on with one job?  If workers don’t demand it, their bosses won’t pay a living wage. The only reason there are safe working conditions in this country is because the workers organized and demanded it.”

My fiance and I settled into our seats at the air-conditioned theater ready to be drawn into the lush emerald isle and the spirited Irish and jazz dances in “Jimmy’s Hall.” We were taken back to depression era Ireland when it was recovering from the vicious civil war between those who supported England’s occupation and those who fought for independence. Jimmy’s Hall was essentially a community center where people gathered to take cultural classes, attend dances, and celebrate life. But it was seen as a danger for the common people to gather together to exchange ideas – ideas that might lead to revolt. So the hall had been shut down and Jimmy exiled to America.

Ten years later, Jimmy is greeted on his return by a group of young-adults intent on re-opening the hall for a safe place to dance. The small community rebuilds the tin hall into a joyous gathering place. But the church sees the hall as a challenge to the powers that be – the wealthy land owners who had profited from the war – and pressures them to close it down. When a family is thrown out of their ancestral home by the greedy land owner, the persecuted group stands with the family.

 It’s not hard to see the parallel between the greedy landowners and the unfettered greed of corporate America and international banking conglomerates. In the film, the church uses fear to control the people. Today it is the corporate-owned media that portrays hard working single mothers - like my fellow passenger - as lazy while influencing them to vote against their own best interests.

For me the Loft feels like Jimmy’s Hall: a joyful community gathering place where learning and lively discussions are encouraged. Independent films are still the voice of the people. It occurs to me that the single mother at the bus stop wouldn’t have the time or money to enjoy this film at the Loft. (Though she could send her kids to the Loft's free children’s screenings…) But movies like “Jimmy’s Hall” create understanding that we are all a part of this community and inspires us to stand together. 

Movie blessings,
Jana Segal 

Friday, August 07, 2015

Documentarians: Our Last Refuge for the Truth

When I first started Reel Inspiration, it was my policy to only promote narrative films. But there is a crisis in our country resulting from the corporate takeover of the fourth estate, emasculating the power of journalism to act as watchdogs on those with power and influence. We seemed to have forgotten that it was once illegal to have media monopolies. There were reasons for those laws. But corporate-bought politicians changed that law right under our noses! The media convinced the American people to support unlimited campaign contributions from corporations. Passing the ironically named “Citizens United,” gave big business complete leeway to buy our politicians. Mega banks and big corporations now have unprecedented power to write legislation that profits them - at great cost for the rest of us. Big business bribed our congressmen and representatives to abolish laws that protected our environment or enforced quality controls on our food. They actually made it illegal to question how our food is prepared. That’s just crazy. In fact, it’s unconstitutional.

They sold the American people the idea of less government, so they could cut regulations on banks and Wall Street. This gave CEOs carte blanche to make risky (and even illegal) decisions with our investments – causing the recession. Fox news convinced us that our debt was caused by social services. They launched a full-blown smear campaign against hard working single mothers, calling them “Welfare Queens.” While corporations sent our jobs overseas, they distracted us by creating fear of "illegal immigrants" taking our jobs. Now we are spending billions sending undocumented immigrants to for-profit prisons. These are just a few ways that the corporate-owned media is manipulating us. The end result is, we can’t trust the news to deliver unbiased facts. That is why the work that documentarians like Frances Causey are doing is so important.

Frances Causey is a public interest journalist and documentary filmmaker who began her career in journalism with CNN where she was a Senior National Assignment Editor and Field Producer for fourteen years. At CNN, Frances was a senior member of a team honored with News and Documentary Emmys for their coverage of the Oklahoma City and Olympic Park Bombings. Frances has produced several feature length documentaries including her latest documentary feature, HEIST: WHO STOLE THE AMERICAN DREAM which was a 2012 New York Times Critic’s Pick and is currently airing in over 30 countries. HEIST won the prestigious Silver Chris Award for Social Issue Documentary at North America's oldest film festival, The Columbus International Film and Video Festival. In 2012, Frances was honored with the Women's International Film and Television Jury Award for her work on HEIST.

Frances’s latest documentary feature, THE LONG SHADOW, which is scheduled to be released in the summer of 2016, connects the dots between the United States’ history of slavery with the current deterioration of race relations. Frances’s new short film, OURS IS THE LAND, is about the desecration of Tohono O’odham sacred burial sites by the proposed massive Rosemont copper mine. 

I was honored to get a chance to converse with Frances about her documentaries and how her career as a journalist led to her telling these powerful stories.

Frances, you have such an impressive career as a journalist. Can you discuss why you decided to stop working at CNN and become a documentarian?

