Friday, May 28, 2010

TEDx - Our Next Speaker is Going to Get Us Moving

Canadians sometimes bemoan the lack of innovative spirit in this country. Every once in a while we see a talented individual that proves the exception.

Ben Gulak, a native of Milton just outside Toronto, is such a young man. Ben’s the inventor of the UNO electric bicycle shown on the right.

Fired by a passion to provide more eco-friendly urban transportation, he created the ever-so-cool UNO electric bike. He survived trial by fire on Canada’s Dragon’s Den TV program to gain investment from the curmudgeon investors there. He hit the front page of Popular Science as one of the Top 10 Inventions of the year. His prowess has led him to be chosen three times to represent Canada at the International Science and Engineering Fair and he’s a winner of the prestigious National Collegiate of Inventors and Innovators Alliance Award. In other words, he was off to a good start as an inventor.

But Ben doesn’t rest on his laurels. His next invention is the Shredder all terrain vehicle, described on Ben’s site as “an adrenaline pumpin’, mean lookin’ board that takes off-road riding experience into a whole new realm”. Not only is it usable as a platform for extreme sports, it is also offered as a first response vehicle for soldiers in crisis situations.

Somehow Ben finds time within all this invention stuff to pursue his studies at MIT, where he’s a sophomore. And a few other interesting activities here and there. When I talked to this charming young man he was just leaving to visit the Singularity University, an interdisciplinary university working to stimulate groundbreaking, disruptive thinking and solutions aimed at solving some of the planet’s most pressing challenges. Sounds as if that’s a great place for Ben to be!

I just know Ben is going to inspire the attendees at TEDx. Ben will also be offering a chance for attendees to test-ride both the UNO and the Shredder. We’ll open up registration for this bonus experience shortly before the conference and I know that will be one of the hottest tickets in town!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Weird Animal Sex

You’re going to love our next TEDx speaker! Pat Senson spent eight years behind the scenes at CBC’s wonderful science program Quirks and Quarks, where his work won many awards. A biologist and journalist by trade, he knows a great story when he hears it – and he knows how to tell it as well.

And tell it he does in his book exploring the more bizarre behaviours of animals – Nasty, Brutish and Short: The Quirks and Quarks Guide to Animal Sex and Other Weird Behaviour. This book has all the ingredients of a popular novel – conflict, intrigue and sex – yet it’s E Rated (E for educational).

I heard Pat interviewed on the radio about this book and I just knew we had to have him at TEDx. We've all seen lots of movies where 'boy meets girl, boy chases girl, boy gets girl', with all the trials and tribulations along the way. But you ain't't heard nuthin' yet! Wait until you hear Pat unfold this tale as transposed to a certain species of spiders!

In his spare time, Pat participates in amateur theatre and I think the audience is going to love him. It’s getting exciting to see a mix of topics and speakers emerging for our program.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

TEDx - another great speaker confirmed!

I’m pleased to announce a second wonderful speaker for our November 11 TEDx conference. I met Juliana Rotisch at TED2010 in California. By total coincidence, I ended up sitting at a dinner table with her and some other TED Fellows, and was completely captivated by her sparkling personality and her story.

Juliana is a native of Kenya and a co-founder of Ushahidi. Born during the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, Ushahidi is a web based reporting system that utilises crowd sourced data to formulate visual map information of a crisis on a real-time basis. Ushahidi is versatile in allowing users to input data through SMS, through video MMS on a smart phone, or through a computer – basically any connected digital device. In the Kenyan scenario it was used to map out incidents of violence and this information has played a crucial role in the continuing justice and reconciliation process in Kenya. Ushahidi then grew to be a generic open source incident reporting platform that has been successfully deployed in various situations such as the Haiti and Chile earthquakes, the Palestine conflict crisis, the heavy snow crisis in Washington, and the recent oil spillage crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. As a Program Director for Ushahidi Juliana manages projects and aids in the development, testing and deployment of the Ushahidi platform.

Juliana is an experienced public speaker and she also likes to talk about the vitality of technology in Africa. It was a tough choice, but Ushahidi is such a compelling story that I think that’s the topic she’ll address. I can’t wait to see Juliana again in November and to get an update on where Ushahidi is being deployed.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mysteries and Thrillers

Over the past couple of weeks, I've read three mystery/thriller books. I recommend two and not the third.

