Perspectives from Persepolis

Fearing social suicide, I very seldom use the word “nifty.” Yet when faced with the task of describing the animation style of Persepolis, it seems like the only word that will do. The characters are drawn in a stylishly minimal black-and-white and move in a herky-jerky way that is defiantly 2-D in a Pixar-dominated animation marketplace. When characters move, they often look like paper puppets— one part of the body will be flailing while the rest remains absolutely stationary. In the rare instances when 3-D is used, it is employed in a way that simulates a pop-up book. It looks like one of those Robert Smigel cartoons from Saturday Night Live filtered through German Expressionism.

Persepolis is based on two graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi about her own adolescence in a war-torn and increasingly oppressive Iran, and her subsequent tumultuous, soul-searching journey through Europe. The books and the film are also a pretty effective history lesson, summarizing years of Iranian war and revolution. Despite the difficult subject matter, both the graphic novels and the film are surprisingly whimsical and occasionally touching, and they have the same sort of irreverent humour one might find a comic written by a kid during class.

Unlike most literary adaptations, the Persepolis movie is co-written and codirected by the original author. “I never wanted to make a movie, and I always thought that was a very bad idea to make a movie out of the comics,” said Satrapi in a phone interview. “I had the possibility to make exactly the movie I wanted without making any compromise, and as an artist it doesn’t happen every day when people tell you, ‘Oh you can do whatever you want’—it was really an intellectual and artistic challenge for me.”

The challenge of the Persepolis movie was to take two rambling, tangential graphic novels and turn them into a relatively conventional 95-minute movie while still maintaining their spirit. “When I made the book, the story is linear: it starts at one point, it finishes at one point, and I had all the space to express whatever I wanted. When you a one-and-a-half hour movie of course you cannot put everything, otherwise you’ll find yourself with five movies in one, which is a complete disaster.

“It was really a book that I made to give another point of view to the world. I didn’t want the movie to become a political or a historical or a sociological statement, and I thought to make it universal it would be much better to concentrate on the story of one person, a very individualistic [structure] and humanistic point-of-view. And just to show how it is as a human being when you are in a place and how [cultural norms] become so much bigger than you as an individual and pressed down. And how do you leave? How do you grow up? I thought that was an interesting angle.”

Persepolis has received almost unanimous critical and popular acclaim. It has been selected as France’s official entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, beating out much-hyped candidates like La Vie en Rose and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and at last May’s Cannes Film Festival it won the Jury Prize. “The Cannes festival is like the day of your wedding,” said Satrapi. “Everybody enjoys it except you.”

But the film’s North American release is especially notable for coinciding with an unprecedented level of negative American media coverage about Iran. Considering the increasing tendency to label Iran, rather simplistically, as part of an “Axis of Evil,” Satrapi’s human story is particularly valuable.

“It is important that people don’t forget that the government is one thing, and the people are another,” says Satrapi. “I mean, even me, when I came to America for the first time, I missed [the fact] that American government and American people are not the same until I saw them, and I saw how people were…and American people are often not George Bush, thank God!”

“But most of the time people forget that, because every day 200 people die in Iraq, but nobody cares about it. They talk about it like it’s a dog dying. They have forgotten that those people [Iraqis] are just people like them, they have family and friends and hope and love, but they are reduced to some kind of abstract notion—‘Axis of Evil.’ So it’s very important that we put the human being at the centre of interest. It’s so obvious what I’m saying, but I feel that it can never be repeated enough.”

Students push York to dump Burma stocks

York students are lobbying their university to let its money speak for democracy in Burma. The student-led York Coalition for Responsible Investment is urging the university to review its Burma-related investments. In support of the boycott of the Burmese military regime, YCRI has launched a petition calling on the school to divest itself of these stocks.

The group’s petition, available online, cites human rights abuses reported by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and includes a pro-boycott statement from the All-Burmese Monks’ Alliance. Last September, Burma’s military dictators weathered a storm of public and official condemnation of their regime and its violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

“The campaign is really just beginning, consisting mainly of the petition and investment research at the moment,” said Simon Granovsky-Larsen, a student organizer of YCRI. “But we plan to eventually bring motions to the York Board of Governors addressing some or all of the companies active in Burma.”

YCRI found York University investments totaling over $1 billion in companies active in Burma, including Total, Chevron, Petrochina, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Hyundai, LG, and Samsung.