I left corporate journalism because it was just that - too corporate. That is - more concerned with profits than bringing truth to power which I believe is what the 4th estate or journalism is for. Covering news is expensive and it’s much easier to plop two opposing polemics in chairs and have them go at it. How is the public served by that?

At CNN, I began to question my involvement when we began covering the O.J. Simpson trial wall to wall. We literally closed down other bureaus so they could send folks to L.A. Many important stories went untold in that time period so we could ply our audiences with every salacious detail available, way beyond what was newsworthy.

I believe our democracy is suffering immense damage because of a lack of commitment by corporate owners of media to telling the truth. Today's news shows are more about selling products than holding leadership of this country accountable. Ironically, most of the truth telling is happening in documentaries, an art which has seen a resurgence thanks to the fall of journalism.

Could you share a little about why you chose each of these three subjects?

I wanted to make HEIST because I could so readily see how, as a worker myself, the economy was being rigged against us (i.e. no wage increases, gradual erosion of benefits, etc.) The "race to the bottom" economy was the pink elephant in the room that no one - particularly the corporate mainstream news media - was paying attention to. It was a great "whodunnit" story. Journalists are not very good at telling economic stories. But this was not just an economic story but a criminal one.

OURS IS THE LAND--- I got involved early on. Ours is the fight against the disastrous Rosemont mining proposal and again, no one in the news was covering what was actually going to happen if the mine was built, including the desecration of Tohono O'odham burial sites and archaeological treasures such as a rare Hohokam ball court. While the mine says they will build around the court, it’s a moot point because the court will be roped off with virtually no access available to it. We created essentially a news bureau so we could distribute good, fact-based, well-researched info on the mine which is at:

THE LONG SHADOW is the name of my new documentary feature that connects our history of slavery to the current problems with race relations and the continued oppression of the African-American community in the U.S. The film is a hybrid - part historical/current issue/character driven memoir film about the less than patriotic, startling facts behind the founding of United States relating to slavery and its subsequent consequences, and the painful legacy of these hard truths, which I believe haunts the United States to this day. Much of the circumstances behind our founding has been hidden and instead, as school children, we were taught the Moonlight and Magnolias version. But in reality, our nation’s long history of racial, nearly genocidal oppression of African-Americans in the United States has deep roots in our beginnings.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What Our History Books Don’t Teach Us: Unsung Heroines

Actor/Producer Anna Yosin
I am pleased to present guest blogger, actress/producer/martial artist Anna Yosin. Anna was a first round judge for Reel Inspiration's film contest way back when. While discussing my post, "Incredible Invisible Women Filmmakers," Anna mentioned two projects she was working on about some incredible women who made history, but weren't included in our history books.  I'm so proud of Anna. She really kicks butt with this article! Hope it motivates others to tell heroic women's stories. 

Victoria Woodhull 
When we think of story, we think of entertainment. We think of stories that move us emotionally. We laugh, we cry, we get angry or inspired. But stories also teach and inform us in many ways. We can learn about the past or different cultures through the exposure to stories - whether it be live theater, film, TV, new media or the good ol' book. Often we get history lessons from storytelling and that tradition goes back to before literature existed. But what happens when those stories are skewed by what is left out? We miss out on learning about some of the most inspiring people in history, especially if we depend only on the knowledge we learn in our classrooms. Unfortunately, our history books leave out so much and the content is often politically skewed.

This really hit me about a year ago. I stopped at a truck stop on my way back to LA from Tucson and picked up a few interesting books about women in the West. I found one particularly interesting - “The Bad Girls of the Wild West.” Although the book only touches upon women of notoriety in the days of the Wild West, it was enough to spark my interest. I found myself wondering why, out of all the Western movies and TV shows, these women's stories weren't told in more detail. Some may have appeared in supporting roles, but none of the movies (at least that I am aware of) featured them as the main character. So I started to dig deeper and I found some rare historical gems!

Among the stories that everyone knows like Calamity Jane and Annie Oakley, I found many that we don't hear about. These women played important roles in the history of our country. For example: Stage Coach Mary (the first person to deliver mail for Wells Fargo on a stagecoach), Clara Barton (the founder of the American Red Cross), Elizabeth Bassett and her two daughters (who ran their own ranch, smuggled cotton from Mexico and fought against big ranching companies who were taking over all the smaller ranches… a familiar struggle even today), or how about Maria Rita Quinteros de Valdez, (another rancher who owned a massive stretch of land that is now Beverly Hills), or Toby Riddle (a Native American who stepped in and prevented some deadly battles, then traveled to the east coast educating people about Native American culture). That’s just to name a few, of MANY.

