Friday, July 15, 2016

Society of Tragedy

As new forms of media emerge and older forms of media find different capacities with technology growth, the standard saying is that the global society as a whole is brought closer together. Indeed, those who advocate for and against globalization tend to recognize the veracity of this saying, although they might disagree over the virtues globalization itself.

Generally, the idea of bringing global society together is viewed as positive. It is now possible for families separated by vast expanses of space and time to see each other on a regular basis online, strengthening the bonds of family and identity. Businesses can connect with each other to expand their market shares and help spur growth in multiple countries and regions, creating new coalitions of interests and benefits. Sports fans may now watch a match and cheer on their favourite soccer team from a different continent, creating a sense of identity with a club or team that transcends borders. Students who once might not have had access to university studies or to courses in certain professions can now access them through online teaching mechanisms, creating a global community of knowledge. These are some of the ways that advances in and the globalization of media have created unofficial societies that transcend borders.

Events through the years have shown that another form of society has been and continues to be created and recreated through advancements in and globalization of media – that of society joined by tragedy. With the increase in connectivity throughout the past century, the way that global society has been constructed has been altered and this has directly impacted the construction of tragedy.

What once might have been a small item in a newspaper about an event far away is now the lead story for media outlets and social media. This allows us to better understand the world in which we live and to feel that we are impacted by it. It also creates a society that reacts to and feels the effects of tragedy in a place far away more closely than ever before. Through the 24-hour news cycle and social media we are able to see images of a tragedy as it unfolds – be it natural or manmade – and are able to perceive the immediate impacts of it on victims and on bystanders.

As audiences, we hear the cries of the wounded and the tales of survival and of loss. We are able to see that such tragedy cuts across stereotypes. We visualize the event and the destruction it causes as it occurs. In this way, through advances in media, we, as a viewing public, become witnesses. We are also able to feel sympathy for those who have suffered from tragedy and in many instances display empathy as well because we are able to understand the events from a more intimate perspective. We are able to glimpse inside the reality of a tragedy.

In this way, advances in and the globalization of media have combined to create a society of tragedy as well as of benefit. There are concrete results to this – moments of silence observed across the world, official declarations of solidarity and, depending on the event, outrage, as well as personal statements by millions around the world on social media. There are also more private, deeply personal moments that result from watching tragedy unfold, even if it impacts those one has never met.

During a tragic event there are often legal responses by the affected country – such as declarations of emergency – and in the aftermath there are often new laws created or efforts to strengthen existing laws to prevent the tragedy from happening again. The families of the victims grieve and mourn, as do friends and colleagues. These are the traditional methods of mourning and progressing. Through advances in and the globalization of media, there is a larger global society that also feels the impacts of tragedy and marks the tragedy and the victims of it in myriad smaller yet still meaningful ways. In this way, a larger, global society of tragedy is created through a combination of media and humanity.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Biting into Stereotypes

During the past week, the US-based Discovery Channel has again broadcast Shark Week, a series of television programs that has become a cultural phenomenon. Indeed, since it began, audience interest in Shark Week has spawned an increase in the amount of programming offered and has allowed “Shark Week” as a term to enter the popular lexicon. All this, and yet the stars of the show are not human but rather are creatures that have been largely demonized throughout society.

Shark Week itself is an umbrella for myriad programs that address sharks and topics related to them. The exact contents of Shark Week’s programs varies from year to year but a general theme is to expose viewers to the wide swath of creatures that exists under the rubric of “sharks” and to allow viewers to understand scientific and behavioural aspects of them.

Society generally construes sharks as dangerous, vicious, man-eating villains of the sea that typically look like the Great White featured in Jaws or, for younger viewers, the campy cult movie Sharknado. Along with this, there tends to be an underestimate of the intellect possessed by sharks outside of the motivation to kill and the willingness to eat anything in their paths.

While movies have perpetuated these stereotypes, news stories have been and continue to be instrumental in these beliefs through reporting on shark attacks or shark sightings in areas frequented by humans. These stereotypes also tend not to place the shark in an ecosystem or in the chain of survival for creatures of the sea, with the exception of occasional portrayals of them as indiscriminate killers of species that tend to be viewed more sympathetically, such as seals and dolphins.

