‘How the other half dies’

“Don’t lose heart,” said Dr. Sarita Verma as she opened the 10th annual Health and Human Rights conference at the Medical Sciences building Friday night. Verma’s talk, “Health and Human Rights: how the other half dies,” opened the twoday conference. This year’s event, hosted by the U of T’s international health program, focused on health care disparities between urban and rural communities and international access to health services.

Verma was part of Canada’s foreign service and worked with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Sudan and Ethiopia. She set a grim tone for the conference with photographs of starving children she had cared for.

“Go and be a part of the global community instead of just sitting here and talking about it,” she told the audience.

Canada, said Verma, was poaching foreign health care workers from developing countries. She said students and scholars could do a great deal of good for international health care.

The conference’s keynote speech came from Dr. Peter Singer, a professor at U of T’s faculty of medicine. Singer is also co-director of the life sciences, ethics and policy program at the McLaughlin Rotman Centre for Global Health. The talk outlined Singer’s conception of the role of local manufacturing of health care products, and the resultant boost to local economies, as a key to bridging life expectancy.

“It is very important to create awareness on global health issues and to shed light on the disparities that exist,” said Farheen Shaikh, a fourth-year human biology and health tudent at U of T and chair of this year’s conference.

Cloverfield is on the loose

How strange it is to remember all the talk in the weeks following September 11 about whether scenes of urban chaos and destruction would ever be permissible in popular culture again. Now just over six years after 9/11 comes the much buzzed-about, J.J. Abrams-produced monster movie Cloverfield, which is a creature feature for the “War on Terror” years. Here’s my wacky pitch: Cloverfield is like Godzilla meets United 93.

If you’ve been thinking of seeing Cloverfield but haven’t yet, read no further. It works best if you know as little as possible going in. The plot, in general terms: in New York City during a going-away party held in honour of dashing young Rob (Michael Stahl-David), a giant monster attacks the city without warning or reason. In the midst of the chaos, Rob and a few friends try to make it to midtown Manhattan to save Rob’s girlfriend.

One of Rob’s friends is Hud, a drunken loser who happens to record the party with a MiniDV camera. Hud takes it upon himself to document the evening so that future generations can “see how it all went down.” The gimmick of Cloverfield is that it is told entirely from the perspective of Hud’s MiniDV camera.

With a few more introductory scenes and a third-person, 35mm perspective, this could easily have been an unspectacular entry in the Godzilla cannon. The choice of filming Cloverfield from the perspective of a MiniDV camera gives it the blunt immediacy of…well, the amateur footage of the planes hitting the World Trade Center. Cloverfield is uncanny in the way that it captures the confused feelings in the air on September 11: frustration at not knowing the reason for the catastrophe, and anger at the disaster itself.

Apart from that, Cloverfield is a damn fine monster movie. It’s intense, suspenseful, and has a few legitimately scary moments. The minor story flaws (how can a character who has been impaled still work up the energy to run?) are redeemed by the ending, which is refreshingly uncompromising. This is also a richer and more complex film than the average monster mash: message boards are already swamped with theories about the movie’s near-subliminal background details (look carefully at the film’s final shot) and its legendary, complicated viral marketing campaign. But perhaps most astonishing of all is that Cloverfield has a genuinely compelling human story, no easy feat considering that the plot construction leaves little time for background details.

Interview

In a telephone interview with Michael Stahl-David, Jessica Lucas, and Odette Yustman, the film’s stars were eager to distance Cloverfield from 9/11.

“Our intentions weren’t to recreate 9/11 at all,” said Yustman. “This is a complete fantasy movie and it’s about a big huge monster that attacks New York City. We understand that there are similarities, but those were not our intention at all.”

Added Stahl-David, “I think you can have this really emotional expeReence of watching characters deal with this really catastrophic situation while at the same time being entertained by the fact that it’s a monster, there are these creatures jumping out, the guy behind the camera’s making wisecracks.” Despite the denials, Lucas mentioned later on that the cast watched footage from different disasters “just to get an idea of how people react to that situation, which actually helped me a lot.”

SECRET BEGINNINGS:

Jessica Lucas: “We didn’t know what we were auditioning for at all, except that it was a J.J. Abrams project. I read for it a couple of times, and then I booked it, and we didn’t get a finalized script until really close to shooting, and then we finally knew it was a monster movie.”

