Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page


Screen Australia are collaborating with Youtube on an Australia-wide, crowd-sourced film initiative called Map My Summer. It’s similar to and no doubt inspired by Life in a Day, the experimental documentary shot by hundreds of people worldwide on one Saturday last July and fashioned into a feature film by producer Ridley Scott and director Kevin McDonald; the completed film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this month.

The idea of Map My Summer is that thousands of ordinary Aussies will film – well, anything they want to film, as long as it sort of has something to do with summer, and upload it to Youtube by March 31. Selected footage will be fashioned into a short film (not a feature, alas) by an up-and-coming Aussie filmmaker under the supervision of Dr George Miller. I guess Miller is meant to be the Aussie-surrogate Ridley Scott for this undertaking – famous director to give it some clout y’know. But considering he directed the Mad Max films and Babe – four of the finest artifacts ever created by man – that’s all right by me. Anyway, the resulting film will be screened at Sydney Film Festival in June.

I liked the idea of Life in a Day, and I’m pretty psyched about Map My Summer too. Seems like a nice, unforced way to combine experimental and populist filmmaking.

Incidentally, Life in a Day got mixed reviews; some critics say it’s a predictable mishmash, and maybe even a little manipulative. Others call it innovative and uplifting, a Koyaanisqatsi for the new new age. I’ve not seen the film, but I like this take on it by reviewer Kirk Honeycutt in, of all places, the Hollywood Reporter:

The fact that terrible news didn’t dominate the world that day allows the film to concentrate on everyday life. So the film is quite cheerful on the whole. Whether people are skydiving or walking down a chapel aisle with an Elvis impersonator, the film expresses a collective hope in the present and in better days to come.

Onstage, Macdonald and Walker insisted that this mood came about through no editorial nudging by them. The preponderance of the videos submitted was playful, optimistic and positive. Do you suppose our 24/7 news media has gotten this wrong, that much of the world isn’t in the grip of depression, malevolence, cynicism, backstabbing and pessimism?

Exactly. Thank you.

So, I plan to take part in Map My Summer. Here’s a rough sketch of my idea, filmed last night. It’s the famous flying foxes of Gordon – large bats that come out en masse every night like clockwork a few minutes after sundown. Gordon, about ten minutes’ drive from our place, has the largest bat colony on the North Shore of Sydney, and there’s a bridge overlooking a wooded little valley or dell that offers a perfect view of the thousands of bats as they swoop out of their shelters.

I don’t know if you can call lots and lots of big bats cheerful or optimistic – but it’s certainly really cool in my book. Am I creeped out by the bats? Not at all – not even when they come and roost in the trees in our yard in the middle of the night, making weird squeaks and gurgles that we can clearly hear right out the window. I like them. Spiders on the other hand… well, never mind.

I’m tempted just to leave this footage, which was shot on my iPhone, it as is – I love the distorted, hypnotic repetition. (And the time limit on an uploaded clip for the project is three minutes – though it’s true you can upload as many as you like.) But more clarity and more angles to work with might be good too. We’ll see what I come up with – I’ll keep you posted.

Here are the relevant links:

Screen Australia’s Map My Summer homepage, and the press release

Map My Summer’s Youtube page

the montgomery method

Recently I posted a piece about Martin Luther King Jr’s global legacy, and later another one about religious unity during the protests in Egypt. Those two strands are tied together in this story on Comics Alliance:

Egyptian Activists Inspired by Forgotten Martin Luther King Comic

(Thanks to my friend Steven, who posted it on Facebook.)

The article details how The Montgomery Story, a comic book about King originally published in 1958 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, was recently translated into Arabic and Farsi by the American Islamic Congress and distributed in the Middle East – including Egypt. The comic is an account of the historic bus boycott led by King in Montgomery, Alabama, and includes a primer on “the Montgomery method” – the program of nonviolent action that King initiated in the American civil rights movement and which proved so crucial in the struggle. The article hints the comic may have had an influence on some Egyptian activists during the resent uprising, and helped shape its largely peaceful nature.

