My Ignorance of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

I usually don’t read the news. Local news, national news, international news–any of it. And I’m truly starting to regret that.

I used to be incredibly cynical about the world, thinking there were so many things wrong with it that there was no hope of us saving it. Then I read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a novel you’ll probably hear me reference quite a lot on this blog. This is because I fell in love with the novel’s last lines in which Mitchell confronts his readers by telling them that though their impact can only be small, it is an important impact nonetheless.

Reading this heavily affected my mindset about the world, but only to the point where I decided I should focus on one problem and work to make an impact there. And as a result I started to pay even less attention to anything other than my own ambition to make an impact.

Since I’ve been in Prague, the issue of the Syrian refugee crisis has been brought up often by my peers, friends, and professors. One of the groups in my filmmaking program has even decided to create their short film on the struggles of an immigrant.

However, what I’ve realized, as our professors have fallen more and more in love with the relevance of their film idea, the refugee crisis is not something you hear people discussing often on the streets of Prague. Granted, I’m not fluent in Czech, but it’s also something that’s easy to ignore if no one around you is talking about it as the activities regarding refugees coming into Prague are not highly publicized. I’ve found it hard to find much information regarding the Czech Republic as a part of the crisis besides their joint proposal with Slovakia to create a rail corridor between Hungary and Germany.

However, I did find an article written back on September 11th naming the Czech Republic as one of the countries that had rejected “the European Union president’s proposal for a quota system to distribute the resettlement of refugees among all member states” (IBT).

The Czech government has often claimed that there isn’t a rush to find refuge in Prague–a fact that my directing professor attributes to the weaker economy and lack of familial support the refugees will receive here. She told us that there have been few applications for refuge in the Czech Republic and according to the Prague Daily Monitor, only 69 Syrians have applied for asylum in the Czech Republic since the beginning of this year. But it’s tough to imagine that with so many refugees on the move, all will be able to find asylum in highly desired countries like Germany.

I imagine that the crisis looks different in other countries and maybe even areas in the Czech Republic outside of Prague–or I may even be looking in the wrong places. But I don’t know for sure. All I have come to really understand since I’ve been here is that the crisis is one worth noting but one that will not affect Prague as much as many other countries–at least for now.

What really got me reconsidering my position about international news, especially those covering issues like the Syrian refugee crisis, was Humans of New York (HONY). I really respect Brandon Stanton, the mind behind HONY, because he recognizes that everyone deserves to have their story told, and having realized this, he’s taken the effort to visit nonprofits and people in other countries (now, including those affected by the refugee crisis) in order to give them the opportunities to tell the world about what they have gone and are currently going through. You can tell that, despite its popularity, the endeavor, is not about him; he’s not asking for fame (a fact that became truly clear to me when I had to look up his real name for this post) but is, rather, attempting to connect us all to each other. And as I see it, his is a remarkable ambition; I don’t believe our world can continue to function well if we fail to care about what is happening in the lives and societies of the others who also inhabit this planet. But we also need to strengthen our attention spans.

While many of us joke about our inability to stay focused for long period of time, the fact is, if we care to make this world a better place, we have to care about things for more than a few seconds–more than a few days, even. Only then will it be clear that we care enough to take action. And only then can we truly work together for change.

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Self-Indulgence in Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette”

A couple nights ago, some of my flatmates and I sat down to watch Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, a period piece about the infamous French Queen. We had been shown a clip from the film (below) by our screenwriting teacher as an explanation of the importance of aligning form and content.

While I was aware of the film before my professor showed the clip, I had never read anything about it and never really had the desire to watch it. (Granted, I was only in the 6th grade when the film was first released, so Marie Antoinette [the person] was not high on my interest list.) But one of my flatmates expressed interest in watching the film, so we decided to sit down and have a go at it. Having seen Coppola’s brilliant Lost in Translation before, I had hope that Antoinette would be an equally inspiring film, but boy, was I wrong.

If you know anything about Sofia Coppola, you’ll know that she’s the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather trilogy. She is cousins with Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman. She’s basically part of a filmmaking dynasty and has a net worth of $20 million, according to the Internet. So it’s safe to say she is not far removed from the decadent Hollywood lifestyle, which is what her film attempts and fails to critique.

It’s hard to critique something in which you’re so deeply immersed, but it’s not impossible. It’s been done before–my favorite example being F. Scott Fitzgerald and his similar indulgences in the 1920s. Taking part in a lifestyle does not necessarily mean you agree with it; those who face this problem understand that after too many years in certain environments, you become reliant on it. (For example: society & technology today) However, if you’re going to critique it, you have to put a lot of effort into the way your story is told because otherwise, as is the case with Marie Antoinette, your story will fall flat.

There is only plot to Coppola’s film–no story. If you’re a writer, you understand what this means. In short, story is the “what” of a narrative–the thing(s) you are trying to express by telling it–and the plot is the how–the things that progress the elaboration of the “what.”