The programs featured during Shark Week introduce viewers to the many forms of sharks that exist by taking the audience into the habitat of the shark itself. Rather than presenting the shark in a museum or even in an aquarium setting, Shark Week programs feature researchers and scientists who have extensive knowledge of the topic and who travel to locations where various forms of shark are found. This allows viewers a glimpse into the natural habit in which sharks function rather than simply a beach full of swimmers and sunbathers. In many instances, the shark is the main predator in the eco-system, and could potentially pose a threat to a curious human, but this is explained through the scientific and behavioural process rather than through a reliance on fear alone.

Through this, the audience is able to appreciate the shark as more than the killing machine of mass media. Where the shark is a predator of more valued species, such as seals, this is explained in terms of eco-systems balance rather than indiscriminate killing. Even in programs that discuss the existence of extremely aggressive sharks or shark attacks, there is an explanation as to the behavioural aspects involved not simply a call to mass hysteria. Indeed, often the message of these programs is that the fault may fall more on human activities, decisions and attempts to encourage shark sightings or cage diving with sharks for recreation and tourism than on a fiend of the deep. Further, several Shark Week programs feature those who have survived shark attacks. These survivors do not hide the nature of their encounters but also present a balanced view and in many instances serve as advocates for sharks and their preservation.

This leads into another aspect of Shark Week – efforts to give viewers an understanding of the need to preserve and protect sharks and their habitats of sharks, and by extension other marine life. Many viewers are doubtless familiar with the need to protect the environment generally, or perhaps with the need to protect eco-systems such as rain forests, yet the importance of protecting marine resources and wildlife might not be that familiar. The scientists, researchers and citizens featured on Shark Week present the need for protection and conservation of sharks and marine wildlife in a way that breaks down stereotypes and exposes audiences to the importance of eco-system balance at sea.

Certainly, Shark Week incorporates and plays on the more stereotypical agents of shark fear that have been perpetuated in media – notably the use of music and logos that call to mind the movie Jaws. However, rather than reinforcing the fears that such forms of media have sought to create, Shark Week does the opposite by exposing viewers to the true nature of something that has been used to cause fear.

Shark Week is an innovative and successful method of using media to address and debunk stereotypes against a particular species – stereotypes that have in part been created and fed into mass media. While the goal of Shark Week is to highlight one entity, the lessons it offers for addressing stereotypes of many different forms are instructive and demonstrate the ways in which media can be used to break down stereotypes held by society as well as to create them.  

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Where Are We?

Where are we? This is a familiar statement uttered by travelers, children, and the occasional philosopher. The recent Netflix movie Special Correspondents examines the question from an often-comedic yet still insightful view – challenging the audience to understand how it views location and context.

Special Correspondents is the story of a New York City news radio personality and his sound technician as they set out on an unexpected and irregular journey. Frank is the news radio personality, who is introduced to the audience as he and his assistant trespass their way into the scene of a prominent murder posing as police officers in order to gather information to “scoop” the competition. He is found out by a detective who throws him out of the crime scene, from which he runs to a waiting sound van and transmits the story with the help of Ian, the trustee sound technician. Although Frank and Ian are applauded when they return to the station, Frank is dragged into his editor’s office, where he is told that he narrowly escaped being put in prison for interfering with an investigation and is on very tenuous footing. To Frank’s protests that he was too well known to be fired and that he has made many contributions to the radio station, his editor reminds him that he has never progressed beyond local radio.

Ian receives a similar dressing down from his wife, Eleanor, at a radio station gala later that night. Essentially, in her eyes he is a failure and she expected much more from him at this point in their relationship. When he has to work suddenly, Eleanor stays at the gala, where she seduces an unknowing Frank into a fling. Although Ian is unaware of his identity, he is convinced that she had an affair – this is later confirmed when she leaves.

At this point in the film, both Frank and Ian find themselves confronted with the reality that they haven’t “been anywhere” in their careers or even personal travels despite their perceived accomplishments. Within the constructs of the society they live in, Frank and Ian are bounded by geography and professional achievement.