Odette Yustman: “We had to sign different confidentiality agreements saying that we wouldn’t say anything. When we finally got a script, the script was all red pages, with our names typed on every page, so if we lost it we were completely screwed.”

ACT NATURAL:

Michael Stahl-David: “It was interesting because sometimes you had to be super relaxed, and sometimes you had to be very ‘non-acting,’ and then sometimes subtlety really just wouldn’t read, because the camera wouldn’t be close enough, or you had to believe that Hud was holding the camera in that situation, so he couldn’t be too conveniently focused on your eyes.”

Odette Yustman: “It was such a different process, because we were able to address the camera, which we’re taught not to do. Also, there was the whole improvisation part of the movie. We were able to bring our own thoughts and our own creative process to these characters, so it was very interesting.”

VIRAL MARKETING:

Michael Stahl-David: “I think it’s cool and interesting how much the fans become part of the advertising. The message board becomes such a huge part of promoting the movie, and these are just the people who are excited about it. So these fans are really becoming huge players in the industry, collectively.”

Palestine visit was empty political theatre

President Bush’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories earlier this month, his first to the region in the seven years of his administration, brought with it little hope for any substantive resolution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. The president has an unenviable record of being slow in responding to numerous critical events during his presidency. but for once, incompetence cannot be blamed for the president’s failure in the Middle East. On the issue of peace in Palestine-Israel, the Bush administration has made a definitive choice to give low priority to resolving the ongoing conflict.

The president’s Jan. 9 visit was a distasteful demonstration of political theatre, utterly devoid of any substance. The same goes for the entire Annapolis Peace effort which began last November but has yet to move forward in resolving any of the core outstanding issues, making the prospects of a long and lasting peace agreement any time soon extremely remote. The unattainability of peace is reinforced by the political weakness of both Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, who are both hugely unpopular leaders at home and face domestic opposition to making any of the concessions that are necessary for peace.

The political climate in the region is not one conducive to a peaceful resolution, despite what the vast majority of the civilian population desires. Instead, cosmetic measures such as peace talks that never lead to any tenable solutions have become the instrument of choice for both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership to gain cheap political points at home and abroad. However, the prospects of peace are remote because the preconditions set up in these much-hailed talks sabotage any chance for real negotiations to take place.

Prime Minister Olmert’s success in getting President Bush to not push Israel into a peace agreement until after the Palestinian leadership clamps down on Palestinian terrorists is an automatic recipe for failure. This would essentially require President Abbas to take on and potentially demolish militant Hamas before any progress can be made on the issue of an independent Palestinian state. President Abbas is in no position to accomplish this precondition. This fact has been acknowledged by Olmert, who last November characterized his Palestinian counterpart as “a weak partner, who is not capable.”

Olmert and Bush know that this precondition cannot be met by Abbas, and yet they insist upon it because the status quo of continued low-level conflict is advantageous to Israel, America’s main ally in the region. This is because Israel’s leadership has accepted the emergence of Fortress Israel, whereby the Jewish state, with its vastly superior armed forces and its almost total control of movement in the region, can live in relative security without making any concessions to the Palestinians—such as refugees’ right to return to their occupied lands or the cessation of deadly raids into Palestinian territory—which would be necessary for real peace.

A perfect example of Israel’s choice of security over real peace is the current project of erecting the West Bank barrier, an eight-metre high, 700 km wall separating Israel from parts the territories. The wall has been highly effective in virtually eliminating the threat of suicide bombings, but it has done nothing to address the underlying reasons for conflict between the two groups.

Israel’s prospect of genuinely cordial relations with the Palestinians, the vast majority of whom are not terrorists but rather peaceful citizens, remains unlikely. Especially as long as the Palestinian people’s right to return, a right anchored in international law, goes unfulfilled. In so far that a physical barrier has achieved some level of success in smothering the ferocity of the Israeli-Palestinian violence we can perhaps be thankful that President Bush’s shenanigans didn’t make things any worse.

