when the dust clears

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Danielle Howle’s Unadorned Heart

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Almost 20 years ago, I was living in DC, working as a staff photographer for US News and World Report and spending entirely too much time at the Clinton White House and on Newt Gingrich’s Capitol Hill. On a whim—and a desperate need to get out of my District of Corruption rut—I veered away from my usual watering holes to hear some live music by Ani DiFranco, a performer I’d heard some buzz about. I knew little about her, only that her style might challenge my taste for world music, noisy stuff (from X and, I must admit, Pantera), and (intelligent) hiphop. I knew absolutely nothing about the opening act, a young lady called Danielle Howle.

A waifish, unglamorous, unaccessorized Howle stepped into the tiny pool of light in the dark space, started strumming her guitar, and sang. Her voice was powerful, soulful, and countrified in an honest, not affected way. Howle’s songs were rich—but not sweet—and even old-fashioned, in spirit, though not in style. Howle could sound hurt in a song, but never victimized; there’s wound-licking, but no supplication or defeat. She was rock, C&W, folk, gospel, and it all sounded organic.

Howle told funny, sometimes self-deprecating stories between songs. The audience laughed. I laughed. But mostly I smiled, throughout the set, and as I walked home—no disrespect to Ani, but I left before she and her band hit their stride—less beered-up than usual and so much happier. Howle was a rarity—musically gifted, humorous and humble, plus ground-truth, open-your-heart-to-strangers real.

She played a few gigs in NYC, at CMJ and in East Village clubs. Howle was dead last on a lineup of young indy singers at the Fez, a performance space under the long-gone Time Café on Lafayette Street. It was a Sunday night. The show was running annoyingly late. I watched the crowd. More than a few people glanced at their watches, polished off their drinks, and started toward the door. Howle took the stage, opened her mouth. Music came out; they stopped in their tracks. I knew this would happen.

I met Howle a few times, even asked her to write some songs for my documentary. That didn’t work out because her music was too good—and by “good” I mean the opposite of evil, bleak, hopeless, which is how Iraq made me feel, how coming home to political posturing and saber-rattling made me feel, how turning on my computer and reading about dead and wounded made me feel. At the time, I believed that such goodness and soulfulness had no place in my film. I didn’t have a whole lot of space in me for it.

We lost touch, but she’s still making music, laughing, and being poetically nuts. She’s nurturing up-and-comers, living and making music sustainably (look here to see what I mean). I just watched a video of Howle singing about the Lake Murray Dam while strolling along a highway and playing her guitar. A couple of speed-walking ladies taking care of some cardio business dip into the roadway to make a wide loop around her. A motorcycle, most likely a Harley, rumbles and farts in the background. And Danielle sings. It’s all of a piece, and she’s the heart of it.

Listen and watch when you have a few moments.


Written by bxpnyc

2011/12/10 at 11:07

London film fest wrap

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I’m breathing many sighs of relief after my screening last night at the Frontline Club here in London. Judging from the facial expressions of the viewers I peeked at during the film—eyes wide open, hands covering eyes—people were engaged. The Q&A, which included the director and protagonist of the documentary that preceded mine, was one of the best in my yearlong film festival saga.

I am not a fan of double bills. Often the pairing is random or pretty damn close. My biggest fear, of course, is, What if the other film is better? But there are many others: What if my doc is scheduled to screen second and the first one sucks? I’ll lose half the audience. What if, what if, what if….

Last night, I had a bellyful of fear bubbling away because Full Disclosure was up second on such a bill. Screening first was Beneath the Sky, a 38-minute doc about war videographer Sulejman Mulaomerovic, directed by Bosnian filmmaker Ismet Lisica. Watching it, I realized that the pairing was inspired.

Lisica built the film around gritty, graphic footage Mulaomerovic shot during the Bosnian war. It’s more a collage than a straight narrative. Interviews with people Mulaomerovic encountered during the war provide milestones throughout the journey on which Lisica takes us. Mulaomerovic submits to a couple of awkward interviews. He shifts from foot to foot, stares at the ground—Mulaomerovic makes it clear he belongs behind the camera. Lisica also introduces us to surgeons who performed countless operations on wounded civilians, journalists who worked with Mulaomerovic, a lawyer who became a soldier who then became a lawyer again after the war, and so many others. But the doc devotes most of its time to the ordinary citizens under fire Mulaomerovic lived with. Soldiers, fighters, generals, snipers—this is not their movie.