Their petition is a part of the ongoing effort to reform the ways universities invest. YCRI wants ethical standards, decision-making structure, voting methods, and the role of students in investment processes to be made explicit.

This isn’t the first time the students have criticized the university for involvement with Burma: York students led a five-year boycott of Pepsi products in the mid ’90s, following the soft drink maker’s opening of a plant in Burma.

MP Larry Bagnell, the chairman of the group Canadian Parliamentary Friends of Burma, just returned from the Thai-Burmese border. In a public letter, he reported on his experience with various groups, including deserters from the regime’s army, monks, and ex-political prisoners:

“I learned that, though it may appear to the international community that the worst of the violence is over in Burma, atrocities in the ethnic states including rape, forced displacement, forced labour and extrajudicial killings are going on daily,” he wrote. “The people I met expressed support for Canada’s humanitarian aid to Burma and increased economic sanctions against the regime.”

McGill set a precedent with a similar campaign in 2006. In response to that program, the Montreal school’s Board of Governors adopted an ethical investment proposal.
The petition can be viewed online at: petition.html.

Cops on the prowl for peeping Tom

Residents of the area around St. George St. and Bloor West have been warned by Toronto police to keep vigilant after reports came in of a man peeping into women’s homes during the evening and early morning hours. Police sent out a safety alert last week, asking for the public’s assistance identifying the man, described as 5’6” to 5’10” with a thin build, wearing a dark bomber jacket and toque.

It is not clear whether any of the peeping Tom incidents took place on U of T’s downtown campus, but Justin Fisher, assistant to the dean of Woodsworth College—whose new residence tower sits at the intersection highlighted by police— said he could not recall any similar incidents in the six months since he took on his position.

“The measures that we have in place, we’re very confident in those, and in the policies we have in place too,” said Fisher. He cited such security measures as a 24-hour front desk, guest sign-in policy, and nightly rounds made by staff.

“I just think being in downtown Toronto and how we have an such open campus where anyone from public or students are able to access our buildings, that’s why it’s important that we take security seriously and that we’re always on top of it.” In September, two female students at York university were sexually assaulted by men who snuck into their dorm. GTA universities condemned the assault and responded by reaffirming their commitment to student security. Later that month, two editors of Ryerson’s newspaper the Eyeopener tested the security at two of the university’s dorms and found they could sneak in easily. No such incidents have been reported at U of T.

Guild guilty of gutting Globes?

If you’re like me, your entire life revolves around the annual Academy Awards. (Then again, if you’re like me, you’re probably also very, very alone, but that’s beside the point.) Oscar obsession usually starts around September with the Toronto International Film Festival, when I spend endless hours ignoring loved ones in favour of reading reviews of whatever four-hour Ang Lee movie is premiering that day. The next five months until the Academy reveals its award winners are like hot, sweaty foreplay for any true Oscar junkie—the sweet caress of the “For Your Consideration” ads, the sensuous lubrication of the box office reports, the gentle thrusting of the early award shows (Golden Globes, People’s Choice Awards, Independent Spirit Awards), all leading up to a vaguely unsatisfying and all-toopremature Oscar telecast. It’s a yearly ritual that gives my life meaning.

But this year, the Oscars are in jeopardy. As you’ve probably heard, the Writer’s Guild of America is striking because of a dispute with the Producer’s Guild over residual payments for sales of movies and TV shows over online venues like Itunes. The writers believe they should receive 2.5 per cent of online revenue in residuals. By contrast, the producers believe the writers should receive zero per cent.

As a result of the strike, no Writer’s Guild members are allowed to write new movie and TV scripts until the issue is resolved. Furthermore, anyone who appears on a show that is being produced in violation of strike guidelines is perceived as not supporting the writers’ cause, and can rightly be considered a traitor. As a result, virtually no important people will cross a picket line. This is why Leno’s guest the other night was some guy from the L.A. zoo and Conan’s guest was Bob Saget.

Awards ceremonies are similarly affected, as evidenced by the recent cancellation of the Golden Globe Awards. Oh yes, that beloved presenters’ banter is, in fact, written by a professional, and unless the award show received special permission from the Writer’s Guild, no big stars will cross the picket line. Even if they did, what would they say? Since we all know the main appeal of the Golden Globes is the outside chance of seeing a celebrity drunk, there was nothing left to do but cancel it.