Biddy Mason
Two of these women really stood out for me and I am currently creating projects based on their stories. Biddy Mason, who was a slave for the first 40 years of her life, sued her owner and won her freedom in Southern California in 1856 (a year before the Dread Scott case propelled the country into civil war.) She went on to become one of the wealthiest property owners in Los Angeles, started the first black school and church, donated money to the poor and visited prisoners to bring a little light into their lives. Talk about a philanthropist! My other heroine, Victoria Woodhull,  was the first woman on Wall Street to own a stock brokerage company. She started a revolutionary periodical and wrote articles about the most leading edge controversial issues. She actually ran for President of the United States of America in 1871 - almost 50 years before women were legally allowed to vote!

What? Is this for real? Yes! It's huge! Why isn’t it in our history books? These stories are impressive even by today's standards and are nothing less than inspiring. They are too powerful not to be told. I believe that if more people knew about their challenges and accomplishments, they would be inspired to do more in our modern society. That is why I am so motivated to get these stories out. There are parts of the world where women are not allowed to be educated or even go outside of their homes without their husbands - let alone create their own successful business or run for president. It is my hope that when people hear about the brave women of our past, it will inspire them to research more, uncover more and give them courage to take a stand. When we hear stories of great accomplishments or of crossing new boundaries, it encourages us to believe in ourselves. We are more than capable of accomplishing what may be deemed impossible by society’s standards. The stories of these incredible women give us the courage to leap higher, stretch farther and have trust in humanity.

Guest blogger, Anna Yosin

Monday, July 13, 2015

Most Inspiring Films 2014

I have been blessed to write about movies that highlight diverse cultures creating an understanding that we are all more alike than different. Lately, I’ve felt an urgent need since the media has been so aggressive in fostering fear to divide us. It has been my honor to spotlight directors like Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”, “McFarland USA”). In an interview with Bryan Abrams, Niki ruminated on her vision, “Basically, all I do is light up what I think is beautiful.” For my “Most Inspiring Films 2014” list, I have chosen films that illuminate our shared humanity and cast light on the important issues of our time.


14) “Spare Parts,” is the true story of four poor undocumented high school students’ courage and determination to pursue a better life by competing against the country’s best robotic teams. These teens persevere despite daunting challenges of: supporting a family, protecting a delinquent brother, being tracked down by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), being homeless, and constant fear of being deported. It is inspiring (and funny!) watching them figure out how to make an underwater robot with an $800 budget, PVC piping and other “spare parts.”

13) When the Kadam family loses their mother and their restaurant in a political riot, they flee India for France. Papa Kadam sees it as a sign when their brakes give out outside of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val and he sets up the town’s first Indian restaurant featuring his talented son Hassan as head cook. A rivalry breaks out between Papa Kadam and Madame Mallory, the owner of the acclaimed French restaurant across the street. An aspiring chef, Hassan longs to take the “The Hundred-Foot Journey” to learn from Madame Mallory. Can their shared passion for food bridge their cultural differences? This film is a foodie’s feel good paradise. But more than that – it touches on our fear of outsiders and celebrates what immigrants bring to their host country. The very act of sharing cultural traditions removes the barriers that separate us.

12) “Welcome to Me,” opens with Alice Klieg affirming along with Oprah, “Everybody comes to our beautiful planet Earth to do something great, something unique, something that only you were born to do.” When she wins 86 million dollars in the lottery, she fulfills her purpose by hiring an infomercial company to produce her talk show – about herself. What appears to be a vanity project is really about wanting to be seen and understood. In a cooking demonstration, she “bakes” a meat cake from her high protein diet to share how she is capable of controlling her illness (currently called borderline personality disorder) without depending on mind-numbing meds. I love the way “Welcome to Me” shows that someone with mental illness is capable of having a caring relationship and is worthy of love. They have positive traits and talents we can admire. This movie does much to create understanding of mental illness and raises questions about how we as a society deal with it.

  11) Despite having a loving girlfriend who finds his OCD rituals endearing, Hector is feeling increasing dissatisfied with his life and work as a psychiatrist. He realizes that his patients aren’t getting any happier and sets off on a journey to find out what makes us happy. Traveling along with “Hector and the Search for Happiness” on this picturesque journey across the world, we glean important spiritual lessons from his experiences.

10) “The Lunchbox” delivers a bitter-sweet “slice of life,” spiced with pinches of humor. The story was inspired by the Babbawala, a 125 year-old tradition of delivering tiffin lunches from homes to the work place. The lunchboxes represent the countless generic Mumbai workers who cram onto trains to commute to their jobs every day. In fact, the lunchboxes make the same commute. Famous for its efficiency, it is said that only one in a million lunchboxes is ever lost. When a lonely house wife attempts to win her husband’s love by sending him a special lunch, it ends up in the hands of a grouchy widower who just wants to be left alone until his imminent retirement. The miraculous appearance of that special lunch nudges him out of his solitude. These two lonely people, lost in the modern world, connect over a good meal and details of their lives scribbled on scraps of paper.