Fate intervenes a day later, when Frank’s chagrined editor has to offer Frank the opportunity to travel to Ecuador to cover a reported governmental failure and potential coup. After pointing out that this is his chance to break out, Frank accepts the offer and calls Ian. At first, Ian is reluctant to go on the trip since he is distraught at Eleanor leaving him. Frank convinces him to break out of where he is and make the trip. However, when Ian mistakenly throws out the package with their passports, plane tickets and money, the two find themselves in a quandary. Without passports at the very least they cannot travel – without a story they cannot go back to the station without being fired.  

Despondent, they go to Ian’s favourite café – across the street from the radio station – to think the situation through. They are assisted by Brigida and Domingo, the sweetly naïve couple who own the café. We know little about them other than that they are from somewhere in Latin America, regard Ian as family and will do whatever he needs. Ian hatches an improbable plan and asks to use the spare room in the attic of the café building. Eventually, Ian unveils his idea – they do not actually have to be in Ecuador to report from Ecuador. He creates a sound effects system that reproduces the sounds generally associated with Ecuador and with unrest – bullets, tanks and screaming. Frank then steps in to create the story. At first the stories simply echo what was known to them when they left for the airport – civil and governmental unrest. Soon, however, the stories become far more elaborate tales of fiction than anything grounded in fact. They captivate the listening public – and indeed other media outlets that have found their correspondents barred from entry – and are relied on for international news.

At the same time, Frank and Ian sneak out of their hiding spot for a periodic walk around the block in disguise. During one such walk, the station manager calls and requests a quick news report then and there. Thinking on the spot, Frank is able to offer an “update” while also explaining the standard background noises of New York City as coming from Ecuador. These routine noises plausibly become the noise from American television or, in the case of a delivery truck, the sound of military vehicles moving through the streets.

When Frank and Ian invent a fictitious warlord who is “driving the rebellion,” they become a concern to the US government and their editor is told to have them report to the embassy in Quito for debriefing and evacuation. In the face of this request, Frank and Ian invent their own kidnapping in order to explain their inability to access the embassy. When they finally decide that it is time to come home, Frank and Ian face the startling realization that they must sneak into Ecuador and get to the embassy in order to have a proper end to their story. In an ironic twist, they are taken hostage by bandits shortly before they arrive in Quito and fight their way free. When they arrive at the embassy they truly look the part of former hostages and are able to tell an honest tale of captivity and survival. They can finally say that they have been somewhere.

Special Correspondents challenges the audience to think about the concept of where it is and how society constructs the concept of place. According to the strictures of law, one is a resident of a certain area and is bound by the laws of a certain area – in order to travel outside of that space there are also established legal requirements, notably passports.

And yet, as the film demonstrates, using advances in technology and media it is possible for one to “be” in another place without leaving the comforts of home or being bound by the laws of that place. Frank and Ian’s antics might have been comedic but their juxtaposition between places and experiences offers profound questions as to where we think we really are and how we understand place in modern social constructs.  

Monday, June 13, 2016

Is Faith The True Shibboleth? The West Wing and ‘Bible Trivia’

Religious-based persecution constitutes one of several possible reasons why people seek refugee status. In some cases, this type of persecution arises where an individual or a group converts to a new faith and adopts a new religious identity. The consequence of this ‘departure’ from their original faith may include persecution involving persistent harassment, physical violence and/or imprisonment. Such persons face many challenges in obtaining refugee status. Included amongst these challenges is being able to establish that they are genuine followers of the new religious faith that they have adopted. How do individuals prove their bona fide status as members of the religious community to which they have joined? What facts and evidence must claimants advance to convince an appropriate decision-maker of the legitimacy of their claim?

A recent article in the Guardian revealed that British immigration officials have engaged in “Bible trivia” with respect to claimants arguing that they were persecuted on account of being converts to Christianity. As set out in a recent report published by the Asylum Advocacy Group and the All-Party Parliamentary Group For International Freedom of Religion or Belief, such claimants have had to demonstrate that they are true believers by answering a number of questions about Christianity. They were posed questions such as: Can you name the twelve apostles? When is Pentecost? How many books are in the Bible? Who betrayed Jesus to the Romans?