For any hard-core award show fan, this is bad news. As Dick Clark says, the Globes are “the party of the year,” and if Dick Clark says it, it must be true. Who can forget all those wacky and wonderful memories from past Globes ceremonies? Like that time when…uh…well, actually, the only really wacky moment I can think of is when Pia Zadora won, and that was before I was born, but the point remains: we’ll surely be missing out on some wonderful memories. Another unfortunate result of the cancellation is that Steven Spielberg, this year’s lifetime achievement winner, will have to wait until 2009 to collect his trophy. Poor guy. I hope he catches a break someday.

With the Globes cancelled, all eyes are now on Oscar. If I may illustrate this situation using a metaphor in the form of the 1996 movie Executive Decision, the Globes are like Steven Seagal to the Oscars’ Kurt Russell: if Seagal dies early on, then Russell can no longer be considered safe. Okay, terrible example, but you get the idea.

If the writers and the producers don’t come to an agreement soon, the Oscars will probably be cancelled. And with no Oscar-cast to watch, my life will lose all meaning, and I might be forced to go outside, read a book, or even interact with other people, and nobody wants that. So if anyone from the Producer’s Guild is reading this, I beg of you: if you don’t care about fairness, honesty, accountability, and creativity…could you at least care about me?

Who’s laughing now?

The Writers Guild of America strike is entering its 10th week today, and while it might warm some hearts to know that a new American Gladiators is back in the making, most television viewers are beginning to tire of the onslaught of game shows and reality programming hijacking TV airtime. Adding insult to couch potato injury, last week it was announced that this year’s Golden Globes will be cancelled. This means no red carpet and no fashion magazine “best and worst of” lists in the weeks to follow. This strike is beginning to hinder all sorts of guilty pleasures.

Still, it’s hard not to side with the writers. Now that they’re gone, we’re realizing just how badly television needs them. Well-written shows like The Office and Big Love—two of the many programs whose production has been halted by the strike—are what keeps the ‘boob’ out of boob tube. More pressingly, this is a U.S. presidential election year. How on earth are we supposed to follow the campaign without Jon Stewart’s whipsmart coverage on The Daily Show to fill us in on all the dirty politics? New episodes have returned, but with Stewart doing all his own writing, they are of lesser quality.

On the other hand, Canadian-produced television shows remain unaffected by the WGA strike. Perhaps an ongoing strike would allow for a push of Canadian programming into a broader North American spotlight. Can’t you just picture families across America rushing home to see the latest episode of Corner Gas? Then again, maybe not.

There is a major downside to the strike for Canadian entertainers. Our Hollywood North economy is beginning to suffer tremendous losses from the cessation of American television productions. In British Columbia alone, more than a dozen series that had been filming in the province prior to the strike have closed operations. The two that remain are expected to follow suit within the month.

The strike is a nuisance, but fair is fair. This isn’t the first time American writers have gone on strike. Back in 1988, the WGA ended its five-month strike with an ill-forged deal that wound up costing them enormous home video and DVD residuals in the following years. Now, the writers’ concerns surround new media, specifically a share of internet-based media profits, which don’t add up to much today, but are projected to be worth billions in the future. Though it may seem mind-boggling, production companies that rely so heavily on the talent of their writers for enormous profits have long been reluctant to grant these writers a fair piece of the pie.

Hopefully the studio execs are paying close attention to the low-grade pap that’s being churned out on their networks, and realize that pretty soon we’re going to get tired of watching reruns of House, turn off the TV and, I don’t know, pick up a book or something.

Just compensation for writers is the obvious, ethical choice for the entertainment industry, even if it means viewers have to endure more of the same dismal programming until an agreement can be made. The writers have already been shortchanged. This strike is about making sure it doesn’t keep happening.

Inventing the aqualung

Scuba diving generates millions of dollars in revenue each year. The word “scuba” is an acronym for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus,” created by the U.S. Navy as a way to describe the equipment used by military divers. It is fitting that the modern name for the popular underwater breathing equipment finds its origins with the military. For centuries before scuba gear was used for recreation or research, the ability to remain underwater for long periods of time was most desired for military purposes. Renaissance strategists fantasized about the ability to work on the underside of submerged vessels for long periods of time or, more importantly, being able to ambush enemies completely undetected.