Look, The Montgomery Story probably won’t ever win any artistic awards, but for a comic it is remarkably thorough and insightful in disseminating the spiritual values of nonviolent resistance and… well, love. It even includes a thoughtful recap of Gandhi’s satyagraha movement in India.

The translation and distribution of The Montgomery Story‘s Arabic edition was spearheaded by activist Diala Ziada, director of the AIC’s Egypt office. Ziada tirelessly promotes peace, civil rights and nonviolent change in the region with various media projects and sheer determination. Among her noteworthy projects is the Cairo Human Rights Film Festival, now in its third year.

It’s fascinating to read this Time Magazine profile, published in 2009, identifying Ziada as part of a “soft revolution” of Middle Eastern women pushing for change within Islam. It really highlights how the earthshaking events in Cairo this month have changed the paradigms completely – the story is so right and prescient about some things, and so completely wrong and outdated about others. How quickly our perspective has changed. Note the description of the trouble the first edition of the film festival encountered from the government authorities, and Ziada’s heroic efforts to keep it going:

The censorship board did not approve the films, so Ziada doorstopped its chairman at the elevator and rode up with him to plead her case. When the theater was suspiciously closed at the last minute, she rented a tourist boat on the Nile for opening night – waiting until it was offshore and beyond the arm of the law to start the movie.

I hadn’t heard of this woman until I read this article, and I have to say I’m seriously impressed with her courage and energy and her commitment to nonviolent principles. (And she’s only 28. Ever feel like you’re not doing enough with your life?) In covering the Middle East, the mainstream media has generally focused primarily on victims and bad guys, giving us impressions of violence and pathos and little else. That’s why so many of us were caught off guard with the uprising, a genuine people’s movement defying lines of class, gender and religion, and not dictated by the agendas of elites and foreigners.

The Comics Alliance article admits that since only 2000 translated copies of The Mongomery Story were distributed, its influence on the events in Egypt could not have been widespread. But righteous seeds have a way of germinating at just the right time, and having an impact far greater than it may seem at first. In this letter, Zadia insists the book has had an important effect on those it reaches:

When, at first, we went to print the comic book, a security officer blocked publication. So we called him and demanded a meeting. He agreed, and we read through the comic book over coffee to address his concerns. At the end, he granted permission to print, and then asked: “Could I have a few extra copies for my kids?”

The comic book has been credited with inspiring young activists in Egypt and the larger region… Last week I distributed copies in Tahrir Square. Seeing the scene in the square firsthand is amazing. Despite violent attacks and tanks in the street, young people from all walks of life are coming together, organizing food and medical care, and offering a living model of free civil society in action.

It’s quite an image, a young Muslim woman handing out copies of a 60-year-old comic book about the revolutionary vision of an American Baptist minister, right in the middle of her country’s greatest crisis. As the writer of the Comics Alliance article says, “It’s certainly cool that a comic book starring one of America’s greatest real-life heroes has inspired even one person to take to the streets in the way we’ve seen over the last several weeks.”

Click here for complete PDF versions of The Montgomery Story in Arabic, Farsi and English.

singing bridge pelicans

My friend Jackie got these photos of pelicans feeding at night on the Myall River from the Singing Bridge. Jackie, my wife and I were walking from the beach at Hawks Nest across the bridge to Tea Gardens, where my wife’s parents live in a house right on the river.

The Singing Bridge is so named because it makes a humming sound in the wind. I’ve not heard this phenomenon, but I do like to walk on the bridge as often as possible. It offers terrific views of the Myall estuary, with Port Stephens and Yaccaba head in the distance, and it’s a great place to watch pelicans, black swans, egrets – and with any luck, dolphins, which come up the river to fish in the morning.

As we crossed, I saw the pelicans feeding in the calm, glassy water and tried a few snapshots, but I had a hard time finding a good setting and did not get anything of value. Jackie joined me in shooting almost as an afterthought, did not adjust her camera at all, and the results are really interesting.

I love the way the pelicans are reduced to mere sketches or figures, but very much identifiable as pelicans. No water is discernible; the bird-figures swim in a black field. Perspective is lost completely – the photos almost look like printed patterns – but still the pelicans’ characteristic lazy, contented movements as they feed are apparent, especially in the repetitions between frames.