Most people know general facts about Marie Antoinette–her sexually inept husband, her frivolous lifestyle, and her eventual beheading. There’s also the famous line (most likely) falsely attributed to her: “Let them eat cake,”  which was supposedly uttered when she was told that the peasants had no bread.

All these highlights of Antoinette’s life were present in the plot of Coppola’s film, but in the film’s attempts to critique the decadence of the French Queen–and indirectly, that of Hollywood–it only succeeded in embracing the self-indulgence rather than rejecting it. For the period piece, Coppola gathered elegant costumes and grandiose filming locations, including the Château de Fontainebleau in France and the Belvedere in Austria. Her budget was estimated at $40 million, which (I am willing to admit) was not excessive for a film made in 2006, but I always feel that the money spent on a film must be justified by the product–and Marie Antoinette did nothing of the sort.

The film feels wrong for many reasons–Antoinette speaks English like an American, the French people are all British, the music jumps between Classical, Ambient and Pop; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But more than anything, what I couldn’t get over was the feeling that Coppola was being as self-indulgent as Antoinette. It feels more like she wanted to create a period piece just for the sake of having created a period piece with much less thought on her critique of decadence. The excessive costumes and locations and props only accentuated this feeling. The only scenes I felt any sort of critique on the lifestyle were the “I Want Candy” scene (above), which is actually diminished by its context in the film, and the “Let Them Eat Cake” line.

Regarding the latter: I think Coppola did a fine job of accentuating Antoinette brushing off the problems of the lower classes as she continues to self-indulge, but the fact is this part of the film is a mere 14 seconds of a 123 minute long film.

The film, as a whole, failed to take the tone of the clip above. Instead, it displayed the decadence in the progression of Marie Antoinette’s life without any sort of opinion on it. None of the characters were interesting, which is amazing considering the world’s wide knowledge of Antoinette as a personality, and as a result, it was impossible to become attached to and hope, follow, and learn from any of the characters.

I spent the whole film harboring a hope that the film might get better–that it might, in one moment, redeem itself. But that hope never came true. If there’s anything I’d take away from Marie Antoinette, it is that if you are going to make a period piece, especially a biopic, it is important to know what you want to say and that you are capable of adequately saying it. There are many films that have accomplished it before and since Coppola’s film was released. I’ve given you some examples below.

Prague

When I first thought about studying abroad–even before I got to college–I would never have guessed I would end up studying in Prague. Honestly, the only reason I ended up coming here to study was because it was the only intensive film studies program abroad to which my college was connected, but now that I’ve been here almost two days I can say that I am glad this was where my studies directed me. It’s not just because I enjoyed the beer at Kozlovna tonight or because I am intrigued by the city’s open imperfections that contrast its beautiful and intricate architecture. Instead, I am glad to have decided to explore a culture that I would not otherwise have learned much about from my cultural cave in the United States.

Last night at dinner, a group was discussing what Czech people thought about Americans and what Americans thought of Czech people. While I found the response of my fellow U.S. citizens to the latter discussion superficial, it did make me consider the fact that I know very little about the Czech Republic and its people–so little that I had few preconceived notions of what they were like. This, of course, is not entirely bad. The reality is no one can know something about everything (though too many of us seek to prove otherwise), but in general, I feel that the rich history of the Czech Republic is overlooked as lesser to that of other states, especially those in Western Europe.

There are so many things the Czech Republic has to offer–historically, culturally, and otherwise. It’s a beautiful city in itself (pictures will come — I’ve decided to not carry my camera around until I’m slightly better acquainted with the city), but there are also many interesting stories in its far and recent past, including the Velvet Revolution, after which Václav Havel–the namesake of Prague’s international airport–is named, and the films of the well-known Miloš Forman and other Czech directors and their involvement in the Czechoslovak New Wave film movement.

I won’t go into all of it here, but if you’re interested in European history or culture (especially film) I would highly recommend you spend some time reading up on it. What I’ve listed here are pretty important to Czech history but feel free to explore it further.

Chef’s Table: Insight into Inspiration

David Gelb became a documentary directing sensation with the provocative Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a film that uses low depth of field shots of sushi and inspirational quotes from their chef, the famous Jiro, to create a thoughtful piece on what it means to dedicate your life to something. (The film is leaving Netflix instant in a bit over a week, so I’d suggest that you watch it there while you still can.) Since then, he has teamed up with Netflix to create the equally beautiful documentary series Chef’s Table. Gelb has only directed one of the six episodes in the series’ first season, featuring Italian chef Massimo Bottura, but they’re all brilliant portrayals of the struggles of the craft. His episode is my favorite so far (though I’ve only watched four) because it so closely resembles Jiro in its cinematography (though Gelb was the cinematographer on Jiro whereas Bottura’s episode done by Will Basanta) and the beautifully slow pacing of its storytelling.