The Report articulates the following criticism about this approach to ascertaining the legitimacy of claimants’ faith: “Whilst they may seem reasonable, this report reveals that such questions, often referred to as “Bible trivia”, are a very poor way of assessing a conversion asylum claim and result in wrong decisions and expensive appeals.” It then begs the following question – what are more appropriate questions?

This very issue came into sharp relief on The West Wing during its second season (Episode 8). The West Wing was a popular television (which still carries a following) depicting the trials and tribulations of the fictional U.S. presidency of Josiah “Jed” Bartlet and his administration. The episode entitled “Shibboleth” is set around Thanksgiving. A boat of roughly 100 Chinese migrants reaches the United States. Those on board claim asylum on the basis of religious persecution in connection with their belief in and practice of Christianity. Due in part to pressure by Christian political activists in the United States, the administration considers whether to grant refugee status. However, there are suspicions that the asylum-seekers are merely feigning belief in Christianity to secure refugee status and remain in the United States. President Bartlet, a devout and practicing Roman Catholic himself, makes the decision to interview one of the asylum-seekers to determine the veracity of the asylum-seekers’ claims to be Christian. As convenience would have it, Bartlet interviews a college professor who speaks English fluently enough to carry on a conversation without the assistance of an interpreter. Leaving aside the rather incredible and extremely unlikely scenario of a United States president having the time to conduct such an interview instead of an immigration official, the dialogue that transpires between Bartlet and the asylum-seeker is instructive and touches upon the above-mentioned report’s criticisms.

The following is a clip from the episode which depicts Bartlet’s interview with the asylum-seeker (the interview begins at roughly the two minute mark):

As can be seen, Bartlet begins the conversation by legitimately asking the asylum-seeker how he practices his faith and other basic facts related to such practice. He then shifts the conversation by asking the names of Jesus’ apostles. After naming them, the claimant then states the following: “Mr. President, Christianity is not demonstrated through a recitation of facts. You’re seeking evidence of faith, a wholehearted acceptance of God’s promise of a better world. ‘For we hold that man is justified by faith alone,’ is what St. Paul said. ‘Justified by faith alone.’ Faith is the true…shibboleth.”

This scene illustrates both a combination of what is at least partially crucial to understanding whether a person is a member of the claimed faith group and what is less relevant. While it is important to assess the credibility of claimants and the veracity of their claims (by examining their practices and beliefs in addition to any inconsistencies in their stories), the recitation of ‘trivial’ facts about the religion is not central to determining whether someone is a true and genuine believer. As the Report observes, one of the British government’s Asylum Policy Instructions suggests that “knowledge tests ‘are liable to establish nothing more than the ability to absorb factual information’ and be ‘based on the interviewing officer’s subjective perception of what a convert should know.’” Instead, the Policy suggests that there “should be a focus on the personal beliefs and behaviour of the claimant and directs government interviewers to use open-ended questions to facilitate exploration of the claimant’s personal experiences and their journey to their new faith.” (Report, p.24)

The rather brief interview Bartlet conducts provides both an illustration of the better type of questioning, which explores the personal experiences and modes of actual religious practice as well as the rather less valuable form, which delves into trivial information. Even though the asylum-seeker is able to answer the question regarding the number of Jesus’ apostles, he stresses that such knowledge is not what is crucial to demonstrating the veracity of his faith.

Just as an aside, while this interview ultimately works in the favour of the asylum-seekers, we might want to reflect on the problematic nature of the process depicted in the scene. The college professor whom Bartlet interviews serves as a representative of the entire group. However, it is eminently possible that on a transoceanic voyage involving scores of migrants, some on that ship may not be bona fide refugees. Due to the college professor’s credible performance, they are all viewed as worthy. Equally problematic would be an instance where the college professor failed to prove to Barlet that he was a genuine Christian and every other migrant on the ship is tarred by the same determination even if some are otherwise genuine Christians being persecuted as they claim to be. This mass refusal based on the testimony of one person would amount to mass punishment. But I digress, it’s only television after all.