9) “Interstellar” touches on a dire concern of our time: the denial of science. As a result, the earth has become unable to sustain human life since all the crops (except for one variety of corn) have been wiped out by the blight. History has been rewritten to exclude the moon landing because it is thought of as a waste of time, effort, and resources. NASA was dropped with the economic collapse. Former astronaut Cooper mourns the loss, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars, now we just look down and wonder about our place in the earth.” Fortunately, NASA went underground and may be humanity’s only hope. Cooper is forced to make the heart wrenching decision between staying to comfort his children during their last days, or heading to space on the slim chance that he can find another planet that is habitable. We watch breathlessly as the crew blasts off into space. Time itself is nonlinear as we shoot through the wormhole to explore another galaxy with them. Nolan challenges the recent political travesty that science is expendable by staying true to established physical laws.

8) “Still Alice,” is the poignant story of a brilliant linguist (Oscar winner Julianne Moore) who recognizes that she is losing her ability to understand the meaning of even simple words. That awareness is the painful part. She sees her identity fading away and can’t bear the idea of living as a shell of her former self. She fights to hold on to her connection with her precious words, her loved ones, and her life. She comes to the realization that she must live in the present and enjoy her last moments with her family because, “This might be the last year that I am totally myself.” In a heart-wrenching scene, she pleads with her husband to spend time with her now while she is still present, while she is “Still Alice.”

7) “McFarland USA” is based on the true story of a group of poor migrant Mexican-American farm workers who become champion runners with the encouragement of Coach White. Immersed in their culture, home life, and community, we start to really care about these kids. The migrant workers in McFarland epitomize the American Dream in their struggle to make a better life for their children. But they create their own version by balancing work, family and community. Using the incredible strength it takes to work long hours in the fields, go to school, and then run 8-10 miles a day, the teens learn that they can accomplish anything.

6) I was deeply moved by this powerful documentary on how our farm workers are treated in this country. The people who harvest our food work a brutal 13 hour day, and still don’t make enough to adequately feed and house their families. This movie shows the courageous efforts of a group of farm workers who are rallying support for "Fair Food." This organization is standing up to grocery store chains demanding that they pay enough to provide workers a living wage. “Food Chains” does an admirable job creating awareness of one of the most important humanitarian issues of our time and clearly explaining what we can do to correct it.

5) While grieving the death of her husband, Amelia struggles to raise a son with behavioral issues. Since the tragedy, her son Samuel’s childhood fears have intensified. Checking for monsters under the bed and in the closet has become a nightly ritual. The situation gets worse when a children’s Gothic picture book called “Mister Babadook” pops up. The familiar domestic scene of reading a bedtime story is infused with a sense of dread. The book unleashes an evil being that only Samuel can see - “The Babadook.” As his behavior becomes more erratic and violent, mother and son become isolated from family, friends, or any kind of support system. Tired to the bones, Amelia grows seriously depressed. This is a different kind of horror film where shocking violence is replaced by artistry and authentic emotions. Societal taboos are challenged by showing a woman’s inner world and by shining a flashlight on the dark side of motherhood.

4) Supported by his wife Lélia, Sabastiao Salgado dedicated his life to traveling the globe as a witness to the slave conditions in Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold mines, famine in Ethiopia, and genocide in Rwanda. His harrowingly beautiful photographs of the people he thought of as “The Salt of the Earth,” called worldwide attention to some of the most horrific atrocities of mankind. Devastated by that cruelty, he returned to his family farm in the Brazilian rainforest only to find that drought had savaged the land. He and his wife Lélia decided to replant the rain-forest.

3) In 1761, Dido Elizabeth Belle was born the daughter of a British slave and Captain Sir John Lindsay. She was raised by aristocratic grandparents with the privileges afforded one of noble blood. What makes this story so incredible is that her beloved grandfather was the justice of the appeals court that officiated an insurance dispute by the captain of the slave ship Zong - a case that may have led to the emancipation of British slaves. “Belle” is dressed up as a lavish historical costume drama, embroidered with romance, its delicate fabric interwoven with threads of relevant themes. It inspires hope with its theme, “What is right can never be impossible.”

2) Unable to find a job in this economy, Lou Bloom is desperate to make a living. He has been sold the American Dream and will do anything to get it. He happens onto a profitable way to make a living – as a “nightcrawler” videotaping gruesome crime scenes for the local news.  The news manipulates wealthy consumers’ fears by showing urban crime creeping into their suburbs. The best-selling images are bloody carjackings and home invasions by minorities. The movie becomes more frightening as we discover that Bloom will do absolutely anything to get the money shot. His homeless “intern” isn’t a person to Bloom at all, but a means to make money. Bloom doesn't take care of his one employee, but puts him in the line of fire. Through the intern’s eyes we see and feel the danger as their red Challenger recklessly speeds to the next crime scene. "Nightcrawler” is more than a thriller, it’s a fable about the American Dream. It’s a metaphor for an important theme in politics today: profit vs. humanity.