Mulaomerovic was in the audience and participated in the Q&A. For a journalist who has seen and lived so much carnage—one doctor in the film talks about stuffing Mulaomerovic’s entrails back into his gut after he got torn up by shrapnel—he is stunningly warm, funny, and quite huggy. When he speaks, he speaks of humanity, of the survivors, their struggles and their attempts to knit their lives back together after the killing stopped.

Full Disclosure is primarily about marines. The nature of embedding limited my contact with ordinary people, but it allowed me to accomplish what I set out to: document what US troops were doing in my name. What I witnessed was, as I have said before, a tragic improvisation enacted on a daily basis. Heavily armed young marines, untrained and unprepared for an amorphous mission, wandered across an alien landscape and through an abused population hunting for invisible enemies. I tried to represent these young men as individuals. I liked many of the men, respected many of them, but what mattered in the context of the occupation—and Full Disclosure—is their life-changing, life-taking power over Iraqi civilians. They were instruments of American policy, and that is what I show.

The focus of our docs is different, but I think the spirit of the filmmakers and the BTS protagonist Mulaomerovic is similar. In response to a question about bravery, Mulaomerovic avoided fluffing himself up and spoke, at length —his translator called him beautifully verbose—about the importance of witnessing. It is the daily process of climbing a hill that never ends. The point isn’t to reach the top but to record everything on the way. He needed to show, to gather essential images—so essential that they’re being used in the Hague trials of alleged war criminals, Lisica told the audience.

I volunteered some of my own motivations for going to Iraq: a sense of responsibility as a citizen and journalist and, I admitted, a secret vanity. During my career as a journalist I had absorbed the message that real reporters cover wars. I hadn’t. But the first death I witnessed amplified the former feeling and erased the latter. Rage filled the gap, rage at the everyday senselessness and casual brutality of the occupation, and a virulent anger at the policymakers who unleash the disease of war—of choice, not defense— yet remain insulated from it. They inoculate themselves with the rhetoric of national security, national interest, nation-building, WMDs, or whatever floats on a given day and send others to die. Although I had a faint, vain hope that I could influence the debate about the occupation—silly after a certain point because there wasn’t one—simply making a record for history of what I witnessed kept me moving.

Ever the photographer, Sulejman—no longer Mulaomerovic to me—rounded me, his producers, festival director Patrick Hazard, who skillfully piloted the Q&A, and anyone who didn’t escape his grasp and posed us in various combinations. Then everyone retired to the bar.

I dashed out of the club to catch a train and passed Sulejman downstairs. He hugged me one last time, then invited me and my partner to Sarajevo.

London International Doc Fest.1

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The London International Documentary Festival enters its eighth day. I enter my third.

After a mixup with dates, Full Disclosure screens tonight with Beneath the Sky at the Frontline Club, a center for international journalists just north of Hyde Park.

Soho, May 19, 2011

LIDF is more a collection of screenings sprinkled across this sprawling city than a conventional festival with a single hub—a filmmaker’s lounge or main screening venue—around which everything spins. For that reason, it feels as if there’s no there here—until one arrives at an event.

Last night, Elisa Mantin screened In the Shadows of Death, a doc about Roberto Saviano, the crusading Italian reporter who exposed the workings and lucrative business affairs of the Camorra, the Naples’s mob. A heavy-hitting panel discussion followed—two UK and one Italian journo who specialize in organized crime plus an Italian criminologist at Oxford. The moderator invited filmmaker Mantin up about a third of the way through. All of the panelists knew or have met Saviano, who now lives in a bubble of bodyguards and safehouses because of Camorra death threats. This is not a Salman Rushdie situation where his fatwa can be negotiated away, they say. The Camorra never forgets, so Saviano will be a target forever, unless something miraculous happens.

In the Shadows of Death screening, Courthouse Hotel, London, May 19, 2011

In the Shadows of Death director Elisa Mantin and Oxford criminology professor Federico Varese

The night before, Eva Weber and Marc Isaacs spoke and showed clips from their rather provocative docs. Isaacs presented bits of City of Men and The Lift, for which he stood in one elevator for hours at a time and interviewed the people who got on. His work is uncomfortably direct; his approach to people clinical. In the same affectless voice, Isaacs poses an apparently random (though probably not in actuality) series of questions, from the utterly mundane to the existential.