A Question of Belief

Both my husand and I are fans of Donna Leon's series about Commissario Guido Brunetti, set in Venice. This latest book evokes Venice as it swelters in the summer heat, and the natives weave their way through streets full of tourists. Brunetti's family is away in the mountains so we only get a brief glimpses of Guido's wife Paola and the kids. The incomparable Signora Ellettra is working her magic with the computer again, the trustworthy Inspettore Viannello is at Guido's side, and the disgusting Patta is up to his usual tricks. As usual, Brunetti solves the crime, but that doesn't necessarily mean the guilty end up behind bars!

This is a must read for any Leon fans. If you haven't already read Donna Leon, you should go back to the beginning of the series and start with Death at La Fenice. If you fall in love with the series, you have many delights to look forward to.

The Ghost

This was the first book I've read by Robert Harris, but it won't be the last.

The Ghost is a clever political thriller. It's a first-person narrative by an author who's usually a ghost-writer for other people's lives. His own life has now become rather interesting as he learns more and more about his subject, a former Prime Minister of Britain, who bears a remarkable resemtblance to Tony Blair.

The book kept me turning pages right until the very satisfying end. My only complaint is that the book was too short! I recommend this book highly.

This Body of Death

Elizabeth George is an American who sets her novels in Britain - in the grand tradition of British murder mysteries. It's not I think she's the greatest writer of British murder mysteries. But I've grown accustomed to her characters over the years, and look forward to revisiting them. Besides, you can always count on a a reasonably plotted mystery.

This book delivered on the good plot, as the force welcomes back the lead character Lynley after the death of his wife. However, I just didn't like how the characters were trending. Lynley's behaviour was not credible. A new character was not likeable. There was a kicker in Barbara Havers life; she's been Lynley's long-time quirky, irreverent partner.

Definitely not one of George's best. Give it a miss.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Rant about building noise

We are several months into the revonation of a second house across the street from us. The first reno took well over a year (felt like a decade) and I'm beginning to dread how long this one will take. I hate the trucks and noise, especially early in the morning. Of course, the owners are nowhere near all this disruption. They buy the house and move in only when all the disturbance is over!

I'd like to propose a new municipal by-law. To get a building permit, the owner has to agree for the building noise at the site to be broadcast directly to their inner ear! Don't you think that would be fair?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Global Warring

How Environmental, Economic and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map

This is a chilling book about global warming. The world is already undergoing dramatic geopolitical change. Western industrialized nations (read the US) are weakening, while emerging nations (read China and India) are gaining strength. These changes are going to accelerate due to the dramatic climate change we're experiencing. And Paskal makes the point that most don't see the coming challenges, don't acknowledge them, and aren't undertaking strategic actions to address the changes.

Paskal investigates several hot spots where climatic change can disrupt current international relationships. China and India both depend on Himalayan glaciers for their water supply, and those glaciers are melting (the pace may be controversial, but not the fact that they're melting). The monsoons are failing. Northern China is desperately short of water, and Chinese development is aggressively polluting their available water supply. The desperation for water will influence their relationship and their strategic goals in the world.

The Arctic is warming the fastest of anywhere on earth, and the Northwest Passage will likely sonn be navigable, fulfilling the dream of explorers of the past. This will open up the Arctic Ocean as a valuable shipping route, and also open up the treasure house of resources. But who will control these resources? Canada has the best claim, but virtually no navy and or ice breaking capability. The US argues that it should be declared international waters, opening it up to the avaricious eyes of the Russians (with their powerful icebreakers and increasing presence). Paskal argues that the best strategic move for the US would be to support Canada, and include the Arctic in its vision of a North American defense system, but when talking about continental defense, the US is still fixated on defending just two oceans.

Even the very definition of a state is under assault. How would you suggest we treat a nation whose Pacific atoll has just submerged under the rising ocean levels? Does it still have a vote in international fora? Does it still have rights to the resources in what used to be its maritime boundaries? These are just a few of the difficult questions facing us in the future.

Events like Katrina show just how dismally unprepared developed nations are to deal with harrowing climate events - and there are more of them coming.