1) African-Americans were humiliated, threatened with losing their jobs, beaten or even killed for attempting to vote in the South. A group of civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King, decide to fight for the unobstructed right to vote. When their peaceful demonstrations are met with violence by the police, the community rallies together to organize a non-violent march from “Selma.” I was deeply moved by the image of marchers from diverse religions, black and white, standing together against injustice and inhumanity.

This has been such a great year for films! I chose movies that stayed with me and continue to inspire me - films that moved me to write about them. I also recommend Foreign Language Film Nominees: “Tangerines,” “Timbuktu,” and Oscar winner, “Ida as masterful works of art that explore the devastating impact of war and religious intolerance.

What are your favorite inspiring films of 2014? I would love to hear about them. Feel free to share films or your thoughts in the comment section below.

Movie blessings from 2014!
Jana Segal

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Interstellar: Exploring the Wonder of Science

Interstellar,” touches on a dire concern of our time: the denial of science. As a result, the earth has become unable to sustain human life since all the crops (except for one variety of corn) have been wiped out by the blight. The last of our resources have been expended in growing corn. Our public school system has been reduced to crowd control and survival skills. Director Christopher Nolan and screenwriter Jonathan Nolan bring out the human side through the relationship between corn farmer/former astronaut Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy). It’s not enough that he’s dealing with the imminent demise of the world, Cooper is called into the principal's office. But this time it isn't about his son getting into a fight. His science geek daughter, Murph, is reprimanded for insisting that there was once a space program. History has been rewritten to exclude the moon landing because it is thought of as a waste of time, effort, and resources. NASA was dropped with the economic collapse. Cooper mourns the loss, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder about our place in the stars, now we just look down and wonder about our place in the earth.”

Fortunately, NASA went underground and may be humanity’s only hope. Cooper is forced to make a heart wrenching decision between staying to comfort his children during their last days, or heading to space on the slim chance that he can find another planet that is habitable.  Murph is left with only a broken watch to await his return. 

Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne
We watch breathlessly as the crew blasts off into space. It is almost as if time is nonlinear as we shoot through the wormhole to explore another galaxy with them. Nolan seems to challenge the recent political travesty that science is expendable by staying true to the physical laws. Theoretical Physicist Kip Thorne was more than just a consultant on the set. He was brought in from the inception to develop the treatment with producer Lynda Obst (of "Contact").

Thorne worked closely with the VFX to help them visualize black holes in space. Their simulations were based on the equations he provided.

“Interstellar,” is a testament to the importance of science and the space program. But it transcends physical dimensions with lofty ideas and wonder.

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Saturday, June 20, 2015

"Hector and the Search for Happiness"

My guys loved “Hector and the Search for Happiness.” My eldest son had urged me to write a review of it back when it first premiered, but I had some initial resistance since it seemed to be yet another movie coasting on the New Age trend and overused plot devices.  At his insistence, I gave it another look.

Light-hearted novelistic narration (similar to “Stranger than Fiction,”) sets the tone. “Once upon a time there was a young psychiatrist called Hector (Simon Pegg) who had a very satisfactory life. His world was tidy, uncomplicated and he liked it that way.”  My teenage sons laughed during the corresponding montage of Hector’s OCD home life contrasting with his work life as a disconnected, doodling psychiatrist with neurotic and manic patients.

By all rights, Hector should be happy. He has a lovely, charming girlfriend (Rosamund Pike) who loves her Hector for his peculiar quirks. Clara seems content in maintaining his orderly life, while advancing her career. At a work party in her honor, the cracks show through. Her boss jokes that what he likes most about Clara is that she never takes off for maternity leave. When she raises her glass in a toast, “to making a difference,” her boss yells over her, “to making money!”

Back at his office, a psychic patient of Hector’s announces that she can see through his “psychiatrist tricks” and knows that he is just going through the motions. His other patients’ constant whining about trivial concerns finally gets to Hector and he loses it. He realizes that he isn’t helping them get any happier, so he decides to set off on a journey to find the secret to happiness.

His ever-supportive girlfriend gives him permission to “make the most of it.” She sends him off with a notebook with an inscription, “Hector’s search for happiness – a journey. Fill these pages.” The sketches of his experiences and his list of lessons on happiness become the framework of the story.

On the second screening, I released my resistance and uncovered deeper meaning. Hector’s story demonstrated some of the same spiritual principles that I had experienced on my own journey. Once I expressed the intent to find out what I was put on this earth to do, the universe kicked in to teach me.  Likewise, once Hector expresses the intent to discover how to be happy, the universe reaches out to show him.