It is worth reading the Report’s findings in greater detail to understand some of the other challenges religious asylum-seekers face in these circumstances. This includes instances where a government interviewer’s own perceptions of how adherents of a particular religion or sect might typically practice their faith in a specific culture lead to erroneous assumptions that such practice might be universal to all or most other adherents of that faith. The failure of the claimant to provide facts that support the interviewer’s presumptions may lead to a negative assessment of the claimant’s credibility. 

Other problems also arise where, unlike the case of the asylum-seeker in The West Wing episode, others need the assistance of an interpreter. There may be legitimate concerns with some interpreters who fail to employ the proper terminology or use different vocabulary in conveying the claimant’s answers. Conflicts may emerge where the interpreter is not of the same faith community as the claimant and is thus not familiar with some of the religious terms employed. Furthermore, the interpreter may even belong to the same faith community as those who have persecuted or threatened the claimant with persecution. In The West Wing scene, the claimant could speak enough English and had sufficient knowledge of the proper terminology to demonstrate to Bartlet his bona fides as a Christian.

Interviews with immigration officials or examinations before an immigration judge or tribunal adjudicator will tend to be longer and more extensive than what we see in The West Wing (for obvious reasons). Nevertheless, the show hits upon a legitimate criticism that the Asylum Advocacy Group and All-Party Parliamentary Group address in their Report. Assessing the veracity of one’s faith must reach beyond interrogating the limitations of a claimant’s knowledge of trivial information. Indeed, evaluating a claimant’s grasp of the number of Jesus’ apostles and questions of a similar ilk undermines the humanitarian goals of the Refugee Convention
A special thanks to JiHyun Youn for providing editorial assistance on this post.  
All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Asylum Advocacy Group, "Fleeing Persecution: Asylum Claims in the UK on Religious Freedom Grounds" (A Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief and the Asylum Advocacy Group, 2016), online:   
Harriet Sherwood, "Refugees seeking asylum on religious grounds quizzed on 'Bible trivia'" The Guardian (7 June 2016), online:

Friday, June 3, 2016

Reordering Society in Emergencies

Regardless the system involved, there is an order to societies no matter where they are located or who comprises them. Sometimes this order is democratic, sometimes it is undemocratic, but order is necessary to preserve the functioning of society. However, in any situation and any society the order can change. The film The Finest Hours demonstrates how quickly societies can reorder themselves during times of emergency.

The Finest Hours is the fictionalized version of the 1952 rescue of the SS Pendleton, an oil tanker sailing off the coast of Massachusetts. The Pendleton finds herself at sea during an intense winter storm. In the opening scenes, Ray Sybert, the Pendleton’s senior engineer, is seen toiling in the bowels of the ship, attempting to maintain the her safety in the storm. He sends an imploring message to the ship’s captain to slow down the Pendleton’s sailing speed to ride out the storm. Sybert’s pleas are unheeded and the Pendleton maintains a higher speed, although Sybert clearly realizes that the captain might have signed the death warrant for the ship. Those who work with Sybert in the ship’s engines not only understand his reasons for wanting less speed but also can see manifestations of the pressure the ship is under, especially along the seams of the hull. During a particularly intense patch of sea, the hull splits along these seams, partially flooding the lower deck. Sybert decides to slow the ship’s speed regardless of the captain’s orders – a significant maritime taboo. Soon Sybert learns that there will be no reprimand for him – the Pendleton has split in two, with the captain and the communications tower capsizing and sinking into the night before the eyes of Sybert and the remaining crew.

After witnessing the doomed half of the Pendleton sink, the crewmembers come to the realization that they are alone in the Atlantic. Sybert returns to the engines, knowing that a flood in the engine room will disable all power to the remaining portion of the Pendleton and cause it to sink as well. He is brought out of the engine room when a fight occurs between crewmembers who are panicked. One crewmember tries to convince the crew that the best course of action is to abandon ship and take to the lifeboats – to a clear-headed person a course of action that would be fatal given the size of the lifeboats and the size of the waves. Another crewmember cautions against this, maintaining that the best course of action is to stay on the Pendleton and try to find help. Until this point Sybert is regarded as the ship’s recluse, who stays below deck and would rather spend time with the ship than with his crewmates. However, he emerges from the engine room to mediate the fight and explains to the crew why taking to the lifeboats would be fatal and how to save themselves – by staying on the Pendleton and trying to steer her onto the shore, essentially beaching the ship and waiting for help. Sybert’s argument convinces the crew and from that point on he becomes the de facto captain of the remains of the Pendleton.