The case for Twelve Angry Men

Ordinarily, one associates Mirvish with song-and-dance (or, shall we say, very cheesy) theatre. But the latest from the regular Mirvish subscription season, Twelve Angry Men is a gripping courtroom drama that every theatre lover must see. Based on the famous drama by Reginald Rose, New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company has brought the hit production of this classic play straight from its Broadway premiere, which stars the Emmy-winning film and TV actor, Richard Thomas (The Waltons, Wonder Boys). The production has earned three Tony nominations and unanimous praise from critics.

The plot is simple. Set in 1954 in New York City, 12 jurors are corralled into a hot, humid room to deliberate the guilt of a 16-year-old boy accused of killing his abusive father in a moment of rage. One juror, to the frustration of his 11 peers, feels that there is not enough evidence to declare a verdict of guilty beyond reasonable doubt. During the heated debate that follows, the hidden preconceptions and assumptions of the jurors are revealed. Each juror is forced to face himself as he plays hangman.

Granted, the plot is not as interesting as the characters themselves, all of whom are clearly defined and well-cast to boot. It would be unfair to call them stereotypes, but they each embody a different slice of life, such as an overtly arrogant businessman, a lower-class worker, a middle-class intellectual, and so on. The interaction between the characters was dynamic—however there was the occasional confusion in identifying the speaker if everyone in the scene is chatting.

The set was well designed, and the direction was crisp. There were many gasps and applauses in appreciation of certain moments. The audience’s verdict: a well-deserved standing ovation.

Twelve Angry Men runs at the Princess of Wales Theatre until February 10, 2008. For more information, go to www.mirvish.com

Iran: Bush’s last chance at saving his legacy?

Thankfully, Bush’s days in the White House are winding down, but it seems as if his legacy will impact the landscape of American foreign and public policy long after he is gone. If it were up to him, his name would appear in the textbooks of the great nation to the south forever tied to his self-annointed persona as a “war president.”

He has cultivated this legacy throughout his eight years as president by launching the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to combat autocratic rule. These conflicts were necessary, Bush has said, because autocratic states not only cause instability to their respective societies but they are havens for terrorists, who can take advantage of both the protection offered by despotic leaders and the general lawlessness at the fringes of society, to recruit, train, and plan devastating attacks against Western targets, with impunity.

Under this rationale, Bush started his War on Terror in the Middle East to secure American safety and American interests abroad. He also threw in the whole “bringing democracy to the oppressed people” aspect in order to make a potentially long, expensive, and dangerous set of wars more palatable to the American public. With the sudden shock of 9/11, Bush embarked on an ambitious and violent program of eradicating terrorism from the face of the earth and bringing democracy to every corner of the globe.

But with rising death tolls in Afghanistan, and especially in Iraq, and with no end in sight, the honourable moniker of a “war president” now must certainly take on negative connotations. Given the dismal results of his supposedly necessary wars, Bush must be seen as more of a “war-mongering president.” With his current approval rating at an all-time low of 20 per cent, the lowest of any president in American history, we can safely consider him a “failed president” in the court of public opinion. The only way he can shed this title with the 10 months he has left in office is to create a resounding success in either the domestic or foreign policy sphere, which will not only boost his public ratings but revive his status as a “successful war president,” by the time he leaves office.

This is where Iran comes in. Bush is in the Middle East now, attempting to build another coalition of the willing with Sunni Arab allies, for a probable pre-emptive strike against Iran. Bush’s harsh stance against Iran faces growing skepticism from Gulf Arab states, which are currently extending diplomatic relations to the Shi‘ite country. Bush’s accusations that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program have fizzled out. Iran recently declared all its previous nuclear activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency and as American intelligence found, Iran suspended its military nuclear projects in 2003.

Iran’s increasing importance to Bush can even be seen at home. A mere three hours after Nicholas Burns, the State Department official in charge of Iran policy, resigned, Bush appointed William Burns to the position. William Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, is loyal to Bush’s cause and many think will cooperate with the administration’s pushes for harsher anti-nuclear sanctions on Iran.

However, with the American elections looming, it is unlikely Bush will embroil America in another long and expensive military operation. For now, he is verbally locking horns with Iran, hoping the “enraged” Iranian bull will spend its energy and eventually back down, exhausted by the rhetoric and diplomatic might of the U.S. Bush is hoping to salvage whatever legacy he has left as a “war president” through his dealings with Iran. It’s a good thing he doesn’t have more time in office, otherwise he might have tried the same thing with North Korea, the only remaining member of the Axis of Evil club he hasn’t said he’s prepared to invade.