The plan is to go back to the bridge to recreate this setup, but shoot with video instead, and make a short film with the same aesthetic: pelicans floating on black, nothing else. We’ll see if it can be as serendipitous and oddly perfect as these snapshots.

reverse garbage

Last Sunday I visited Reverse Garbage, a non-profit organization that collects all kinds of junk and secondhand goods – especially industrial discards – and sells it to the public out of a warehouse in Marrickville. The concept is sound enough; it’s the type of thing I think we can all agree we need more of. But the experience of the place itself was unexpectedly inspiring and fun.

The first thing you see in the unkempt lot outside Reverse Garbage is a huge sculpture, welded together out of scrap metal, imposingly postapocalyptic, roughly the shape of some sort of larger-than-life toy mobile. Suspended from one of the arms of the mobile is a scrap-metal creature that’s part giant spider, part praying mantis, with the lithe torso and head of a bare-breasted mannequin. You know, I’ve seen a lot of found-object installations in my life, and a lot of them really lame, but something as well-executed as this still has the power to amuse and disturb. The only way it could get any better is if this she-monster were robotically animated and did battle with a cyber-scrap giant wasp.

Behind this attraction is a junk yard-cum-art garden, featuring an ugly foam sculpture of the Sydney waterfront and a bicycle graveyard, leading you to the warehouse. Inside is the largest collection of used stuff I’ve ever seen. In the front it looks like a garage sale or a vintage shop, except it goes on and on and on, tables and shelves full of decor, toys, jewelry, stationery, lighting, kitchenware, pottery, knickknacks, bric-a-brack, sundries, hand-me-downs, flotsam and jetsam and whatnot stretching for what seems like hundreds of yards into a haze in the far reaches of the building.

It’s hard to know where to begin. There’s an entire shelf full of sheets of stickers, the kind that are used to decorate kids’ schoolpapers and notebooks. Honestly, I get lost just with those. There’s some nice furniture here. Over there are plastic flowers, and some weird old VHS tapes. Further back are heaps of used speakers and other audio equipment, some of it unidentifiable.

Moving into the far corners of the warehouse, you find the purely industrial detritus, some of it hilariously, almost childishly alluring, stuff you just wanna play with: rectangular portions of pink foam stored in clear plastic bags bigger than I am, vast shelves loaded with cardboard tubes. Out back is the hardware, the unclaimed makings of infrastructure: metal pipes, lumber, restaurant equipment, PVC tubes.

Out of everything here, what draws me in the most are the loose ceramic tiles. They come in many forms and colors, the loose and haphazard stacks defying the geometric order we naturally associate with them. The cool feel of the tiles, their surprising weight as I pick them up, the earthy scraping sound they make, is strangely appealing. Especially as I was recently in İstanbul (tile central), I’m seized by the urge to take a bunch of them home, break them into pieces, and teach myself to make mosaic art. But I reckon I don’t have time for a new hobby – I have too much on my plate as it is.

Obviously the main clientele here will be artists. I see a couple of them milling about, with their piercings and boots and torn stockings, longingly touching the cardboard tubes. The pink foam alone would be enough raw material for an entire group show. And, perhaps to make them feel at home, there are more of the found-object sculptures here – a life-sized T-rex skull, and a smiling robot towering overhead, its readout saying WOMEN NEED TECHNICAL JOBS NEED WOMEN.

Often secondhand shops depress me. This is particularly true with records. As much as I love music, sometimes sifting through bin after bin of beat-up old records and CDs gives me a terrible sense of how much bad music has been mass produced. Reverse Garbage, on the other hand, makes me feel lighthearted. I think it’s because it’s not just an inert pile of trash, but a living collection of quality goods, lovingly tended and promoted with activism and a definite aesthetic. Like an enormous punk-industrial antique shop.