At the same time, the nearest Coast Guard station, at Chatham, Massachusetts, becomes aware that the Pendleton has broken in two and that another oil tanker, the SS Fort Mercer in the vicinity has suffered a similar fate. News of the Fort Mercer reaches the Coast Guard station at Chatham first, and the commanding officer of the station sends what appears to be a seasoned team of Coast Guard members to assist the survivors. A debate ensues over the best route to sea in the storm since accessing the sea from Chatham means either going over or around the Chatham bar, a notoriously difficult area for sailors to traverse. The seasoned team decides to go around the bar – a longer route but seemingly more prudent in the storm.

The main voice advocating a course directly over the Chatham bar belongs to Bernie Webber, a younger officer in the Coast Guard team. Webber is a Cape Cod local, genial, soft-spoken and shy, who is liked by his fellow Coast Guard members but not necessarily respected as a leading voice. He also is still suffering from the memory of a previous rescue attempt during a similar storm in which he was unable to reach the crew of a ship in distress before the ship sunk. Indeed, he has a visible reminder of this failure every day since Richard Livesey, one of his fellow Coast Guard officers, had a brother on the doomed ship and is clearly resentful of Webber.

With the seasoned crew assisting the Fort Mercer, Webber finds himself presented with the opportunity to save those onboard the Pendleton. His crewmembers consist of Livesey and two young sailors, including one who was new to the area. Webber still maintains that the best path is over the bar and, despite his ill feelings about his brother’s death, Livesey agrees. Before they set out, a group of old fishermen pull Webber aside and tell him that there would be no shame in saying he tried to get over the bar but could not. He thanks them, says he will keep the advice in mind and then leaves with no intention of playing the coward. Once at sea, Livesey has the ability to watch Webber captain a ship and understands that he would have done anything possible to save the ship on which Livesey’s brother died. Throughout the course of their ordeal to get to the Pendleton, Livesey comes to regard Webber as not only a good man but also a true captain, changing the dynamics of their relationship and cementing Webber as a leader.

What ensues is a nightmarish trip to the Pendleton that constantly threatens to capsize the ship, while on the Pendleton the conditions are constantly deteriorating. On both ships the unwitting captains struggle to maintain their vessels and their crews as well as in their own confidence as leaders. Each faces the realization that he might have led his crew into false hope of survival and each fears that he might not be able to achieve his goals. And yet, these fears are allayed for Webber when his ship cross the Chatham bar and reach the Pendleton and for Sybert when a rescue ship arrives to save his crew from the increasingly lifeless frame of the Pendleton. Ultimately, Webber breaks the rules and takes the entire remaining crew of the Pendleton onboard his ship although it was designed to hold far less people. He also disregards a direct order to attempt to take the Pendleton’s crew further out to sea to liaise with another ship, instead realizing that the safest course is to head back to shore. All onboard make it to Chatham safely.

The Finest Hours presents portraits of two men who under normal circumstances were content in their quiet lives as part of a larger apparatus – the Pendleton and the Coast Guard. It is clear that Sybert and Webber are good men and take their jobs very seriously but neither of them is a leader and the society in which they work does not seem them as such. For each of them there is a higher authority in the chain of command that must be followed even if he disagrees with it.

And yet, when a dire situation ensues, each man emerges as a leader of his respective society due to many of the same traits that made him merely a part of it before – knowledge of essential skills, quiet and calm in the face of fear, and a lack of ego. In a crisis, both societies turn to someone who can be a knowledgeable force of action. Society, in this sense, reorders itself around the person that can save it and inspire it through actions rather than words or commands alone.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Culture of Luxury

Food and drink are necessary for survival and, more than that, are often forms of small or large luxuries. When we see these consumable luxuries we tend to think of them as fleeting pleasures, things to be enjoyed – perhaps even discussed and remembered – but not as things that are the end result of an established culture.