Shut out: Black players still a rarity in hockey

Barriers exist in many forms, sometimes they come in the form of a glass ceiling, other times they resemble a floor of ice. But the harder they are to see, the more difficult they can be to overcome. An old reminder of this came on Saturday night during a seemingly unimportant hockey game between the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers.

Prior to the opening faceoff, a well-dressed man walked along a black carpet towards centre ice. Clad in a well-tailored French suit, a pink dress-shirt, and a yellow rose in his chest pocket, he looked somewhat out of place among the players in uniform. But this man belonged on the ice as much as any player at the rink that day. It was a place he had known since he was two-years old, skating on a pond outside his native Fredericton, NB. Yet to the majority of spectators looking on, there was little to suggest that this now 72-year-old man had ever been a professional hockey player: least of all his colour.

In the NHL today there are only 14 players of African-American descent, in a game that is often termed pejoratively as a “white sport.” How much more difficult would it have been to imagine then, on January 18, 1958 at the old Forum in Montreal, the man they were now seeing became the first black player to lace up a pair of skates in an NHL game, when he donned the black and gold of the Boston Bruins.

On this night, at Madison Square Gardens he was no longer just the answer to a trivia question, but a man of flesh and blood, in attendance to receive an accolade that was long overdue. Willie O’Ree: hockey player, underdog, symbol.

New challenges

When Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in baseball, making his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, it ushered in a new era. After Robinson, hundreds of thousands of black players would go on to have successful careers in the major leagues. Yet the concept of breaking down a colour barrier, something more abstract than tactile, often creates new challenges of its own. It’s the kind of barrier that becomes more unmoveable the more one thinks it no longer exists.

The Toronto Star, typically grounded in reality, was somewhat idealistic with its premature pronouncements. A 2003 article by Mike Morrison read: “Once an all white enclave in the world of sports, the face of professional hockey is changing.”

Sadly no one watching the National Hockey League today could possibly take this position. Consider that from O’Rees’s first game in 1958 to 1991 only 41 black players suited up for an NHL team. In fact, after O’Ree there was no other black player in the NHL until Mike Marson was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

“There are around 20 black players in the NHL now” said O’Ree during a recent interview. “There’s definitely going to be more in the future,” O’Ree currently works for the NHL as Director of Youth Development for the Hockey Diversity Task Force, so he has more than a vested interest in the outcome.

In reality there are only 14 black players on active rosters as of Jan 18, 2008 (less than one per cent of the league’s overall composition),

“I thought there would have been more minorities in the NHL by now, but I guess it’s slowly growing,” said Darren Lowe, in a 2003 interview with the Star. Lowe, the head coach of the University of Toronto Varsity Blues men’s hockey team, was one of four black players in the 1983-84 NHL season when he played eight games with Pittsburgh.

A number of cultural factors have been suggested for the dearth in black hockey players.

African-Americans make up only two per cent of the Canadian Population and 12 per cent of the American. The United States contributes approximately 15 percent of the players in the NHL, while Canada produces close to 70 percent.

Still, that hasn’t stopped other professional leagues like the NBA, NFL, and MLB from having a visible black presence. The bottom line is one per cent in is unacceptable when considering how other leagues have embraced the diversity of it’s players.

A change for the better

The NHL needs to promote a more inclusive ideology in the sport. Hockey leagues can to often feature a countryclub mentality, denying membership to certain types of people. At some point one has to stop making excuses, cultural or otherwise, for a continuing problem .

Yet Ken Martin, an African-American, and senior director of community relations and diversity programs for the NHL, seems to do just that when he says: “Traditionally, black youths have turned to basketball, partly because some blacks in lower economic areas can’t afford the equipment and travel expenses of hockey”

It’s interesting that the NHL would use such an obvious stereotype to defend accusations of racial bias. But examples of it’s exclusionary culture continue to this day.

How about the story of Dallas defenseman Trevor Daley, who was the recipient of a racial slur from his own head coach with the OHL’s Soo Greyhounds, former NHL goalie John Vanbiesbrouck.