Weber showed sections of The Solitary Life of Cranes, which is about heavy crane operators, not birds, and Steel Homes, which features video of people rummaging through items in storage lockers with audio from conversations with the locker renters. Cranes, which is brilliantly shot from these enormous mechanical structures that tower over London, has a wonderfully meditative quality. Like Isaacs, we hear subjects reflecting on issues small and the great. There’s no issue, concern, or point driving the doc. Weber also showed chunks of The Intimacy of Strangers, which is constructed from surreptitiously recorded cell phone conversations. Voices don’t necessarily connect to the person we see on screen, a device Weber says she uses in most of her docs.

More to follow after tonight.

Written by bxpnyc

2011/05/20 at 08:50

London International Documentary Festival

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I am here for a screening of Full Disclosure at the Frontline Club. The festivilians published an incorrect date for the event, so here’s the correct info:

MAY 20 screening of Full Disclosure (with Beneath the Sky)

The time, 7pm, is the same.

Address & Phone: 13 Norfolk Place, London W2 1QJ

Tel: +44 (0)20 7479 8950

Half a block from St. Mary’s Hospital

Closest Tube Station: Paddington

Please come if you’re here. Tell your London friends!


Written by bxpnyc

2011/05/18 at 12:05

O’Keefe vs. NPR: Round 1 Goes to the Kid

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A few of days ago I fired up iTunes on my computer while paying bills. I clicked on the NPR stream to distract me from the acute pain this task causes me.

I wound up at the top of the Diane Rehm Show, which was doing a segment on the latest scandal in public radio land: NPR chief fundraiser Ron Schiller’s alleged disparagement of Christian evangelicals and tea partiers, caught on video by two conservative activists posing as representatives of a Muslim Brotherhood- affiliated group. Even before the pixels had cooled on the rightwing website where the video was posted, Schiller was booted and NPR’s president and CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) had resigned. Schiller apologized for “saying some of those stupid things,” according to Shepard, but he added that the videos were heavily edited.

Rehm’s guests were conservative commentator Tucker Carlson, NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard, CEO of the Association of Public Television Station’s Pat Butler, the Wall Street Journal‘s Stephen Moore, Paul Farhi of the Washington Post, NPR’s own Brooke Gladstone, and David Edwards, chair of NPR’s board. They took the video at face value and set about judging Schiller with varying degrees of severity, with Carlson in the lead.

“[Schiller] was essentially doing what all fundraisers do, sucking up to a prospective donor,” said Carlson. “In this case, two men posing as representatives of a Muslim group related to the Muslim Brotherhood … he spoke dismissively of evangelical Christians and of conservatives and Republicans saying that they are stupid and racist and uneducated, and basically repeating the kind of familiar Liberal catechism about the right.”

“Well, they apparently were not altered,” Carlson added. “I mean, according to NPR, they weren’t.”

Heavy charges dipped in contemptuous hyperbole.

“I thought it was indefensible, inexcusable, reprehensible,” Butler said. “I mean, it goes against the ethic of everything we try to do in public broadcasting. What we try to do is to be as civil, as balanced, as fair, as comprehensive as we can be in the coverage of news and everything else that we do. And what Mr. Schiller was saying is exactly the opposite of that.”

One person did address the provenance of the video–a caller named Erin: “[I]n light of Mr. O’Keefe’s track record with editing videos, anybody who would take a video that he made on faith as being complete without vetting it and checking it out and making sure that it was actually valid, that would just be foolish in light of his track record of editing things out that don’t accord with the viewpoint that he’s trying to push.” Foolish indeed. Erin is referring to James O’Keefe, the source of the video.

But what did Schiller say?

From the edited version, we get bits like this:

SCHILLER: The current Republican Party, particularly the Tea Party is fanatically involved in people’s personal lives. And very fundamental Christian and I wouldn’t even call it Christians. It’s this weird Evangelical kind of move–

INTERVIEWER: The radical, racist, Islamaphobic Tea – Tea Party people?

SCHILLER: And not just Islamaphobic, but really xenophobic, I mean, basically they are, they are–they believe in sort of white, middle-America, gun-toting–I mean, it’s scary.”