Paskal, a Montrealer by birth, has around the world and is currently based in London. She has a penetrating and analytical mind, and a compelling writing style. Enjoyable is perhaps not the word to describe this powerful book, but you cannot read Global Warring without adjusting your view of the world's future.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

TEDx has its first confirmed speaker

It's been fun talking to potential speakers for our TEDx conference. It continues to amaze me how many people are addicted TEDsters through the web site. Who would have thought that a conference (and a very expensive one at that) could give away its product and still continue to flourish? Yet, by providing greater access to its content, TED has simply increased its popularity and brand identity. It’s yet another example of offering free content on the Internet and thus enhancing brand rather diminishing value.

This familiarity and respect has made the job of the Program Committee easier. Success came early with the confirmation of our first speaker, Anita McGahan. I first heard Anita speak at a Rotman event, and she wowed me with the clarity and power of her presentation. Anita is a respected professor at the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto, where she teaches the mandatory strategy course to all first-year students – a critical assignment in shaping Canada’s future business leaders.

But Anita goes way beyond teaching traditional business concepts. She opens students’ eyes to wicked problems of the world. Wikipedia defines a wicked problem as ‘a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems’.

Three of the problems Anita speaks on are the End of Oil, Global Health or Worldwide Migration to Cities. I want to hear them all – it’s like standing in front of a yummy smorgasbord and trying to decide which items you want to sample.

Anita has incredible credentials. She is a Senior Associate at the Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness at Harvard University and the Senior Economist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Global Health. She’s graced the staff of McKinsey and Morgan Stanley. She’s been a faculty member at Boston University and Harvard Business School. It was quite the coup for U of T to attract Anita McGahan, and a great feather in our cap to attract her to TEDx.

The Council of Dads

All parents worry about their children. Will they behappy, healthy, secure, well-loved? And sometimes we worry about whether they'll miss us when we're gone.

For the author Bruce Feiler, this becomes a burning question when he is diagnosed with a very rare, very aggressive cancer. He decides that the best way to provide some emotional support for his 3-year-old daughters if he should die is to create a Council of Dads. These are six men that he feels will represent different facets of his personality, each of whom will teach his daughters something that he would have liked them to know.

Feiler gives us an intimate view of his treatment and feelings, and introduces us to the men he asks to service on the Council. This recent TED Book Club selection is a quick read, soft and gentle and not too depressing. I`d recommend this book.

Friday, May 14, 2010


Like, the TEDx concept was developed to increase access to Ideas Worth Spreading. And like, it's been wildly successful, with hundreds of TEDx events planned and held.

What's unique about TEDxIB@York on November 11, 2010 is the fact that half the 400-500 attendees will be drawn from the 3,000 schools around the world running the International Baccalaureate Diploma program. This IB program for the last two years of high school develops graduates who are 'citizens of the world'. TEDsters have remarked in the past how nice it would be to have more young people at TED; this is a great opportunity to mingle with a fascinating group of bright, engaged, young people.

The York School, which runs the IB program, is where this idea originated, and they will host an enriching and enjoyable York Day program for the students the day before TEDx. IB schools can also participate via livestreaming of the event.

The venue will be the Ontario Science Centre, which has a perfect auditorium - room for almost 500 people yet with an intimate feel because of how close the seats are to the stage. It also means that our after-party can be staged among the exhibits at the Centre. Such a stimulating environment for our party makes me nostalgic for those TED parties at the Monterey. Aah....

We are just starting to recruit speakers, and I'll post as we confirm them. As Program Chair, I'm already buzzed about the program that's shaping up. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This book recently grabbed me, so be prepared for a longer-than-usual post!

In 1951 in Baltimore, a young black woman named Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital (one of the few who treated blacks), was diagnosed with cervical cancer and started to receive radiation treatment. In those days the radiation wasn't aimed from the outside; rather, the radium was inserted and sewn into the affected area. (This was the treatment my mother received about that same time).

Before inserting the radium, the surgeon cut two dime-sized samples from the cervix, one of cancerous tissue and one of non-affected tissue. These samples were sent to the lab where Dr. George Gey had been trying, unsuccessfully, to to grow human tissues in a culture medium. Although Henrietta died from her cancer, Henrietta's cells thrived and grew. These were the first human cells to grow in the lab and the strain was named HeLa.

HeLa cells grew so aggressively that Gey was soon shipping the cells out to other labs around the world for free. Soon demand was outpacing his ability to supply. A company was set up which started to provide the cells commercially. Eventually, experimenters were able to grow cells from other donors too, but HeLa was the most prolific strain by far.