But honestly this place also makes me feel a little guilty. Yeah, I’ve spent money at Ikea recently. And, why, why, WHY? Considering the cheap fiberboard and plastic crap they trade in will crumble to dust before any of the great old furniture on display here, or anything I could fashion for myself with the lumber and PVC in the back if I was halfway clever enough to learn how. (I’m so damned unhandy it’s not funny.) If there’s one lesson to be learned at Reverse Garbage, it’s that we as a society probably can probably just stop manufacturing things right now. There’s enough material and resources in all of the mountains of stuff that’s already out there in the world to get by just fine. The indictment of our consumer addiction and our environmental crisis is too obvious to go on about in depth, even for me.

I find myself thinking again about İstanbul. There you see men pulling big wooden carts through the narrow streets, calling for people to bring them their junk and scraps – dead appliances, bits of metal, anything. And people do; the carts get filled up, the stuff gets re-used. You get the feeling that nothing there is wasted. It points to an economy of conservation that we’ve almost forgotten about in the West, where we’re taught to feel self-conscious about a faded polo shirt or a TV that isn’t brand-new and perfectly flat.

What’s even more impressive about Reverse Garbage is that the secondhand wealth on display isn’t limited to the one facility. Stretching around the property are a number of other storage buildings open to the public, inviting us in to survey more collections of junk and ceramic tiles and used speakers and tubes. And out in the grassy, tree-lined area between the buildings is a big Sunday market: dozens of stalls offering local and organic produce, wine, the inevitable jams and chutneys – and more used stuff, much more.

Taken all together it’s a zone covering a few city blocks in which everything is used or handmade or locally grown or DIY. It’s like a castoff carnival. Rejects rule. You could come here every Sunday, shop for the apocalypse, and never go to Coles or Ikea or Target again.

we’re all egyptians

Last Friday brought an incredible story among all of the other incredible stories from Cairo. In the middle of the massive protests that have rocked the nation of Egypt, Muslim protesters took time on their holy day to pray – and in many instances Coptic Christians (who make up 15% of the population) stood close by, protecting them from the police. The breathtaking images of these incidents have been circulated around the world ever since.

I also saw a couple of accounts of Muslim youth helping to guard an Anglican church when the police stopped their patrols and looting began. And I read more than once that during the protests a Muslim Brotherhood chant of “Allahu Akbar!” was overwhelmed by a larger crowd chanting, “Muslameen Mesiheen Kolina Masreen!” which means “Muslims, Christians, we’re all Egyptians!” (I love the way it rhymes in both Arabic and English.)

A lot of people are experiencing uncertainty about this turn of the tide in Egypt. I admit it, so am I. The agenda has shifted so fast. For a long time our main concern about Egypt was the possibility of sectarian violence, especially after the bombing of a church on New Year’s Day. But sudddenly, before we knew what was really happening, there was a mass uprising of Egyptians of every faith and economic class demanding justice and basic human rights. We aren’t sure what to make of it. We need Jon Stewart or Banksy to come along and clarify things for us, give us a reassuring summary of the situation so that we can go back to having an opinion.

Are we afraid this turmoil is going to permanently de-stabilize Egypt? Or even the whole region, especially if the aftershocks continue spreading (as they did from Tunisia to Egypt)? Or are we just afraid on general principle? It’s an unfortunate human tendency to value order above freedom most of the time. That’s what repressive governments count on. Revolution is a scary thing.

We’re used to thinking of the Middle East as a battleground in a quasi-medieval religious war, a divisive and hopeless place. Did anyone ever think we’d see anything like these Muslims and Christians struggling together and looking after each other any time soon?

First of all, we might want to question where we get our ideas from in the first place. We hear all about terror, everyone’s favorite flavor of bad news, but we haven’t heard much about the Mubarek regime’s human rights abuses, have we? And beyond that, how do we let ourselves get convinced that there’s no hope for reconciliation between faiths, that no change will ever come? What takes away our hope?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bob Marley lately. His music always resonates during a crisis. (It’s all I could listen to for weeks after 9/11.) The lyric that spoke to me when I saw these pictures is this one from “Coming in from the Cold”:

Would you let the system get inside your head again?
Would you let the system make you kill your brotherman?
No, dread, no!

If these images, which almost bring tears to my eyes even as I look at them now, prove one thing, it’s that new paradigms are possible, and can spring to life after decades – centuries – of hate and despair. Indeed, I think the potential for unity, peace and goodwill is always present, always just around the corner, even – or especially – in the most dire circumstances. Love is always stronger than hate.

