Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Howlidays!

I'm home for Christmas in New Mexico and these guys showed up in my backyard a few days ago. They actually came all the way up to my house. When I was growing up I'd never see coyotes. Once in a while their space alien howls could be heard in the distance, but that was the extent of their presence. Now I see them frequently; the pack basks on the asphalt of the street. One night I was awoken to the group wrestling under my window sill.

Our neighborhood has certainly changed since my family moved up to Cedar Crest 14 years ago. It used to be that when you looked out the living room window all you would see would be the mountains. The view's still good, but now there are four or five houses that have crept into the periphery of the landscape. With the development came the animals. First there were three foot tall jackrabbits and when they inexplicably disappeared the coyotes showed up.

I've heard the megafauna horror stories before. For some reason they usually evolve around mountain lions and joggers. We've had bears swipe up a few of our pets in the dead of night. Our pet sheep and goats now live behind a perimeter of barbed wire and electricity. Our cats don't go too far beyond our deck.

However, coyotes are a little different. They're the wily tricksters of the animal kingdom. They've learned to adapt to their new human neighbors and have actually thrived. While the gray wolf is nearly extinct in the continental United States, the coyote has grown in numbers. The animal used to only reside west of the Mississippi, but over the last 50 years has made it all the way east to Maine. One even ended up in Central Park.

What does the future hold? America's landscape grows increasingly suburban. How close can we safely cohabitate? It all depends on the perception of humans. We're the alpha creatures so we call the shots. Coyotes can be a nuisance when it comes to our pets and livestock. We're quick to set the trap or pull the trigger, but when I watch that pack frolic in the snow, those tendencies cease to carry weight. I get a feeling that is more emotional than rational. It's the mixture of magic and importance of encountering something wild in an ever civilized world.
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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I Waterboarded Myself

The House of Representatives just approved a bill that bans waterboarding this afternoon.
There's been a lot of talk in the news these days about whether or not the technique is considered torture. I thought I would try it out and decide for myself:

What surprised me the most from the experience was how fast my air supply went out. I'm a swimmer and I can hold my breath for quite a while, but I had trouble lasting for even just a few moments. To what should I attribute my lack of endurance? Laying upside down and having my mouth and nostrils quickly fill up with water.

Was it torture? I rigged up the experiment so that I was in full control of the situation, but if it was an actual interrogation, the disorientation, panic, and anxiety would have certainly exasperated the experience. I also think that my captors in a real situation would be more generous with their use of water. History has proved that factor to be fatal.

How do you waterboard? There's not a lot to the technique; you just need some water, a washcloth, and an inclined surface. I found some key points on the advocacy group Waterboard.org:

  • Keep the chest elevated above the head and neck to keep the lungs "above the waterline".

  • Incline the head, both to keep the throat open and to present the nostrils for easier filling.

  • Force the mouth open so that water can be poured into both the nose and mouth. Saran wrap, damp cloth, or any facial covering is not essential, but sometimes used as a bonus multiplier. If someone coughs to try to blow the water out of their throat or mouth the plastic catches the water and keeps it in. The cloth or plastic also acts as a one-way valve, opening to let more air out and then closing again to prevent inhalation. Eventually you end up with collapsed, empty lungs, no ability to inhale more air, a throat, mouth, and nose that's still full of water, and no capacity to get the water out since you're already fully exhaled. "CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in." (In practice, "14 seconds" is roughly the amount of time one can exhale slowly through the upturned nose. This keep the water out, temporarily. When your breath runs out the water starts flowing in.)

Here are some other people who have also experimented with waterboarding:

This video was taken at an anti-war protest. The victim lasts a long time, but notice that he's not on a very steep inclination.

This video was made on a dare by a bunch of suburban kids. It's pretty hardcore. They experiment with Saran wrap first and then move on to a washcloth. The victim actually breaks the board he's on when the washcloth technique is delivered.

The Democracy Now radio program interviewed a French, waterboard victim. He describes feeling a sensation of death.