As the business of providing cells for experimentation grew, the American Type Culture Collection was established as a central storage place for pure original cell from all different strains. However, despite ATCC, cell purity was not maintained. A shocking analysis showed that the HeLa strain was so aggressive that if a different culture was contaminated by any HeLa cells, the other cells would die out and HeLa would take over. Thus the vast majority of research around the world had been carried out on HeLa cells, even when the researchers thought they were working with another strain. This showed just how incredibly unusual and prolific HeLa cells were and put into jeopardy many research results.

Meanwhile, the Lacks family knew nothing about their mother's cells being used - revolutionizing research and generating considerable profits - and had given no permission for such use. The Lacks were poor, uneducated people who had escaped from the poverty of rural Virgina to the booming factories of Baltimore during World War II, only to be thrown back into poverty when those factories closed after the war. When they learned of HeLa, they did not understand anything about cells, and were prone to thinking their mother might still be suffering through experimentation on her cells. There is a remarkable story of her daughter Deborah striving to read scientific literature and gain a sufficient understanding of biology to appreciate what had been going on. A visit to a lab where she saw her mother's cells under a microscope was a truly amazing epiphany for her.

The book traces the history of the concept of informed consent and points out that tissue removed from people to this day is available for hospitals to use for research (based on the consent form for the operation). There are many current examples of tissues being used for purposes for which informed consent was not acquired. The Havasupai tribe in Arizona reached a settlement with University of Arizona. They had donated DNA on the understanding it would be used to study diabetes, motivated by the fact that the tribe's incidence rate of diabetes was very high. However, the DNA was used to study schizophrenia and inbreeding.

The history of medical research and the black community is particularly ugly. When this story begins in the 50's, blacks were simply treated differently by the medical system. Johns Hopkins was notable in that it even admitted blacks, but they were relegated to a special 'coloured section'. The infamous Tuskegee study had recruited African American men with syphilis for a study of the disease - and denied them treatment even after it was known that penicillin would cure the disease. Even in the 60's, black women were sterilized in Mississippi through involuntary hysterectomies, sarcastically named 'Mississippi Appendectomies'.

Rebecca Skloot, the author, spent years tracking down the family (early reports had said HeLa cells came from Helen Lane), and gaining their trust enough to get detailed information and actual records to present the story.

I highly recommend this book. It's a remarkable story and provides food for thought on so many levels.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

From Fish to Infinity

I just read something on New York Times that really tickled my long-dormant math bones. Entitled The Hilbert Hotel, it was a delightful riff on infinity (click here to read it). This was the last in a series of articles about math by Steve Strogatz called From Fish to Infinity. If anyone shares my taste in reading about Math, this whole series is definitely worth taking in. There's a link to all the past articles in a box in the Hilbert Hotel article. Enjoy!

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe

At the request of several readers of my TED posts, I committed to posting about the books that come in the TED Book Club. Having got some momentum back after the Hot Docs postings, I'm going to get back to the Book Club.

In the latest mailing, we received a gorgeous book called The Elements. This combines the stunning visual impact of a coffee table book with a huge amount of scientific information.

There's one double page for each element, showing atomic weight, density, melting and boiling point, valence, electronegativity, and the year and location in which it was discovered. It also describes its typical uses. The page on the left shows the page for Hydrogen.

There are exotic new elements at the end of the periodic table that I'd never heard of. Element 97, Berkelium, is named after University of California at Berkeley where it was discovered in 1949. A second element discovered there is named Californium.

What a gorgeous book to amble through from time to time, and a great reference book for any home.

And so for the last film review from Hot Docs. I thoroughly enjoyed the Festival this year, even I guess what I missed was even better. Of the 10 audience award winners this year, I had seen none of them!

Neighbors is a lovely, lush film by a former NFB filmmaker. Ostensibly, it's about touring through the old mansions of a district known as Garden City in Cairo. But those opulent, now abandoned, mansions are just a backdrop for the interesting stories of the former occupants, who reminisce about the past. Days when the upper class lived in luxury in their privileged quarter. Days when their views weren't obstructed by the ugly embassy buildings of US and Canada. Days before security measures for the US Embassy restricted access and destroyed their businesses in the district. Days when people of different religions mixed amicably.