All of our highest spiritual wisdom demands that we love one another. Maybe in the middle of this emergency in Egypt, we see here a glimpse of a new kind of interfaith connection, arising exactly when it’s needed most.

I think this should be one of our keys to understanding this situation. I don’t know what to think, I don’t know where these events will lead Egypt, or where they will lead us, which is probably how we should look at it. But I trust what I see here.

urban farmers

My wife and I recently started an organic vegetable garden in one of the communal flower beds of our suburban North Shore apartment building. We’d been talking about growing vegetables for years – owning a bit of land one of these days and producing food with it is a key goal for us. When we got back from Abu Dhabi a couple of months ago, we finally had the will and the downtime to give it a test run. The flower bed was full of compost. Summer was approaching.

There were a couple of harbingers that the garden was meant to be. A cherry tomato vine had taken over much of the flower bed during the four months we were out of town. Though it had nothing to climb on, and was just sprawling on the ground, still it had produced lots of fruit – some of it harvested by my mother-in-law, some of it still on the vine, or falling off into the flower bed. I was sorry to have to pull it out to make room for new seedlings. And among the weeds I also pulled out, I found a little nondescript cucurbit seedling right at the edge of the bed. I wasn’t sure if it was a cucumber, a melon or a squash. But any of those possibilities were welcome. I left that one, carefully clearing away the long grass around it, to be the flagship seedling of our new garden. Both of these plants were volunteers – the seeds had come from the composted vegetable scraps we’d been systematically burying in the flower bed earlier in the year.

I was so happy to see with my own eyes that winter in New South Wales is mild enough that a tomato plant can grow and produce by itself. That’s totally alien to my experience in New York, where the growing season runs from April to November at the latest, and there’s not much for farmers to do over the winter but catch up on TV watching and go through seed catalogs. The mild climate here is one of the many reasons I migrated of course. You really can grow veggies right round the calendar here if you know what you’re doing.

Which we don’t, really. Neither of us have ever done this before. We both spent formative seasons working on organic farms when we were younger, and I spent ten years working in the organic produce business, but it’s very different when you’re growing your own.

It’s not easy. The host of problems we’ve experienced comes across like the lyrics to a bad folk song about hard times. The roma tomatoes have blossom-end rot. The summer squash have downey mildew, and they’re not pollinating. The habañero pepper plants aren’t producing at all. The jalapeño plant produced one lonely pepper, now it’s just sitting there. The yellow beans were attacked by slugs. The onion seedlings died a miserable death. The radishes are being eaten by… something. Seriously, I wanted to take some more snapshots to post here, but so far the outlook is pretty grim.

But some things are going well. The heirloom tomatoes (pictured) are looking great now – big green things that will theoretically be blackish-purple and juicy in a couple of weeks. A new crop of beans is growing. The herbs – basil, thyme, sage, marjoram and parsley – are really thriving in the hot weather and regularly contribute to our kitchen. Same with the rocket, mizuna and rainbow chard. And the little volunteer cucurbit has grown into an enormous vine that’s taking over our front lawn. Turns out it’s a butternut squash, and the fruit on it is getting bigger all the time. We’ll have plenty of squash this year if nothing else. (Figures the volunteer is the one that’s really producing. There’s a lot to be said for just letting things happen.)

It’s going to take years to get good at this – that’s what everyone who knows tells us. I have such great memories of helping my grandpa with his garden on long summer days in Oregon when I was a kid. I’m not sure if it’s the haze of nostalgia, but it seems the beans and tomatoes formed perfect rows of ten-foot-tall plants, and the crookneck squash and cucumbers exploded out of the ground. My grandpa had been doing it all his life. It’s not going like that in our small, overcrowded garden. There are a hundred mistakes we’ve made, a hundred tricks we haven’t learned yet.

But it’s amazing how satisfying it is, how it makes me feel like myself, how quickly the stress melts away and I get into my right mind when I’m down near ground level with the skinks and the ladybirds, weeding or mulching or just observing the plants. I mean to spend the rest of my life doing this. Even if it has to be part-time.