Some early inventors, like 16th century Italian mathematician Niccolo Tartaglia, envisioned a waterproof bell or hourglass inside which a person could stay underwater for as long as the air encased remained breathable. Others envisioned air tubes that connected the diver to the surface. Even Leonardo da Vinci had a working model: in the 15th century, he sketched a diving suit that afforded the wearer the ability to descend or ascend by deflating or inflating a “wine skin to be used to contain the breath.” While many of these inventions never made it past the drawing board, they are quite impressive considering the lack of dependable scientific knowledge at the time.

A commercially viable diving suit was not produced until the 19th century. French engineers Benoit Rouquayrol and Auguste Denayrouze teamed up to produce the “Aerophore,” a suit that incorporated a reservoir of compressed air for emergencies. The reservoir gave the diver freedom to move around, for a small amount of time, unfettered underwater. The success of Rouqauyrol and Denayrouze’s compressed air reservoir inspired others to try and improve on the design. In 1878, Henry Fleuss designed the first self-contained oxygen apparatus. In his invention, oxygen was contained in a small copper cylinder that could be rebreathed, as the system used a chemical to absorb exhaled carbon dioxide. Furthermore, Fleuss’ apparatus did not produce air bubbles, making it ideal for military frogmen, as they would not be given away at the surface while using it.

As technology advanced, cylinders that could hold very high pressures were finally produced. This innovation, along with an observation made by French navy Commandant Yves Le Prieur, combined to create the first incarnation of modern scuba diving equipment.

In 1912, Le Prieur watched as Maurice Fernez remained underwater through the aid of a surface pump. Inspired by Fernez’s display, Le Prieur wanted to find a way to do the same thing underwater. Fourteen years later, the two men teamed up and produced the lightweight breathing apparatus that Jacques Cousteau would later refine and popularize. By attaching a mouthpiece to the kind of metal cylinder used to inflate pneumatic tires, Le Prieur was able to create a selfcontained breathing apparatus that was light and easy to use. However, the air flowed continuously out of the cylinders, giving the diver a mere 12 minutes underwater.

In 1943, Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagan co-invented the first open-circuit scuba diving equipment, which they called the “aqualung.” It solved the problem of continuous airflow with the “demand valve,” which releases air only upon inhalation. Their invention was soon in widespread use. Cousteau is credited with popularizing modern diving and pioneering underwater filming, neither of which would have been possible without his invention. Though modern scuba diving equipment is fairly similar to the aqualung, it has undergone some changes. One of the most notable is Ted Eldred’s invention of a single-hose open-circuit scuba set, as opposed to the twin-hose design of Cousteau and Gagan. Scientists, vacationers, and militaries now use scuba equipment, assisting divers in a much broader range of functions than those originally conceived by Renaissance thinkers.

No thanks, your kidneys are too gay for me

Last week, Health Canada announced controversial new regulations surrounding protocol for organ donation. The new rules, which have been harshly criticized, list sexually active gay men as unsuitable donors because of the risk of HIV infection. This has, of course, angered many activists who have fought for years to erase the idea that HIV is an exclusively homosexual disease.

Surely, homophobia and discrimination are nothing to laugh at, but this is definitely not a fight that the Stonewall rioters could have imagined having to take up. “We’re here, we’re queer, harvest our organs!”

I’m not sure organ donation is a right per se. The right to actually keep all your organs inside your own body is probably more important. But still, in a society free of discrimination, everyone should have the right to be treated equally, in life and in death, regardless of sexual orientation.

However, these regulations didn’t appear out of the blue. The experts at Health Canada object to sexually active gay donors on health, not moral grounds. It’s not as if they’re worried that non-gay patients will have their innards infected by the sinful tissue of blasphemous sodomites. They’re worried about disease control. The reality is that sexually active gay men account for 51 per cent of all Canadians living with HIV in this country, and 45 per cent of new infections.

Besides male homosexual sex, the new regulations also take into account other high-risk sexual practices, like taking money for sex or having sexual contact in jail. But some health officials are saying that Health Canada may be overlooking other risky practices among heterosexuals.

Gary Levy, director of the multi-organ transplant program for the University Health Network in Toronto, had this to say: “The fact is, if someone has 62 partners, whether it’s heterosexual or homosexual, there still is a risk [for HIV transmission].”

So apparently, sluts aren’t suitable organ donors either. But how could we weed them out? “I’m very sorry for your loss Mrs. Jones, but before we donate your daughter’s heart to this dying man, could you tell us, was she, you know…loose? How about unprotected anal sex, did she have a lot of it?”