Even in this version we hear the interviewers prompting Schiller. But now we are in Phase 2 of the Schiller scandal: The stingers themselves released the almost-raw video with one section omitted “to ensure the safety of an NPR overseas correspondent.”

Russ Baker discusses the video at whowhatwhy.com, and notes that a sharp analysis of the raw video was conducted by The Blaze, a Glenn Beck-backed operation. Turns out Schiller’s comments were not only taken out of context, but his statements were spliced together with unrelated questions.

Here’s a snippet from the site’s analysis:

“Schiller’s negative comments about Republicans and conservatives have gotten a great deal of attention.

“He clearly says some offensive things, while being very direct that he is giving his own opinion and not that of NPR. Still — a wildly stupid move!

“But you may be surprised to learn, that in the raw video, Schiller also speaks positively about the GOP. He expresses pride in his own Republican heritage and his belief in fiscal conservatism.”

Why, why, why didn’t the Rehm show guests–and so many other major media outlets and journalists–question the authenticity or the source of the video (to be fair, other NPR shows like Talk of the Nationwith Neal Conan and David Folkenflik, did)? Granted, NPR was in a tough spot. It got hammered just a few months ago by conservatives (and not-so-conservatives) for its summary firing of Juan Williams after he confessed on Fox News to getting freaked out when he spots anyone in “Muslim garb” on a plane. But the right has been gunning for NPR as well as its TV cousin PBS for years for their perceived liberal bias, which might explain the immediate cave-in by senior execs in this case.

If caller Erin had been given more time, or perhaps a position on the pundit panel, she might have shared some O’Keefe history with us. He’s the guy who invited CNN journalist Abbie Boudreau to a meeting aboard a yacht to entrap her in a compromising situation.

“James has staged the boat to be a palace of pleasure with all sorts of props, wants to have a bizarre sexual conversation with her,” an accomplice, Izzy Santa, wrote in an email to an O’Keefe supporter that she turned over to CNN. “He wants to gag CNN.”

“Among the props listed were a ‘condom jar, dildos, posters and paintings of naked women, fuzzy handcuffs’ and a blindfold.”

It was Santa who dropped a dime on O’Keefe before he could snare the reporter in his ersatz love den.

James O’Keefe is also the guy who was arrested for allegedly trying to bug the phones in Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s Washington, D.C., office. O’Keefe’s partners in crime claimed to be telephone repairmen, according to a statement issued by the United States Attorney’s Office, Eastern District of Louisiana. The charge was later reduced to a misdemeanor, “entering real property of the United States under false pretenses.” O’Keefe and the others pled guilty and received a $1,500 fine, two years probation, and 75 hours of community service.

But O’Keefe’s greatest star turn to date came in 2009. This is the “sting” worth recalling and reexamining.

He was the catalyst for a full-on assault that brought down ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, in 2009, also with hidden video. Black and brown staffers in ACORN offices across the country are heard suggesting ways to hide assets that O’Keefe earned from a child-prostitution business. The video appeared on websites run by rightwing activist/news aggregator Andrew Breitbart. Major news media took the videos at face value back then, too, and broadcast, published, posted, and all-around trumpeted this “courageous” and–added bonus–salacious “reporting.” O’Keefe appeared on the panoply of Fox News shows describing how he rolled into ACORN offices in Brooklyn, Baltimore, Washington, and other cities in full pimp finery with his ho’ in tow.

UNTIL … the integrity of the video was demolished by a series of investigations, including ones by California’s attorney general, Brooklyn’s district attorney, and one commissioned by ACORN conducted by former Massachusetts AG Scott Harshbarger. The reports they issued found that ACORN broke no laws. Still, all, including California’s AG, noted that ACORN staffers “exhibited terrible judgment and highly inappropriate behavior.”

Now that’s hardly a full exoneration, since “inappropriate” can also be unethical. But what was said in the videos doesn’t square with what appears in the full transcripts, which Breitbart and O’Keefe turned over after intense pressure to come clean. (They still refuse to release unedited footage.)