Once I thought I wanted to move to the country and become a farmer – get back to the land and get off the grid. It didn’t take me long to realize I have a lot more city in me than that. I just don’t want to be that far away from all the fun and the danger and the film festivals. Not yet anyway. At this point I think I’d be happy with a kitchen garden on a half acre. And maybe some chickens, like my mate who lives in downtown Denver. But this is the point I’m coming to: you can do a lot with that – you can grow a lot of food on a little bit of land.

I’ve always struggled to incorporate the different elements in my life: music, writing, film, a love of history, a love of everything nautical, a strong belief in organics and sustainable living, vegetarianism, a commitment to spiritual living, a passion for baseball. At times I think I just have too many influences. Sometimes the lifestyles that spring from these interests seem to contradict each other. How does playing funky urban beats fit in with growing food?

Well, the phrase I had stuck in my head as I was thinking about this entry was urban farmers. That happens to be the name of a house music production and remix crew from England; they released a couple of my favorite late-90s jams on the 20:20 Vision label, including this one:

I have no idea why those guys chose the name Urban Farmers. Might’ve just been random. But the point is it inspires me.

Then there’s the Rurals, a house-music collective from Devon, England led by a husband-and-wife team who live and produce music in a farmhouse in the country. They’ve made a career of incorporating pastoral concepts and imagery into their projects (contrary to the hyper-urban or futuristic motifs that are the hallmark of electronic music), naming albums Farmyard FlavoursNettle Soul and Farming Grooves. The sleeve design of Messages, with its birds and bees and floral patterns in a tribute to old-school printmaking, is one of my favorites. (It was done by Studio NMO.)

So it doesn’t have to be either/or. Anyway I’m starting to realize that the so-called contradiction between urban and pastoral urges in my life could represent possibilities for integration, mapping the way my life can fit into a sustainable future. I can take what I’ve learned about organic growing and apply it to city living. You could say this is a necessity. The world’s population is urbanizing at a crazy pace; farming is going to have to become more urban to keep up with it. This is the crucial next step in the local food movement.

Take a walk around the neighborhoods of the North Shore and you’ll see plenty of gardens, some of them pretty ambitious – beanstalks or cornstalks towering over the fences. It’s not a new idea. People have always loved growing a couple of tomatoes and some basil with their extra garden space. But I think more systematic, widespread and large-scale food growing in the city and suburbs should be considered. The population density of greater Sydney is skyrocketing. Suburban living as we think of it, with its wasteful and selfish tendencies, won’t work anymore. Nor is crowded urban living desirable for anyone. Medium density is the way forward. We’re already seeing it in classically suburban Lindfield: apartment blocks are replacing detached houses in some places. The paradigm is shifting.

Integrating urban food production into the region’s economy seems to me a great solution for this medium-density, mixed-use future. Increasing the land’s productivity, reducing supply lines while decreasing fossil-fuel use, making food a more immediate and involved experience for more people: win, win and win. It will be especially important here in Australia, the nation with the most urbanized population on earth. Much of this continent is not suitable for growing food, and the little that is has often been mismanaged and damaged. (This issue is tackled in Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which I just finished reading.)

But think of all the fertile land that exists in the suburbs. It’s like a huge untapped growing region made up individual plots of land. Most of it being used to grow lawns. But there are alternatives. Recently my wife visited a home not far away in posh, über-suburban Killara that had a huge and very productive garden taking up the entire backyard, with a chicken coop on the side.

And growing food is something everyone can do. As much as I’m going on about the problems I’ve had, it’s not something you need a degree or a certificate in. It’s part of everyone’s heritage. And it’s something you can do while also having a job and having a life. We just have to find the collective will to make it practical and desirable for more city and suburban people to do it – in backyards, in containers, on rooftops, in little flower beds like ours.

So, yeah. Urban farmers. The other day I was in Hyde Park (in Sydney’s city center) and noticed a container flower bed full of vegetables: kale, chard, lettuce and lavender. Purely for ornamentation you know. But just think of how much food we can produce like this when it comes down to it. It’s gotta be another sign.