However, in truth these products are very much the result of a culture that exists within the bounds of the law – for example sanitary laws or laws of regional designation – as well as within the robust and exacting rules of the cultural gatekeepers.  The documentary film Somm: Into the Bottle provides a window on these often unexamined aspects of winemaking and the larger wine industry and how these pieces fit together to form a self-defining culture.

Somm: Into the Bottle is a follow-up to the documentary film Somm, which delves into the world of Master Sommeliers and explores the arduous educational and testing process undertaken by those seeking to attain this most coveted of statuses in the wine world. In itself, Somm presents a unique understanding of a world that is often under-valued or misunderstood by even those who avail themselves of the knowledge provided by sommeliers. Many of the same individuals profiled in Somm return to Somm: Into the Bottle to serve as guides into the world of winemaking and the wine industry, telling the story of the wine product many viewers are familiar with in ways that probe what wine actually is.   

The story unfolds through chapters, ranging from the historical origins of wine to the pouring of the product into barrels. Far from presenting a simple story, the film moves on to examine every aspect of the creation of the product. To do so, the story told focuses on the territory used to grow wine grapes throughout the world, noting the origins of winegrowing as stemming from early colonization, notably Roman colonization, of areas amenable to grapes that yielded certain forms of wine. Inherent in this aspect of the story is the interlinking between the territory and those on it, leading to the creation of multiple generations of families focused on the territory used for winemaking.

In many ways, there are essential similarities between these developments and the creation of kingdoms and modern countries with set patterns of culture and identity. These parallels are furthered with the discussion of laws – some of them quite old – that restrict the ability to use a certain name for a product unless the product actually originates in a given territorial location. Through the seals or other manifestations of origin, bottles of wine – for example those from Champagne – essentially carry their own forms of passports.

The film’s chapters move on to examine the various components of the wine product itself. Perhaps obviously, there is a great deal of focus on the grapes themselves, noting how the environment and experiences of the vines and the grapes as they mature form the identity of the grape for later wine usage. There are unwritten rules as to how to handle vines to train them to produce in certain environments and to function in even challenging climates and seasons. In this way, the film presents aspects of wine growing that are similar to the ways in which society and law regulate the conduct of individuals and teaches future generations.

Similarly, the film emphasizes the many people involved in the creation of wine and how they are governed by tradition as well as law in ways that are similar to the functioning of society and the governing of individual relationships. For example, the length of time in which a wine remains in a barrel and the fermentation agents added to it trains the wine and gives it identity. Even the barrels themselves have a huge impact on the product, with different barrels imparting different identities to the wine.

Ultimately, the film presents the final product of the winemaking process. It also presents the ways in which wine is brought to life. Bringing wine to life is contingent on the existence of a product that is the result of a culture that is self-governing through respect for the product and the components that are involved in it. As the film presents it, this culture is international and constitutes an entity older than current countries in the international system. This culture is preserved through tradition and remains viable through the ability to modernize – a balance many countries cannot strike. At the same time, this culture can work within the national legal systems that apply to the areas in which wine is made and indeed the national legal systems are often used to achieve certain of the culture’s goals, such as protection from predatory outside forces wishing to misappropriate a geographical designation.

Overall, Somm: Into the Bottle informs the audience of the broader context surrounding the bottle of wine it might encounter as a consumer or even a mere bystander. While the film itself is limited to wine it opens a door onto the larger world of culture society and regulation of food and beverages, particularly those that are ubiquitous luxuries to many societies.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Racing to Revolution

Cars are often referred to as revolutionary in terms of design or innovation but they are not as often thought of as being tools of revolution or resistance themselves. The documentary Havana MotorClub, however, changes this and highlights the potential for cars and auto racing to be at the forefront of revolution and resistance.

Havana Motor Club tells the story of auto racing and automotive ingenuity in Cuba. It begins with an explanation of how auto racing functioned in Cuba prior to the communist revolution. At that point, cars in Cuba were symbols of luxury and auto racing had become so ingrained in society that Havana was the site of a Formula One race in 1958. The event was highly publicized, symbolizing a step for Cuba’s advancement in the eyes of some and the decadence of capitalism in the eyes of others. Unfortunately, the event was marred by tragedy when a car participating in the race lost control, veering into the cheering crowd and killed and injured a number of spectators.