I loved the leftist-leaning professor who took us on a tour through his immense library. He pointed to a picture of Nasser and said 'I liked Nasser, even though he threw me in prison several times'. The film gave me a bit more appreciation for the nuances of Eyptian history since the revolution and piqued my curiosity to learn much more. This was a beautiful, graceful film and I would definitely recommend it.

War Games And The Man Who Stopped Them

Picture this. You're a senior staffer in the Polish Army, handling strategy and liaising with the Soviets. You see Soviet military plans against Europe, and realize that the attack corridor passes right through Poland. A first echelon of Polish and other Soviet republic troops attack through Poland; the equal sources of the Warsaw Pact and NATO mutually wipe each other out, allowing the second echelon of Soviet troops to come through Poland. NATO's desperation would likely lead them to launch nuclear missiles. And guess where they'd land? In Poland. Poland is the biggest loser in World War III. So what's a loyal, patriotic Pole to do? Ryszard Kuklinski decided to spy for the West.

He first made contact via a letter during a sailing trip and proceeded to pass documents and information to the CIA for a period of ten years between 1971-1981. It has been estimated that he passed over 35,000 documents to the west,earning intense respect from everyone who knew him. He wasn't a James Bond type; rather he was modest and retiring. He didn't ask for money; he simply wanted to do what was right for Poland and the world.

Just before martial law was declared, Kuklinski was spirited from Poland to the US. The CIA agent who was his contact and was responsible for getting him out described attempts on three separate evenings, before they were successful in getting him out.

Upon settling in the US, he and his family tried to adjust. This was particularly hard for his wife, who didn't speak English. One consolation was his sailboat as he still loved to sail, and pictures show him on the water. At one point, his story was exposed in the Washington Post; Kuklinski felt abandoned when the CIA did nothing to salvage his reputation at that time. His sons both die young, both in accidental deaths. His youngest dies on the ocean on a trip to the Keys with a friend. The undamaged boat is recovered, but never any bodies. The older son is killed in a hit-and-run accident. Coincidence? Or revenge?

When he defected, he was sentenced to death in Poland in absentia; the sentence was later commuted to 25 years and finally he was pardoned. When he returned in the 90s, it was to a mixed reception, some considering him a hero and others a traitor. He died of a stroke in the US, just after he'd finally agreed to talk to the director in detail.

This was a very interesting movie. I would recommend this movie. But there is a lot of handheld footage, which would be very shaky and disconcerting for people bothered by handheld filming.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sisters in Law

This five-year-old film was part of the Hot Docs special tribute to filmmaker Kim Longinotto.

Sisters in Law takes place in the little town of Kumba in Cameroon. There have been no convictions for spousal abuse in 17 years, but that is about to change. The films focuses on a few cases undertaken by the feisty prosecutor Vera and court president Beatrice. This is, to say the least, relatively informal justice - no CSI teams rushing in with forensic evidence, or defence lawyers challenging points of law. Simply presentation of the case in pretty simple and direct terms, and a ruling by the judge.

In the course of the movie, we see a husband convicted for beating his wife. Subsequently, the woman, who wants to divorce her husband, faces the arguably tougher Sharia court requesting divorce. To her joy - and surprise - she is granted the divorce.

In another case, a father is convicted of kidnapping a child from its mother. His claim which seemed to revolve around ownership of a chattel didn't hold water with the judge!

A third case saw a man convicted of raping a young girl and a fourth involved an aunt physically beating a girl she took in after the death of her parents. In each case, the prosecutor is willing to take on cases against the powerful in protection of the weak, and the judge follows through with common sense decisions.

Longinotto, in the Q&A, indicated that she and her mother had both been beaten by an abusive father/husband, and this led to her interest in the disadvantaged, which is a persistent theme in her work over the years. She is a much-awarded film-maker, including her film Rough Aunties winning at Hot Docs last year. This is another film I recommend.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Film Unfinished

This was a hard film to watch. It showed all 62 minutes of film captured by Nazis in 1942 in the Warsaw Ghetto. The footage was never edited into a film, so there were a series of scenes, but no indication of how it would finally have been put together or narrated.

This movie's footage is often used in other movies but it has never before been shown in its entirety. (Ironically, a snippet of the movie appeared in the movie War Games, which I saw the next day, proving this very point!). But this was a movie about a movie. The filmmaker, Yael Hersonski, had dug into how - and why - the film had been made.