Unlike many shows about chefs and cooking, this series focuses more on the background and thought process of the chef in question. Every episode features a different chef, ranging in location and type of food from traditional, fire-roasted Argentinian cuisine in Patagonia to Japanese kaiseki in Los Angeles. What I love most about Chef’s Table is that it isn’t a show just for foodies. While the gastronomical images will give you what is technically known as a food-gasm, the series also hits many of the problems we face as a result of the human condition by showing how these chefs had to struggle through life and their craft in order to reach where they are now.

Honestly, I am the type of person who makes themselves a PB&J for lunch every day and makes barely seasoned baked chicken and tofu & spinach soup for dinner (this is not to say that I don’t enjoy good food as well). And I still love what I’ve gotten out of Gelb’s series. As with Jiro, each episode imparts to us the knowledge of how to work toward our best self while also demonstrating the importance of stepping back from the world and taking things at a slower pace. Great things are not accomplished through entitlement, we learn, but through years of hard work that define us as individuals.

Something beautiful that I’ve learned from both Jiro and this series is that we will never reach our best self–and that’s okay. It is more important that we recognize there will always be room for improvement and continuously strive to be better. Jiro, for example, lives the life of a “shokunin.” Literally, this means “craftsman” or “artisan,” but as author Tasio Orate clarifies, being a shokunin “means not only having technical skills but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. … The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people.” This understanding of the word suggests that constantly becoming better is not about being the best. Developing your craft, then, is not done for momentary awards, which are ultimately unfulfilling, but about contributing to society–a trait visible in Massimo Bottura. (You can see how much I love this guy.)

Bottura’s episode begins on him discussing how he saved Modena, the city in which his restaurant is run, by creating a parmigiano-based risotto after an earthquake hit in order to sell the cheese that would have otherwise been useless. (The practice of making such a risotto, as a learned from one of my foodie friends, is so common now it is not considered strange, but back then, it was revolutionary.) His attitude as he tells the story is in no way cocky and it is clear that he seeks no praise for his actions, but it is important to note that his pursuit to become a great chef led him to accomplish this social service. He does not discuss his accolades–there are only short, noninflected references to their existence–but rather makes a point of telling a story of how working with food can positively impact society.

This, rather than the mouthwatering images that linger on the screen, is what we need to take from watching Gelb’s documentaries: developing our crafts–whatever they may be–is not about gaining recognition or awards; though those things may come, what we really should be focused on is the impact of what we do on society.

If you haven’t seen Jiro or Chef’s Table, I suggest you watch them as soon as possible.

Let Me Tell You A Story

Once There Was A Little Girl

Once there was a little girl from the Southern United States, and one day, she realized that at some point in her life, she was going to have to decide to be something. So she started to search. How do you decide what to be? she wondered. Money was important. This much she knew. So she searched online high-paying professions, though in more words because she wasn’t yet sure what such “being” was called. A veterinarian, she decided. This is what I should be. She liked animals. (They were cute.) And it made her sad when they were hurt. So why not be the person who fixed them? But one day, she accidentally caught a glimpse of an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and decided that being any sort of doctor was too gruesome for her (but again, not using such a big word).

Now this little girl’s favorite uncle was an author and illustrator of children’s book, and he was her favorite because he was cool and would draw her pictures and sneakily put her name and her cousins’ into his books. I like drawing, too, the little girl thought when her uncle came over once. Maybe I should be an author and illustrator like my uncleSo she tried this too. Her art teacher at school taught her basic book binding and she would write stories and draw pictures. But she never seemed to have the patience to finish these stories or pictures enough to develop her craft, and soon this pursuit was dropped as well.

Much of the little girl’s life continued like this. She thought about many professions, including news anchoring, website designing, and being the lead singer of an alternative rock band (which was eventually discarded as a result of her waning interest in alternative rock). It wasn’t until early high school that the little girl found what she really wanted to be–this time knowing to call it profession.

She had another uncle–one who had married into the family and who she also deemed “cool.” Unlike her other uncle, this one was pursuing the profession of authoring books for adults, but he also had an extensive knowledge of film (the critical side, not the technical). He would talk to her about film every time she was visiting and tell her all the amazing new films coming out and why they were important. She hadn’t realized before that film could be so intricate–that it could reach so many people in such a deep way. I want to do that, she decided once and for all. I want to make movies and share my thoughts and feelings and experiences with the world around me.

Since then, the little girl has been trying her best to learn all she can about film, and she has come to find how related it is to many of the other things she tried to pursue and many of the things she now enjoys. She’s not where she wants to be yet (and as she’s learned from her recent viewing of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, she probably never will be) but that’s okay because there will always be room for improvement. All the girl hopes to do now is take what she loves and do it, and she’s decided that maybe she’ll write about it along the way. Maybe like once a week. (But really, she will. That’s what this blog is for. Just FYI.)

I don’t think I need to tell you: that little girl was me.