“Each black player has had to wage a personal battle for acceptance and respect,” said Cecil Harris, author of the book Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey. “Facing abuse that is verbal, physical or psychological because of their colour has been an unfortunate reality for almost all of them.”

It is perhaps the most compelling reason why there are so few black players in hockey. Many people caught in the same situation would simply quit rather than face the abuse. Not everyone has the strength to be the only black player or player of colour on an all-white team. That’s what makes players like Jackie Robinson and Willie O’Ree are a rarity.

The idea of breaking down barriers can often be misleading, since it suggests that there are no longer any obstacles to entry. In reality, the barriers never really go away, and they are even more dangerous because no one knows it except the people that have to fight through them.

Talking Heads: What are your plans for after graduation? Is it a scary prospect?

Clockwise from top-right

Jagneet , 3rd-year Commerce

I’m trying to become a CA (chartered accountant), so essentially I’m looking at work right out of graduation. Really its getting to graduation and getting certified thats the scary part. The rest is easy.

Federica, 4th-year Peace and Conflict Studies

My plan is to continue my studies back in Italy. I’m applying to places, scared to leave Canada but excited at the same time

Andrew, 2nd-year Engineering

I’m not afraid in the least. I plan to go to grad school, and anyways, after 20+ years of schooling, it will feel good to finally be independent.

Victor, 3rd-year American Studies

Oh…God…uhh…perpetual academia is the easiest choice. I’m staying in school as long as I can.

Looking out for number one

Women’s basketball head coach Michele Belanger got her players to crush the RMC Paladins 67-25 Friday night at the Athletic Centre the opportunity to see what work needs to be done during the final three weeks of the regular season before the OUA playoffs begin. Belanger was pleased with the results of her team’s latest victory,

“I think they’re working really hard,” she said. “I hope that we can get a little more communicative out on the court, that would be our biggest weakness right now.”

With three regulars, Alaine Hutton, Amanda Van Leeuwen and Jessica Hiew, sitting out the game to rest up for their Saturday tilt versus Queen’s, the Varsity Blues still had no trouble in building up a 36-17 halftime advantage. The Blues were led in scoring by cocaptain Christine Cho’s 13 points, while Cassandra White led RMC with five points at the half. In the second half Belanger started her bench players, and was rewarded with a stellar defensive performance. The Paladins shot only 16 per cent from the field in the second half, good for eight points.

Cho finished with a game-high 18 points in only 22 minutes, while Ilana Weissberger pulled down eight rebounds. White, despite getting no second-half points, still led her team with five points, while teammate Kalaneet Malik led the Paladins with seven rebounds. Rookie forward and player of the game, Allie Collyer, took advantage of her increased minutes by planting herself down low and posting up the Paladins for three straight field goals while her bench cheered her on. Cho saw the performance of the bench as a good indication of the skill level on her team.

“Our team is pretty deep and this proves it. Everyone contributed,” Cho said. “We really try and take it one game at a time, but it was good to get everybody into the game.”

Looking ahead after Saturday’s game versus Queen’s, the Blues have a tough schedule to close out the 2007-2008 regular season with four of their last six games coming against York and Laurentian, two teams battling it out with the Blues for the top spot in the OUA east. Coach Belanger sees next Saturday’s game at York University versus the Yeomen as their biggest test.

“We’re going through a stretch with four tough games (versus York and Laurentian), two of which are on the road,” Belanger said. “It’s a test to find out whether or not we’re strong enough mentally to go into someone else’s gym, particularly York […] and beat them.” Cho also sees York as the key matchup. “We know Laurentian and York are really good teams and York, they basically pride themselves on their defense and playing together as a team,” Cho said. “So it’s something that we recognize because it’s against a team we’ve played in the past.”

The Varsity Blues basketball coaches declared a “white-out” before the game, where all Varsity Blues fans were asked to wear white to support the Blues’ playoff bid. Clearly the message had not caught on yet, as few fans showed up and even fewer wore white. Cho believes that message will catch once Blues return for their final two regular season home games, on Feb. 8 and 9.

“Our next home game is in a couple of weeks, we’ll be able to get more fans out and plus they will be better games,” Cho laughed. “So as far as the white-out goes, it’ll happen when everybody knows more about it, especially the students, because there wasn’t a huge fan base tonight.”