Waterboarding torture should not be confused with Chinese Water Torture. That's something that usually goes on at teenage slumber parties.
Chinese Water Torture Video #1
Chinese Water Torture Video #2
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Friday, December 7, 2007

A Call to Arms

I'm a big fan of the Economist magazine.  Lately they've had some great stories about text messaging and camera phones that have been used as tools for social activism.   Inexpensive, pay as you go cell phones have become popular in developing countries.  After traditional methods of communication failed, African refugees were able to send requests for food and medical aid to UN humanitarian workers via text messaging.  Phones have been used to mobilize political rallies in the Philippines.  In Pakistan SMS technology was able to infiltrate government firewalls used to control free speech.  Witness, a Brooklyn based media for change organization, has set up a system that allows Rodney King type videos depicting social injustices to be uploaded from camera phones and broadcasted on their website.  This is a great example of technology becoming cheaper and, thus, the media becomes a more accessible tool to build awareness.
Here are the links to the full stories on the Economist.com
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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Plan B

After waiting months for the Peace Corps to deploy me, I've come up with a plan B.  The point of the Peace Corps was to get out into a developing country, do some humanitarian work, and at the same time try to implement my filmmaking in the field.  The huge plus to this was that the Peace Corps would finance my endeavor and potentially fund a graduate school fellowship when I finished my service.
While I'm waiting, I'm working on a similar, independent plan.  I want to do something in Nepal.  I've been fascinated with Nepali culture for a long time.  My friend Kate just moved out there.  I helped her out with some research before she left so I'm familiar with the political, economic, and environmental climates there.   Here are the Pros and Cons of my adventure:

Reasons to go to Nepal
  1. I have a contact, Kate Kakela, who will be working at a health clinic and with whom I've previously collaborated.
  2. There's a Nepali Research Center at my nearest university.
  3. The culture is accessible; I have read a lot of Eastern Philosophy.
  4. There's a large American expatriate population. 
  5. Himalayan filmmaking has always been receptive to Western audiences.
  6. I could live for as little as $8 a day.
What's Keeping me from Nepal
  1. I don't have a planned project to work on.
  2. I don't have my immunizations for Rabies, Typhoid, Meningococcal A and C, and Japanese Encephalitis.
  3. I don't have health insurance.
  4. I don't have trekking equipment.
  5. Airfare is on the low end $1000 one way.
Just from looking at that second list, it's going to be difficult getting over there without raising funds or attaching myself to an organization.  I've been looking at different organizations that are based in Nepal.  I found Mountain to Mountain and the Dzi Foundation.  These are two Nepali NGOs that are based in Colorado.  The University of New Mexico has a fairly large Nepali Study Center.  Also of note are Liberal Democracy Nepal and  The Film Artistes Association of Nepal  There is also the generosity of private donations.  If I can get all of these groups excited and behind a cause I'd be in good shape. 
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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Champions of the People

I was working at the Santa Fe Film Festival last week.  There were lots of great documentaries up there, but my favorite was Super Amigos. It's about luchadores (Mexican wrestlers) who serve as social advocates in Mexico City.

There's Super Barrio who fights slum lords and gentrification, Ecologistica is the environmentalist, Super Animal who beats up matadors, Super Gay battles homophobia, and Fray Tormenta runs an orphanage.   Their costumes became a symbol for advocate groups to rally around.  Their wrestling antics attracted the media who, by videotaping the spectacles for the news, created more awareness of the social crisis at hand.  This further solidified the community.  

The best part is that all of the Super Amigos consider themselves real super heroes.  Not even the authorities know the real identities of the men behind the masks.  Super Barrio made an appearance at the festival's screening.  He remarked that he had some trouble getting through customs at the airport in his costume.  

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My Media for Change Career Thus Far

My biggest challenge in starting this media for change career is sustaining myself. I mentioned before that I was working in commercial television, mostly Viacom, and I was turning out stuff like this:

(That guy who wins a bunch of money and gets flown to NYC is a silhouette of me)

Here's another of some footage that I shot at Coney Island:

They were fun to make in a high pressure kind of way and I got paid for working on them, but they are primarily advertisements dressed up in eye candy. I wanted to create videos with more substance so I worked on an a PBS American Masters on Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. I also edited this for the United Nations High Commission for Refuges:

I believe they're speaking in Kirundi.

These are exactly the types of projects that I want to work on. The problem is that they usually have non-existent budgets and long lines of interns and volunteers eager to work for free so this has my pro bono side work. I want to make a career out of this kind of stuff, but I'm having trouble figuring out just how to do it full time with without a trust fund.