Shortly thereafter, the communist revolution occurred in Cuba and all forms of auto racing were outlawed. This did not stop Cubans from maintaining a love affair with their cars – albeit cars that are essentially frozen in time in the 1950s. This also failed to stop Cubans from engaging in auto races, however these races were forced underground and became illegal activities. Still, races occurred in the middle of traffic or at night on more deserted strips of land, all under the threat of jail time and the confiscation of participating cars. These threats were not enough to stop the development of a well-known racing culture that features several prominent garages and personalities.

The film features interviews with members of these garages, who demonstrate their engineering skills in building and rebuilding cars – for licit purposes as well as racing purposes – despite embargoes and lack of spare parts. To the racers/mechanics profiled, it is clear that cars and the pursuit of racing despite the risk has become an essential part of their identities and families, in some cases extending to generations and across gender lines. It is also clear that there are dangers in the races to the drivers and to the spectators as a result of the illegal nature of competitions.

The first step toward legitimization of the races came in 2012 when the government agreed to allow an historic race to occur. During the weeks prior to the face, the film portrays the successes, failures and sacrifices of those who seek to participate. And yet, shortly before the race was scheduled to occur it was suspended by the government ostensibly due to issues with crowd control capabilities since the Pope was visiting at the same time. Despite this explanation, the outraged would-be racers – some of whom devoted decades to cars and the pursuit of racing – believe that there is a deeper political motivation at work.

Cancellation of the planned race does not suspend illegal racing or efforts by many in the racing community to press for another legal race. In the meantime, racers continue to race despite the potential repercussions and their garages continue to refine the capacities of their cars.

Eventually, the government relents and agrees to allow a race to be held. This generates hope within the auto racing community but this is tempered by some level of disbelief given the prior attempts at racing legally. At the same time, leaders within the community become acutely aware of the scrutiny that will be placed on the event and the need to ensure things such as crowd control and safety along with control among the racers themselves. Shortly before the race the official media host for the event announces to the community that his coverage of the race will not be aired on state television. Still, he maintains that he will thoroughly cover the event for posterity and to provide the community with evidence of the popularity and safety of racing.

Race day is of course quite tense for the racers, their garages and their families. The event is popular, drawing a good crowd, which makes the community’s officials concerned because of worries that the crowds will stand in dangerous places or come onto the track and cause another tragedy that will set back the cause of legalizing racing in Cuba. Throughout the pre-race announcements there are constant reminders of this and in between races the announcer must plead with the crowd to stay back from the track. Ultimately, all of the races scheduled are successfully and safely run, and the most anticipated race ends in a photo-finish – truly an ending fit for a film. And yet, at the end there is a reminder that racing is still illegal in Cuba as of the release time of the film in 2015.

Havana Motor Club is a fascinating view into part of Cuba that is unseen even with the increase in tourism opportunities for Americans and others. While Cuba is known for the preservation of cars from the 1950s, the racing culture is necessarily kept behind closed doors even from other Cubans as a result of its illegal status.

And yet, as portrayed in the film, auto racing in Cuba as emblematic of the ways in which sports can be used as vehicles of revolution and resistance. Feelings toward the Castro regime are irrelevant in this discussion. Instead the issue of revolution and resistance is related to laws that are seen as unpopular, unnecessary and, in many ways, slowing societal progress in Cuba. The racers and those associated with them act in defiance of laws that have existed for decades, offering overt forms of revolution against them and active means of resisting them.

When provided a window on legality, the racing community is eager to participate yet aware that it must organize carefully and create a well-executed spectacle to establish itself as legitimate. This provides the racers with a unique opportunity yet, as they are reminded by officials, requires them to shed some of the revolutionary aspects they were forced to adopt in order to race to begin with. In this way, the film demonstrates the ways that revolution and resistance can occur in unlikely places and among unlikely communities that might not consider themselves agents of revolution and resistance.