A world weary businessman offers to show Hector what real happiness is by sharing the pleasures that money can buy in Shanghai. Hector writes, “A lot of people think happiness means being richer and more important.” But it becomes clear that the businessman is only living for the next financial conquest. Constantly working towards a goal is a way of avoiding life - and happiness.

Hector takes the prerequisite New Age trek to a Buddhist temple in the Himalayas.  Hector asks the famous monk how he is able to be happy when he has gone through so much. The monk answers that he is happy BECAUSE he has gone through so much. Hector scribbles, “Avoiding unhappiness is not the road to happiness.” The monk takes Hector to see colorful cloth strips flapping in the wind. As he and the other monks joyfully laugh and dance under the colorful strips, he calls out, “Hector! Look at all of them!”  

But it isn’t enough to jot down lessons in his journal, Hector must experience them himself. Next stop Africa, to help his doctor friend care for the villagers. His journal entry reads, “Happiness is answering your calling.” But Hector has more to learn. He has to go through some brutal experiences to finally feel alive.  

Hector’s search for happiness takes him across the world.  But he only experiences the brilliant colors inside of him when he decides to take down the walls he built and be present in his life and work. His true happiness lies in sharing that authentic, messy life with Clara.  

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Friday, June 12, 2015

Artists Light the Path

Since my post on, "5 Flights Up," I have been ruminating on whether artists really make a difference in our world today. 

In a addition to enriching and inspiring our lives, artists make a difference by casting light on humanity. In, “The Salt of the Earth,” Win Wenders trains his camera on the Brazilian social photographer Sabastiao Salgado and his art.  

“A photographer is literally someone drawing with light. A man (or woman) writing and rewriting the work with light and shadows.”

Wenders took up this project because he was profoundly moved by Sabastiao’s haunting photographs and how they capture the light and shadows of humanity.  Sabastiao Salgado felt called to shine a light on the human faces of some of the most extreme historical tragedies (famine, genocide, slavery) of the last 40 years. Supported by his wife Lélia, he dedicated his life to traveling the globe as a witness to the slave conditions in Brazil’s Serra Pelada gold mines, famine in Ethiopia, and genocide in Rwanda (among others.)  His harrowingly beautiful photographs called worldwide attention to some of the most horrific atrocities of mankind.

What makes this documentary even more poignant is that it was co-directed by Sabastiao Salgado’s son, Juliano Salgado.  While Sabastiao’s wife encouraged him to follow his path, his son was left without a father.  By working on this film, Juliano grew to understand the importance of his father’s work.

But witnessing all that suffering eventually took its toll on Sabastiao.  Deeply wounded by the degree of human cruelty and bloodshed in Rwanda, Sabastiao was forced to give up his mission. But instead of defeating this courageous man; it inspired a revolutionary new path.  Returning to his family farm, he found that drought had savaged the land. What had once been a lush rain-forest, had become a stark desert.

His wife Lélia suggested that they try to replant the paradise that he had known as a child.  They cultivated a new way to reinvigorate the barren land. They successfully planted 100,000 native trees and other vegetation and eventually brought back the rain-forest!

Sabastiao Salgado journeyed the world – just to find his mission in his own back yard.

 Lélia and Sabastiao Salgado's farm today.
Another social photographer, Lisa Kristine, has taken up the lantern and is casting light on the human face of slavery.  Working with Free the Slaves, Lisa braved hell on earth to witness and document the lives of modern day slaves. At TEDx Maui, she shared her devastating photos and stories.  I was shocked to find that there are currently over 27 million people enslaved – double the number of people taken from Africa during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Families have been enslaved for generations for debts as low as $18. Many have been enslaved so long that they don’t know they are slaves. It was all they have ever known.

In the brick kilns of India and Nepal, whole families work 16 hours in scorching heat without water or restroom breaks. They essentially live in ovens. While photographing the kilns, Lisa’s camera stopped working. To revive it, she had to give it air-conditioned breaks. She recognized the sad irony that her camera was treated better than these people. In another part of India, families are enslaved in the silk trade. It is their job to dip their hands into the toxic dye. One father said that they hoped to someday to have their own silk business, so they could get paid for “dyeing.” In the Himalayas, children carry huge slates of stone on their backs. On Lake Volta, children are forced to work all night untangling heavy fishing nets petrified that they will topple their little fishing boats and drown because they can’t swim.  In Ghana, mothers carry their babies as they pan for gold while wading in water poisoned with mercury.  In Kathmandu, women and children experience violent abuse as sex slaves. In our own backyard, as many as 300,000 American children have been sold into the sex industry.