Notebooks of the Jewish 'commander' of the Ghetto (not sure what his official title was) describe the arrival of the film crew and the staging of the scenes of the movie. This man was to later commit suicide the day he was ordered to select the people who would be transported to the concentration camps.

The cameraman, Willy Wist, is discovered to have testified at war crimes trials. An extra reel was discovered with various outtakes and some colour film, apparently by one of the other cameramen which had Wist in a frame and enabled identification.

Most touching were the interviews with survivors of the ghetto. Hersonski focused on their faces as they watched the film. Their anguish was echoed throughout the audience.

By May of 1942, many Jews from Germany had been transported to Warsaw and crammed into the existing ghetto; then the ghetto shrunk and the barrier made impermeable on threat of death, so that there were terrible conditions of overcrowding and privation. Food supplies were paltry (I particularly 1/5 egg per month per person on the list) so people were dying of starvation, and each morning brought fresh corpses on the sidewalk.

The hypothesis is that the film was shot for one of two reasons. One could have been to show how miserable the Jews were, and to later point out what a good thing it was that the Germans had exterminated them. The second might have been to juxtapose the Jews who were still comfortable and not starving against the miserable masses and point out that the Jews themselves had no mercy or kindness for other Jews who were suffering. They were shown dancing as in the photo below.

One scene was filmed several times to show wealthy Jews walking by disregarding the corpses on the street. The corpses were tossed onto open tumbrels, with pseudo-comedic touches as the bodies kept falling off. This was followed by a horrific scene showing two Jewish gravediggers deep in a narrow grave, catching skin and bone corpses as they slid down a ramp, and stacking them together as tightly as possible. The bodies were carefully covered with heavy paper or cloth, presumably ready for tomorrow's batch.

This film won the Hot Docs Best International Feature Award. I highly recommend it, but bring your fortitude with you, as well as perhaps a Kleenex.

Aisheen [Still Alive in Gaza]

Aisheen was filmed in Gaza shortly after the end of the Israeli offensive in 2009. It is a series of vignettes of people proceeding with the daily lives under tough conditions.

We see young boys fishing off the coast, frustrated by the single fish in their nets that day, complaining that there aren't many fish available within the 2 km barrier set by the Israelis. One man who's lost all his olive groves which he claims are over 600 years old is so demoralized he has no encouragement to offer his sons to replant the groves. Kids in a community centre watch two clowns perform, whose antics are meant to reduce the tension around the bombing, including likening it to a balloon that explodes when a clown sis on it. There are shots of people smuggling food from Egypt through tunnels, and the sporadic bombing of these areas near the border. And there's the chaos of the UN food distribution centre, with people being crushed against a wicket barrier where they press to present their ID.

There's no narration in the film, just the subtitled voices of the people being filmed, with sometimes thge backdrop of the rap group DARG Team which is featured in the film.

This is a movie worth seeing if you get the chance.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Hot Docs is often about somewhat bizarre people. Lubos is 50 years old, lives with his mother, seems to be unemployed (to his mother's chagrin), and is passionate about bats. He's one strange dude, and I couldn't quite get engaged with him. His weird sense of humour didn't grab me at all. He seemed pretty content, though. I'd give this short Slovakian film a miss.

The Mirror

Viganella is a village in the Italian Alps, tucked deep in the valley between two mountains. It's been steadily losing population as youth head out of the village for the cities and the charming young mayor, Pierfranco, is searching for something to revitalize the village, especially the village square. Viganella doesn't receive sunlight for several winter months. Why not place a mirror on the mountainside above the town and reflect sunlight into the village square?

While Viganella is inhabited by mostly aging Italians, up on the mountains nearby in Bordo and Cheggio are clusters of Germans who are trying to live an ecologically pure life. One of these Germans, Tomas, becomes the second main character in the film as the site for the mirror is chosen next to his farmhouse.

The first effort to land the huge mirror on the platform on the mountain via helicopter is unsuccessful as the helicopter reotors create such a wind off the mountain that the mirror swings helplessly in the air and can't be guided to the right spot. Back to the drawing boards, have the helicopter lift the frame, and then land the mirrors in a stack. They finally get the mirror erected, and choose to unveil on the day when they already have a celebration planned for their twinning with a village in Spain. There's press from all over (even Al Jazeera turns up!) and Pierfranco is in his glory, but, alas, the results are, ah, underwhelming. There's enough sun to cast some shadows, but most people are a bit disappointed with the whole exercise.