Last year, I came close to getting paid to do documentaries. I got a year long grant from AmeriCorps to be a disaster responder for the American Red Cross in Greater New York. It was an incredible experience. New York City gets on eight fires on average a day and the Red Cross goes to each of them to provide emergency shelter and financial aid. My primary role was to report to disasters, but along the way I got the Red Cross to buy a cheap 3CCD camera. I made a DVD based on interviews from an international symposium on terrorism. I also shot some footage while working on a flood relief job and created this documentary:

The Red Cross Nor'Easter movie was kind of a break through for me. I was working with a humanitarian organization, feeling like I was making a difference, and when I had a chance I would crack a few shots with my camera to illustrate the nature of the disaster and the importance of the work that we were doing.

I've decided to up the ante. I've applied to the Peace Corps. I was nominated for a Public Health program in Francophone, Sub-Saharan Africa. I was supposed to deploy in Septembe. It's practically December and I'm still in the US. The Peace Corps is a government organization under the ominous umbrella of the US Department of State. My application has been slowly moving through the bureaucracy for almost a year and a half now. At this point I think it's lost just about all momentum. It's gotten so bad that I wrote to my hometown, Congresswoman Heather Wilson NM-R. She's pretty conservative (Karl Rove pat Wilson commended for her gung-ho support for the Iraq War when he was recently interviewed by Charlie Rose), but I'm told that she's like the Godfather when it comes to constituent services.

I've been thinking about doing it since I got out of college. I decided at that point that it was the scariest thing I could possibly think of doing and so I decided to pursue it. Living and working in a developing country for two years and three months would give me insight into culture, life, and international issues in a way that being a tourist could not. However, keeping up with my video projects could potentially be difficult in a village without electricity. The Peace Corps are sending me out there to work on hygiene and HIV/AIDS awareness, not cameras and videotapes. In a situation like this where the location is remote and resources are limited, making movies will have to be an independent endeavor and it's going to take a lot of resourcefulness and ingenuity on my part.

That got me thinking. If I'm going to be on my own when it comes to filmmaking, why not be completely independent. For that I'm going to need a Plan B.
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Sunday, November 25, 2007

My Gear

In the past, I would take commercial production and post production jobs. It was a way for me to build upon the knowledge that I gathered in film school, but my real motive was to hustle for the equipment. I would work on a Nickelodeon job at the office until about 6:00 PM and then use the tape decks and computers for my own projects until 10 PM. That was exhausting so I'm very happy to have come to a point where I actually own a camera and a laptop with Final Cut. I'm still tinkering with some encoding issues, but I've been posting my work on YouTube and Google Video. So now I can work and distribute my stuff independently without really having to rely on the industry.

My next step is to get my camera and computer out into the field. They are light enough weight that I can potentially travel with them into remote places. Instead of tromping around in the jungle, mountains, desert, or savannah with the entourage of a film crew, I'll be able to travel by myself with a low profile. I'm hoping that this will make the films that I shoot more candid and personal.

However, if I'm going to go this route I'm going to have to invest in protection and power. Cameras and computers are fragile so I'm going to need a good case to keep them from getting beat up in the field. The case also has to be low profile. I don't want to draw attention that I'm travelling with thousands of dollars worth of valuables. There is a good chance that there won't be electricity where I end up so I've started doing some research into lightweight, portable solar panels that I would use to charge my batteries.
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Friday, November 23, 2007

The Purpose of this Blog

I'm a filmmaker who is interested in using media as a catalyst for social change. I've worked in commercial television and movies over the last five or six years. I've seen how successful the medium is when it is used to pursuade its audience through advertising. I've come to the conclusion that film and video are powerful tools. If they can guild Times Square or Hollywood in gold why can't the same techniques be used to help develop third world countries?

Recently video and editing equipment has become extraordinarily cheap. The Internet has taken off too and streaming videos on YouTube have become the norm. Filmmaking has moved out of the studio soundstages and into our neighborhoods. It is finally becoming accessible to the average man, woman, and child.

Before we had lavish, blockbuster spectacles that the audience could watch, but could not create. Now, we have home movies shot on camera phones that end up at the top of the news hour. Television and movies have become more than just entertainment and escapism they have become actively democratic. I'm using this blog to take notes on the emerging uses of media.

Filmmaking can break news, it can create cultural awareness, document a fading tradition, teach the audience a new craft, and it has begun to give the voiceless a voice. There is still a huge gap between the haves and have nots when it comes to getting access to equipment and how the finished product gets distributed. I want to use this blog to brainstorm on ways to bridge that divide.

Any feedback is greatly appreciated and, if you'd like, you can see some examples of my work here: www.myspace.com/doublethinkproductions
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