As a representative of Free the Slaves, Lisa descended a narrow mine shaft alongside men with tuberculosis and mercury poisoning forced to work 72 hours in the dark.  In addition to the torturous conditions, she found hope piercing the darkness like mine lanterns. Manuru, who had inherited his uncle’s debt, valiantly worked with tuberculosis and an infected leg. Free the Slaves has given him hope that one day he will be freed and receive an education.

Lisa felt humbled by these people’s quiet dignity and endurance.  “This sort of determination in the face of unimaginable odds fills me with complete awe. I want to shine a light on slavery.  I told the workers that I wanted to illuminate their stories and their plight. (That) we will be bearing witness to them. We will do whatever we can to make a difference in their lives. If we can see each other as fellow human beings, then it becomes very difficult to tolerate atrocities like slavery. I hope these images awaken a force in those who view them, people like you, and I hope that force will ignite a fire and that fire will shine a light on slavery. For without that light the beast of bondage will continue to live in the shadows.”

Dorothea Lange lit the way for these social photographers.

"Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange

From 1935-39, Dorothea Lange's photographs brought the plight of the poor and forgotten (sharecroppers, displaced farm families, and migrant workers) to public attention.

These courageous artists light a path through the darkness. Do they make a difference? That depends on whether we take up the lantern.

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Note: On the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, CBS News aired the Edward R. Morrow documentary, "Harvest of Shame" showing the deplorable conditions our migrant farm workers faced. Recently, I watched the documentary, "Food Chains" and was shocked to find that those desperate conditions still prevail today. But I was also inspired by the tomato pickers courageous fight for fair wages and treatment.

Friday, June 05, 2015

"The Hundred-Foot Journey" to Foody Paradise

From a young age, Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal) was schooled in the art of savoring traditional Indian cooking by his mother. She taught him that food has a soul that holds cherished memories. When his family loses their restaurant and his beloved teacher in a political riot, the Kadams flee India for France. Papa Kadam (Om Puri) sees it as a sign when their brakes give out outside of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. A kind stranger, Marguerite, (Charlotte Le Bon) tows them to the village and shares the bounties of her garden with the hungry migrants. They can taste the soul in the local produce. Ignoring the protests of his frustrated children, Papa Kadam immediately sets up an Indian restaurant featuring his talented son as head cook.

The Hundred-Foot Journey” across the street leads to Madame Mallory’s (Helen Mirren) acclaimed French restaurant (where Marguerite also works as a sous-chef). Their rivalry escalates to all-out war. Despite being on opposite sides of the warring factions, Hassan and Marguerite can’t deny their common passion for food. They put great care into their cooking. Food is more than nourishment, it is love: comforting, healing, and sensual. Sharing it bonds families and communities. It can even bridge cultures. But they get so caught up in the competition for fame and success, that they lose track of love.

This film is a foody’s feel good paradise. But it has more to say. It touches on our fear of outsiders and celebrates what immigrants bring to their host country. It shows how people from different cultures can find common ground.

curry omelette
In an interview about the film, executive producer Oprah Winfrey expanded, "Food blends cultures and allows us to have just a little peek into someone else's life... It is about a hundred foot divide between cultures." Winfrey chose the book on which the film is based as a "favorite summer read" in 2010. She said, "It’s about human beings coming to understand other human beings and more importantly, after you get to experience or step into somebody else’s shoes or see them for a real human being, how you understand that you’re really more alike than you are different.”

Partaking of this sweet confection, we get a chance to savor the pleasures we all enjoy: lush vibrant landscapes, delectable cuisine, funny family quirks, and the thrill of a first kiss. The very act of sharing cultural traditions removes the barriers that separate us.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Artist Haven "5 Flights Up."

Every day Albert (Morgan Freedman) takes his little dog out for a stroll through their gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood, then struggles to climb “5 Flights Up” to his beloved apartment/art studio and even more beloved wife, Ruth (Diane Keaton). When the dog suffers from a ruptured disk and has to be carried downstairs, it seems like it’s time for a new place with an elevator.  Their real estate agent/niece insists that they take advantage of the current escalated value in their trendy Hipster neighborhood.

Set on the weekend of their open house, not a lot happens in this pleasant little film. They worry about their dog. People traipse through their apartment trying to picture Albert’s art studio without “all that junk” (his paintings). Ruth tries to arrange for a showcase of his life’s work. When the gallery owner claims that it isn't hip enough, she loses it. She explains that he is an artist and he isn't about to adjust his vision for the latest trend.  I glance around the theater and see smiles all around.  It is delightful to see this charming couple still supportive and in-love after 40 years together. I love the way Albert and Ruth live life on their own terms – creating a haven where Albert can paint and Ruth tends her garden up on the roof.