Having said that, the film is equally interesting as a study in contrasts between the Italian and German communities. The Italians are first skeptical then enthusiastic about the project; the Germans are bemused and gently point out it could have been constructed more sustainably. The priest talks up the project in church and the Germans practice Buddhism up on the mountain. The local Italian band plays in the square, while up on the mountain we hear the haunting music of the East.

The director, in Q&A after the screening, said he was encouraged to play up any antagonism between the two communities, but said that he frankly hadn't seen much. There's even one hilarious scene where Tomas is visiting a family he's friends with in the village. He has a very long walk back up to his farm, and he is being roundly - and fondly - castigated by the Italian mama that it's time for him to move down into the village and, basically, get a life. He calmly replies that when he finds he's too old and tired to make the trip, if he's in the village he'll stay there and if he's on the mountain, he'll stay there.

A lovely film - highly recommend to anyone.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Freshwater Plague

Shadflies everywhere! That`s the curse of North Bay during late June and early July when the shadflies emerge after spending a year or two underwater for their day or two of mature life.

Hosing down buildings deeply covered by shadflies and vacuuming the streets are some of the ways the natives deal with the shadflies and their moulted skin.

This movie was by a student from Sheridan and was absolutely delightful. Some close-ups of feet crunching the shadlies as they walked along a wharf were actually rather spooky, and there was lots of humour. It`s hard enough to find screenings of documentaries, and you`re even less likely to find a screening of a short film like this (10 minutes), but if you ever have a chance, take this one in.

Feathered Cocaine

One of the exciting things about attending Hot Docs is that you get to 'meet' many fascinating people, who are committed to - or even obsessed - by topics that you knew nothing about. Alan Parrot is such a man and falcons was such a topic.

Alan Parrot, an American, grew up with a passion for falcons. As a young man, he travels to Iran to pursue his passion, and ends up involved in the extremely lucrative trade of falcons from the north sold to rich falconers in the Arab world. Arab falconers so serious about their sport that they are willing to pay into seven figures for the right falcon. As Parrot realizes that he is trading these birds into a quick death since they can't survive in the desert, and contributing to the falcons becoming an endangered species, his remorse leads him to dedicate himself to stopping the trade.

As he struggles to raise awareness and spark action to stop this trade (allegedly the fourth biggest illegal trade in the world, after drugs, arms, and people), he comes upon another aspect of this sport. Middle East Arabs feels most relaxed and serene when they are in the desert hunting their falcons, and they have what we'd call 'meet-ups' for up to a week of hunting together. Parrot discovers this is a particularly popular pastime of terrorists, particularly Osama bin Laden. The film includes an interview with someone who's spent time in the desert with Osama, and points out this would be when he's most exposed for people searching for him.

Parrot is a striking, tall man, wearing the turban of his adopted religion Sikhism. The movie, and the interview with him after the film, showed a passionate and single-minded devotion to pushing this issue in the US and the UN.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Enemies of the People

This film was a testament to the persistence of a Cambodian journalist who spent years building a relationship with men from the Pol Pot regime, right up to the second in command to Pol Pot (shown in the photo). He was eventually able to get them talking about their experiences killing people. These men spoke in careful, unmodulated voices - even when they were saying they now experienced remorse and shame for what they'd done, there was certainly no emotion identifiable in their body language, at least to this Westerner.

The most chilling segment for me was when the journalist asked for one of the men to give a demonstration of how he killed. The journalist was told to lie on his stomach with his hands behind his back, as the killer showed how he would pull his head up and back to slit his throat. He mentioned that his wrist could get tired after a number of such murders and he would change to a stabbing motion to give himself a rest.

Despite the admiration for the tenacity of the journalist who had gathered all this film in his spare time and his passion for documenting this period (during which his own father had been killed), the film was missing something for me. It didn't tackled the big themes - a better explanation of why Pol Pot embarked on this kiling spree, other a brief mention that it was internal conflicts. Nor did the men interviewed come to life for me as individuals. They gave the usual reason for the murders - orders from above - but I didn't get a strong feeling whether this was something they did unthinkingly, or with much internal angst. Neverthless, I would recommend this film.

