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