In any case, Health Canada is in a tight position. The results of an inadequate screening process would be disastrous, and the risk is very real. In Chicago alone, four people contracted HIV from donated organs last year. With the memory of the fatal tainted blood scandal still a painful memory in this country, Health Canada has a duty to make sure they don’t accept organs from high-risk populations. But is it discrimination to link HIV with a certain marginalized population? It’s taken decades to dismantle the idea of HIV/AIDS as a disease exclusive to homosexuals, and to hear the opposite from Canada’s most important health institution seems to be a huge step backwards.

The good news is that these regulations are not blanket interdictions against homosexuals. Gay women are considered safe donors, as are any homosexual men who are not sexually active. Gay men who are mostly monogamous, and whose partners have no communicable diseases, will also be allowed to donate.

Although these regulations are troubling, they probably say more about the worryingly high rates of HIV among Canada’s gay men than they do about homophobic attitudes among our health professionals. The reality is that HIV infections continue to grow at a startling pace among gay men, and it’s this problem that our health system and gay activists alike should be desperately trying to tackle. We should be trying to keep gay Canadian men alive for longer, rather than arguing over what to do with their organs once they’re dead.

Paying for our eco-sins: the story behind carbon offsets

“Marge, I agree with you—in theory. In theory, communism works. In theory,” said Homer Simpson in response to his wife’s concerns over owning an elephant. Replacing the word “communism” with “carbon offsets” might be appropriate considering a recent turn of events.

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission is currently investigating green marketing and advertising claims in a series of hearings. One of the topics under review is carbon offsets, a $54-million (USD) business in the United States alone last year.

As part of a growing “green trend,” many companies are featuring environmental incentives for consumers who choose their brand. One doesn’t have to search hard to find examples of this practice. Air Canada started a carbon offset program last May, in conjunction with a non-profit group called Zerofootprint. After typing in your destination and point of origin, the Zerofootprint website calculates the money you owe in order to cover the carbon dioxide emissions you are responsible for creating by flying. Other large corporations, such as Dell, Volkswagen, and General Electric offer optional environmental programs that range from investing in tree planting to reward points that earn the customer carbon offsets.

The FTC’s guidelines for environmental advertising haven’t been updated since 1998. Coupled with worries over where the money put into these programs actually goes, it is easy to see why some people are concerned.

On top of all this, the effectiveness of some carbon fighting strategies has been called into question. The number- one reason planting trees has been advocated as a tool for fighting climate change is the fact that they act as carbon sinks. Through photosynthesis, trees are able to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide and use it to create leaves, branches, and other structures. Conceivably, extra trees will absorb the excess carbon dioxide that human activity puts into the atmosphere, provided they live long enough. A typical tree in the tropics is estimated to be able to absorb 22 kilograms of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year. However, trees in slower growing temperate forests absorb much less.

Compared to other carbon reduction strategies, planting trees is extremely cost effective. The International Panel on Climate Change notes that the price for this strategy can be as low as $0.10 to $20 USD per metric ton of carbon dioxide sequestered. In contrast to the usually steep costs of developing alternative energy sources, planting carbon sinks is an attractive and easily implemented solution. Whether or not it is an effective one remains to be seen.

Ken Caldeira, a researcher with the Carnegie Institution, denounces this “feel-good” practice of purchasing offsets, recommending that more effective strategies be pursued, such as stopping ecosystem destruction and changing the way we use energy.

English environmentalist George Monbiot famously compared the carbon offset system to that of buying indulgences in the Middle Ages. For a certain fee, Catholics could buy forgiveness for sins, easing their guilty consciences through monetary donations to the church. Rather than changing consumption habits, everyday consumers can use carbon offsets in much the same way.

Admittedly, it is difficult to gauge how effective climate change strategies are, and here is where the problem lies. Aware of the potential for abusing the system, many organizations that deal with carbon offsets are beginning to use independent groups to monitor their efforts. A formal certification system is needed and hopefully the FTC can get the ball rolling on this initiative.

Carbon offsets are a positive step towards fighting climate change, and the speed with which consumers and corporations have adopted the practice is encouraging. But accountability is needed to make sure carbon offsets are not money thrown out the window. The theory behind carbon offsets is a good one. Let’s hope the experiment proves they are effective.