Monday, May 3, 2010


A gigantic blimp, a small passenger gondola slung below, one woman among the score of journalists and an around-the world trip. Lady Grace Drummond Hay was the first woman to circle the globe by air, and she did it in the Graf Zeppelin in 1929. The film consists of archival footage from the period and the story is narrated by a Julie Andrewish voice, as if reading from the journal of Lady Grace.

Graf Zeppelin was designed and built by Germans and the trip described in the film had a German captain flying the dirigible. However, the Germans ran out of money, and the around-the-world trip was paid for by William Randolph Hearst. Lady Grace Hay, a journalist looking to make her mark, enthusiastically accepts Hearst's invitation to provide the women's point of view, only to discover she's to be under the wing of an experienced journalist - her former lover Karl von Wiegand.

The film weaves together three stories. There's the story of life on board the ship, and the images of the journalists working away at their ancient typewriters, writing both about the trip and the political situations in the countries they fly over. The depiction of tumultuous welcomes on their landings in Frederichshafen, Tokyo, Los Angeles and finally New York provides the backdrop for further comment on political situation, as we see swastika armbands in Germany and marches protesting war reparations.

There's the adventure story of the trip itself . There's the counterintuitive image of the wind blowing through open windows as they move majestically through the sky. They have to jettison water as they struggle to rise about mountains in Russia that were supposed to have been 3,000 feet high and turned out to be 6,000 feet. The description of a ferocious storm in the Pacific that had them out of touch and stranded on the water making repairs on the Tokyo to LA leg, was apparently 'borrowed' from a different trip across the Atlantic but lent drama to the film.

Then, there's the third story - the love story between Gracie and the married Karl. Their romance was on again off again during the trip. But the pair were to be lifelong companions and traveled to cover many stories over the globe, with many adventures, including internment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

I saw some 'cheats' in this supposedly totally documentary film (e.g. same men reaching up to grab the ship on landing in US and Germany) and read of more online today. Nevertheless, the mood of the film was totally coherent and charming, and this is another film I would recommend.

Sunday, May 2, 2010


Budrus is a Palestinian village of 1,500 on the West Bank. The Israelis arrive to to build the security fence - well beyond the 'Green Line' marking the boundary between Israel and the Palestinian territory on the West Bank. This will result in the residents of Budrus losing land and olive groves they depend on for their livelihood.

A leader in the village inspires non-violent resistance. At first the protests involve only the men of the village, but they are soon joined by the women. As word of the protests spreads, some international sympathizers join the protesters. But the tide really turns when Israeli activists arrive to stand side by side with the Palestinians. The Israeli Border Patrol is reluctant to do anything that would result in Israelis being hurt, and many cameras documenting the action serve to keep the army's actions moderated. Frustrated youth finally break ranks and start throwing rocks at the Israeli armored vehicles. But the threat of chaos breaking out is averted and the protest continues mostly peacefully.

Ultimately, the Israelis decide to move the placement of the fence near Budrus. By the, the protests have spread to other villages where the fence has swung substantially within Palestinian territory, and the fence ultimately gets built very close to the Green Line. The Israelis state the change is not due to the protests. As the Billy Joel lyrics to She's Only a Woman go - "she never gives in, she just changes her mind."

The film was created from the film taken by many different people over the course of the protests and was supported by the work of Just Vision (click here for their web site). For those sensitive to hand-held cameras, be warned that some portions of the film are subject to considerable motion.

I would recommend Budrus to anyone who has a chance to see it. It's a heart-warming tale of how non-violence can be effective, and how supposedly antagonistic people can work together in common cause.

Hot Docs Festival

It's that time of year when I veer away from TED discussions and inject some reviews of Hot Docs films into this blog.

In the past, I've tended to have about 90% or better hit rate of films I love at Hot Docs. This year, I got the 10% cleared early!

My first film was General Orders No. 9, an elegy to the passing of the South as interstates and big cities dehumanize the old towns. I chose this film because it had won the Cinematography Award at Sundance. It did have some beautiful shots, but, in my personal opinion, not that nice! To say the film's pace was langorous would be to overstate the pace; it felt like a series of still photographs dissolving into each other, with some narration and music in the background. Despite some beautiful scenery, I couldn't recommend this movie to anyone.