This from the California AG’s post-investigation press release:

“One ACORN worker in San Diego called the cops. Another ACORN worker in San Bernardino caught on to the scheme and played along with it, claiming among other things that she had murdered her abusive husband. Her two former husbands are alive and well, the Attorney General’s report noted. At the beginning and end of the Internet videos, O’Keefe was dressed as a 1970s Superfly pimp, but in his actual taped sessions with ACORN workers, he was dressed in a shirt and tie, presented himself as a law student, and said he planned to use the prostitution proceeds to run for Congress. He never claimed he was a pimp.”

In the words of a law enforcement source quoted by the New York Daily News, “They edited the tape to meet their agenda.”

But the truth didn’t matter, because the frenzy was on. There were a few notable exceptions–the indefatigable Brad Friedman comes to mind–but only a few. Journalism’s standard operating procedures were tossed. As a result, the Senate tripped over itself to pass the Defund ACORN Act. ACORN had received federal grants for such successful programs as fair-housing education (HUD), fire prevention and safety (DHS/FEMA), and food-access counseling (US Department of Agriculture).

The House passed the act 345-75–but then federal judge Nina Gershon ruled the legislation unconstitutional and barred Congress from enforcing the funding ban. Too late: ACORN was dead, killed by attackers on the right who had been trying to bring it down for years.

“O’Keefe and Giles targeted ACORN not to expose any bad advice being doled out by ACORN staffers,” writes John Atlas in Seeds of Change, a comprehensive history of the group, “but for the same reason the political right did it: to put an end to its massive voter-registration that brought out poor African Americans and Latinos to vote against Republicans.”

This is subjective statement to be sure, but it’s one supported by evidence, including evidence of O’Keefe’s malfeasance and mendacity–and Breitbart’s abetting of it. And it also explains their attacks on NPR, that bastion of liberalism and alleged big-government love.

Over its 40 years of community organizing and direct service to low-income people, ACORN staffers didcommit genuine transgressions; some folks broke the law. The embezzlement of $1 million by the brother of founder and chief organizer Wade Rathke comes to mind. ACORN’s leadership covered it up, but it also forced the Rathke family to sign an “enforceable restitution agreement” to recover the money. Atlas and many others noted that after the scandal, ACORN instituted internal controls to prevent embezzlement and began commissioning independent investigations into incidents of apparent misconduct immediately.

Moreover, bigger fish have been fined and censured for fraud, misconduct, and malfeasance, and have escaped, not so surprisingly, withering far-right attacks like the ones that killed ACORN.

In 2009, Pfizer paid a $2.3 billion fine “to resolve criminal and civil liability arising from the illegal promotion of certain pharmaceutical products.”

“Some of the largest service contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan have checkered histories of misconduct, including instances of shooting civilians, false claims against the government, violations of the Anti-Kickback Act, fraud, retaliation against workers’ complaints, and environmental violations,” the general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight told the Congressional Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan last month. “Dyncorp has 6 instances, 2 of which involved alleged sex trafficking in Bosnia-Herzegovina ($173,000 judgment)” and “KBR has 23 instances, including 6 government contract fraud cases and 8 guilty pleas,” the POGO GC testified.

“Dyncorp currently provides many security services in sensitive areas around the world,” the State Department’s website says. With Dyncorp and Fluor, another contractor–“25 instances, including 3 government contract fraud cases ($21.5 million in penalties),” notes POGO–KBR holds the $2.4 billion contract with the US Army to feed, transport, house, and perform countless other tasks for US troops in Iraq until the end of this year.

There is no Defund KBR or Dyncorp Act before Congress, nor have O’Keefe and Breitbart launched hidden-camera stings on any of these companies, many of which have squandered American money and human lives.

“In assessing Breitbart and O’Keefe’s claims, media should keep in mind their record of dishonest and illegal practices and their failed attempt to show that ACORN was engaging in criminal behavior,” the folks at Media Matters reminded us last year.

Something for us all to keep in mind before the next Breitbart-O’Keefe hidden-camera exposé surfaces.

BP February 2011 Update

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Newsday review of exhibition “Improvisation as Strategy”

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Reporter Martin Evans spent quality time at the show earlier this week. He wrote a piece for the paper (PDF below) and another one for his blog, http://mcevans82.wordpress.com/

The work—photos, video, and text—is up at Adelphi University until Sunday, so please drop in if you’re in the neighborhood. I’ll also be there March 29 for an artist talk.