Unfortunately, that liberty is threatened when a manhunt for a suspected terrorist causes gridlock on a nearby bridge and the couple feels pressured to sell before the media induced fear forces apartment prices down. Societal pressure to pursue financial gain encroaches on their happy home. 

My fiancé Dan and I try to create a haven where he can work on his humanitarian projects (Dan also plans to plant a heritage garden) and I can write my love projects, draft reviews of meaningful films, and be there for my teenage boys. I hope we are as happy as Ruth and Albert in ten years. 

One of the things I love about movies is how everyone brings their own stuff to the theater that they project onto the big screen.  A simple story like this leaves space for you to ruminate about similar experiences: long term relationships, selling your apartment, N.Y. City, your pooch, and for me – the struggle of being an artist in this profit driven society.

In this day and age when accumulating wealth is valued above all else, where do artists fit in? OK.  I admit it.  I’m upset that our governor has cut millions from education – forcing schools to drop art and music classes. Our city council plans to shut down our award-winning public access station (where I made my micro-budget movies and at-risk kids created cable programs). The city invests in street cars that connect sports bars, but cuts funding for events that connect our diverse community - like the Family Arts Festival and Tucson Meet Yourself. Beautiful architecture and historic buildings are torn down to make room for ugly office buildings.  I wonder if they will eventually close down everything that makes Tucson a great place to live. I understand that people are struggling just to make a living, but by throwing away the arts we are losing something that enriches our daily life and gives it meaning. Art is an expression of hope.  Art is important. End of rant.

I’m grateful that we still have The Loft, where we can catch up with this happy, loving couple in their artist haven... just, “5 Flights Up."

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Welcome to (the Real) Me

At first glance, this quirky indie comedy appears to be a send-up of our obsession with fame and pop psychology showcasing Kristin Wiig as a ditzy, narcissistic lottery winner who buys her own talk show, aptly titled, “Welcome to Me.”

This satire, by director Shira Piven and screenwriter Eliot Laurance, has so much more to say than the trailer lets on.  The movie opens with Alice Klieg (Kristin Wiig at her funniest) playing a worn out VHS recording of an Oprah Episode and affirming along with her hero, “Everybody comes to our beautiful planet earth to do something great, something unique, something that only you were born to do.” 

Director Shira Piven
Fortified with this belief, she heads off to the convenience store with her pink umbrella to buy her daily lottery ticket.  When she wins 86 million dollars, she doesn’t seem surprised at all. She is more interested in reading a prepared statement about how she realized her vision, than celebrating or spending her winnings. When her big moment is interrupted (she confesses her use of masturbation as a sedative), she has a meltdown. She reads another prepared statement to her psychiatrist about how she will no longer be needing his hurtful services since she will be living her new life as Millionaire Alice.  He encourages her to get back on her meds. Instead, she finds an outlet to express herself by hiring a failing infomercial company to produce her talk show – about herself.

What appears to be a vanity project, is really about a woman who wants to be seen and understood.  In the first episode, she shares how she created her own success with her positive affirmations. In a cooking demonstration, she “bakes” a meat cake from her high protein diet to show that she is capable of controlling her illness (currently called borderline personality disorder) without depending on mind numbing meds.  

I love how every detail of the set design shows what it’s like to be in Alice’s world. On stage is a replica of her bedroom with her collections organized by the colors of her moods, representing her need to control her world.  She finds comfort in her swan collection, so she shares that with her audience by riding in on a swan boat. 

Then there are the performance art segments of her show, which serve as unsupervised psychodrama. She watches from the stage as “actors” portray the traumatic events in her life. She gets so caught up in the recreations herself that she starts yelling at the people who hurt her.  When the actors get it right, she furiously points it out to the audience – as if to say, “See! See! Look what happened to me!” She has a desperate need to express herself, for others to know what she is going through. The good with the ugly and inappropriate.  She rends the walls of her soul laying open gaping wounds.

She develops a following – mostly because of a morbid fascination. Her fans can’t look away from the train wreck that is her life. She also gains their respect for the way she courageously bares her wounded psyche.  There are glimpses of genius as she portrays the truth that the rest of us are unwilling to face in ourselves or society. The audience watches until it gets too painful to continue.

After the hilarious set-up, sadness sat heavily at the bottom of my stomach.  It brought out the hopelessness I felt (still feel) when my son was “diagnosed” with a mental illness and the way he has been stigmatized by it and put on mind-altering drugs – numbing away his uniqueness and creativity. My smart, creative son who had all the promise in the world.

I love the way, “Welcome to Me,” shows that someone with mental illness is capable of having a caring relationship and is worthy of love - that they also have positive traits and talents we can admire. This movie does much to create understanding of mental illness…and raises questions about how we as a society deal with it. 

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal