Girls on stage

Christopher Owens, front man for the San Franciscan duo Girls, slouches into a couch at El Mocambo. His eyelids flicker under a mass of long, dirty blonde hair and a plaid hunting cap. For the dynamic members of the group celebrated by Spin magazine as “the hottest band of 2009,” Owens and his bassist counterpart, JR White, look downright peaked.

Owens stirs, pulls down his cap, and slowly opens his eyes before beginning to speak. Watching the 30-year-old move, it would seem that a rough tour and media frenzy have broken him down—perhaps even more than the 16-odd years Owens spent in a cult, Children of God, travelling around Europe and busking to fundraise for the religious organization. Owens scans the pre-show scene at El Mo, where he is to play a sold-out show that evening, with a pained expression.

“Yeah, the tour’s been alright, I guess,” he says with the enthusiasm of a resentful 13-year-old at a family dinner. “I mean, we’ve had sold out shows every night, so that’s cool.”

The band is taking some time to play the east coast fresh off the success of their album, Album, which gained attention from mainstream news outlets—and major indie cred—after Pitchfork gave it an unbelievably high nine-out-of-10 rating. This tour has been off to a rocky start: the boys of Girls missed their Montreal gig after getting stopped at the border because some of the crew had “legal” issues. This isn’t surprising, given that their driver and crew spend their pre-show downtime passing around medical marijuana certificates, and swapping tips about how to run a dispensary.

Owens left the Children of God cult when he was 16, buying himself a flight from Slovenia to Texas. He lived with his sister for nine years before moving to San Francisco, where he met JR White through a group of mutual friends. White describes them as “fun, aesthetics-loving people, who are just a lot like us.”

Most of the appeal of Album comes from its liberated feeling: Owens doesn’t write about his experiences on the streets of Slovenia. Instead, he explains, it’s all about the things he was going through in San Francisco and his everyday life. The album isn’t about restriction; it’s about the things one does with freedom after living in a cult. It’s about real girls, real instances, and real life—and it deals with these issues with a kind of joy.

“When you’re starved for culture, you find it in whatever you can,” Owens explains, talking about his discovery of Queen and Guns n’ Roses within the confines of the cult. “We used to watch these movies weekly, which were supposed to teach us some moral lesson. I don’t remember the lesson, but Queen did the soundtrack to Highlander. And at the beginning of Lean on Me, they played ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ by Guns n’ Roses. After I heard that, I became obsessed.”

But when Owens launches into the role of music in his life, he speaks in a bitter monotone, sounding a bit like a guy rehashing an old love to a prying aunt. “You have to have a reason to be alive,” Owens spits out, as though the words pain him. “I’ve had times in my life when I don’t have anything to live for, and you’d be better off dead.”

“I just want to make music, fall in love, and then die,” White pipes up, his face stoic, with glistening eyes set deep into cragged dark circles.

That night, at the El Mo’s sold-out show, the duo listlessly pumps out a rendition of Album. The band is completely stationary, except for a slight head bob during their popular single, “Lust for Life.” The crowd looks on with disappointment and a growing boredom. The band stares into space and strums on their instruments, miles away from the crowd that was so drawn in by the hype that it didn’t mind getting drunk on a Tuesday night.

Watching Owens’ despondent face as he pumps out “Darling,” the love song he wrote to songwriting itself, I can’t help but think that the passion seems to be gone from the interaction. Maybe Owens has fallen out of love with music. After all, the show feels like a passionless and mechanical sex session. The kind where you’re imagining your partner as some kind of celebrity, and wishing that the room was darker.

Maybe the boys of Girls would be happier smoking some of their crew’s medical marijuana back in San Francisco—but then again, maybe it’s just a rough patch.

Mad World

The 17th annual Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival ran from Nov. 5 to 14, shining a spotlight on movies that deal with mental illness and addiction. The fear and shame that are so often associated with these issues can make their exploration difficult for the general public. As an artistic medium, however, film allows audiences a chance to examine the subject matter from a safe distance. The creative freedom that comes with film also allows directors to push the boundaries of reality. Viewers can enter the minds and imaginations of those with mental illnesses or addictions, helping to dispel common myths about these conditions.

Clara (2008)
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Helma Sanders-Brahms’ Clara recounts a story of passion, loyalty, and great madness. Clara and Robert Schumann were two of the most famous figures in 19th-century Romantic music: Robert wrote symphonies, while Clara performed them in front of thousands of admiring listeners across Europe. The family’s well-being slowly begins to fall apart as the whispers and melodies in Robert’s head become so loud that he can no longer hear the real world—unless he silences the noises with drugs. Clara must choose whether to support her husband’s addiction, thus allowing him to write more music, or watch him become trapped in the chaos of his own mind. The film, rich in both colour and overwhelming melodies, effectively explores the link between creativity, genius, and mental illness.

Invisible Loneliness (2009)
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Hsien Lin Jung’s Invisible Loneliness provides a stunning visual representation of what it is like to be completely alone as a child. The short animated film takes the audience into a little girl’s dream. Pulled in by deep reds, blues, and browns, we follow the heroine’s journey as she flies with magical creatures around her cardboard world. Equipped only with a tiny key, the paper girl must find a way home, hoping her parents have finally returned. Though the central character’s viewpoint does not reach far beyond an adult’s waist, the world can still seem deafeningly silent and endlessly huge.

Marion Woodman: Dancing in the Flames (2009)
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Gender theorist Marion Woodman said, “I do believe we all have a destiny. We either live it or we escape because we are afraid to live our own reality.” Adam Greydon Reid’s documentary about Woodman explores her psychological “deaths” and “rebirths” through several interviews. Although Woodman has written on the hardships of the modern condition, she sees society as being in the middle of a great birth. The documentary feels like a definite departure from tired New Age philosophies: Woodman herself is captivating to listen to, and her theories are fascinating.

Noah’s spark

In a city as diverse as Toronto, it seems evident that the annual Holocaust Education Week should encourage dialogue between groups affected by genocide. But, as Noah’s Great Rainbow playwright Sam Chaiton understands, building connections between survivors of different traumas can be a difficult first step.

Noah’s Great Rainbow, which portrays two men who lived through Auschwitz and the Rwandan genocide, respectively, originated as a screenplay. (Chaiton is no stranger to writing for film: his tome on Rubin “Hurricane” Carter formed the basis of the 1999 bio-pic starring Denzel Washington.) Chaiton later decided to adapt Noah for the stage, but the story remained in flux over a few years. After a production this spring at the Al Green Theatre, two of the play’s more extraneous characters were cut, as well as much of its musical content.

The latest revisions to the script came last weekend as director Weyni Mengesha (of Soulpepper’s Raisin in the Sun) and dramaturge Nicolas Billion (whose Greenland found success at this year’s Summerworks) led a four-day workshop at Hart House. Finally, on Thursday, Nov. 12—after a final rehearsal that ran right up until showtime—the Great Rainbow Company presented their inaugural reading of the rewritten story.

After fleeing Rwanda, Lion Murigande (Mighty Popo) is hired to work at a Toronto nursing home for Holocaust survivors, including the crotchety Noah Goldblum (Dan Francks). Although fellow nurse Zoey MacLean (Sophia Walker) explains the significance of Nazi Germany to Lion early on, Noah is initially oblivious to—and later dismissive of—the suffering inflicted on Lion as a Tutsi. Both men see themselves as fundamentally alone, relegated to silence, and unable to see the parallels between their stories.

The central characters warm up to one another only gradually, endowing the core of Noah’s Great Rainbow with a believable sense of tension. Popo in particular is a master of timing, while Francks’ consistency makes him riveting to watch. The addition of Noah’s son Phil (Daniel Kash) as a third party to their relationship also effectively raises the stakes: while Chaiton could have limited Phil to merely showing jealousy of Lion’s rapport with Noah, he manages to play out the three-way conflicts in a far more nuanced way.

Clearly, the heart of the play is firmly in place. Its edges, however, still require some trimming. Apart from a rousing chant led by Lion, the story begins uncomfortably slowly: the character of Mrs. Patoka (Jane Spidell, channeling Fran Drescher), and early efforts at comedy and romance feel largely irrelevant to the rest of the story. As well, many allusions to the Holocaust are introduced too explicitly—much of the dialogue surrounding it feels stiffly scripted, and Noah’s inability to speak about anything else gives his character an initial sense of one-dimensionality.

But what of the place of Noah’s Great Rainbow in the context of Holocaust Education Week? When Phil accuses Lion of harming his father, he growls that the nursing home was supposed to be an “institution where survivors could feel safe”—a charge fully dripping in irony. The most poignant moment of the play is a duet between Noah and Lion in which both of them stare at the audience—not each other—lamenting that “this too shall never pass.”

There are so many divides between present discourses on suffering that even the potential for bridges can be hard to spot. But Noah’s Great Rainbow shows that emotional struggle is never unique: it’s perhaps paradoxical, but the surest thing we have in common across cultures and stories can be a sense of isolation. Hopefully, the coming stage production of the play will continue to address the theme with contemplation and poignancy.

Meet my shorts

The Hart House Film Board, an organization that assists aspiring U of T student filmmakers, held its bi-annual Student Film Screening on Nov. 11 in Hart House’s East Common Room. The Student Film Screening is an opportunity for U of T students to have their films shown to the public. Alumni and students filled the East Common Room, enjoying the complimentary food and drinks provided in the prelude to the screenings and during intermission. The event was a success in terms of attendance and audience satisfaction. Spectators had an exciting chance to preview the emerging film talent from U of T.

Lucidity
Directed by Sve Pavic
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Lucidity centres on a lonely female exploring an abandoned courtyard. The story is told through the simplicity of black and white still-frames, which gives the short film a poetic feel. The beautiful setting, which juxtaposes majestic gothic sculptures with the single girl in an elegant black dress, is reminiscent of the music video for Evanescence’s “My Immortal:” both pieces have an artistic polish that is lost in many commercial works.

In Lucidity, the girl’s mysterious presence is heightened by her speechlessness. She is clearly in distress and depressed, and the addition of wavering music gives the film a lingering tone. In the end, the girl dives into a pool of water, emulating Virginia Woolf (minus the rocks in her pockets). Lucidity is not the most original film in terms of subject matter, but the beauty of its cinematography and story make up for its lack of fresh ideas.

Patient
Directed by Daniel Clements
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The opening shots show a man and a woman meeting for the first time in a coffee shop, presumably for a blind date. The man is noticeably nervous, but the audience cannot sense that something is wrong until the image of a bloody body suddenly appears on screen. Little by little, the scene around the man and women is revealed to show police cars, pools of blood, and a hostage with a gun in her mouth held under the table.

The actors are competent and highly believable, but what really shines through in Patient is its masterful editing and cinematography. Though the beginning is a bit slow, soon enough there is not a single moment that does not draw the audience in. The unfolding narrative is impressive and shocking, but Clements leaves a few questions unanswered: how did the story start? How did the scene end up this way? And what was so peculiar about the way that the man identified himself in the first place?

The Audience
Directed by David Eng
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This dialogue-driven short is brilliant in both concept and execution. The Audience shows a couple in their early thirties seated in a movie theatre, staring straight into the camera. The two characters, along with the rest of the moviegoers, are seemingly watching the film, but what they presumably see is us, the real-life audience. This idea explores a clever, very meta concept in which viewers are aware of themselves in relation to the film.

The two actors are well-cast, perfectly capturing the dynamic of a bickering couple. Plus, the dialogue is interesting and funny. Most impressive, though, is that the whole thing was filmed with a single shot and single angle, leaving no room for mistakes from the actors. Despite the surreal aspect of the characters watching the viewer, the film is as close to reality as it can get: at the end, to stop the husband’s complaints of the movie they are watching, the wife threatens, “One more word out of you and you’re not getting any!” It’s always nice to see a movie culminate with the woman getting the upper hand.

Refugee camp lands at St. George

For millions around the world, “refugee” is more than just a term. Médecins Sans Frontières estimates there are 42 million people displaced from their homes. To raise awareness, the organisation took its exhibit, A Refugee Camp in the Heart of the City, on tour in 2008, stopping at Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and San Diego.

Last Tuesday, students borrowed the idea and set up an exhibit on the Hart House lawn. The 24-hour mock refugee camp featured four tents, which were focused on supplying vaccinations, food, medical supplies, and water and sanitation. A hospital bed with IV lines and other equipment reflected MSF efforts, which included the prevention of water-borne illnesses like cholera.

“People wanting to check out the exhibit will first have to be registered at the vaccination tent, where they will receive an identity, like an eight-year-old girl from Sudan,” said Stephanie Tom, executive director of the U of T chapter of Friends of MSF. “Their job is to visit the other tents to find out what happens to their character, to make the exhibit more engaging.”

“For example, the little girl’s village will be attacked and she’ll be disfigured, so the participant will learn about reconstructive surgery on the field at the medical tent,” said Tom.

Volunteers discussed their experiences of working and living in a refugee camp. Another speaker, Leo Johnson, is a former refugee who lived in camps in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. Johnson is now a third-year political science student at McMaster University.

The overnight fundraiser started around 4 p.m., with a dozen volunteers staying overnight in the tents. Their dinner was a simple meal of beans and rice.

Friends of MSF raised $1,700 towards their goal of $2,500, and they are still accepting donations online. Until Dec. 4, the group is also accepting donations of Aeroplan Miles to send volunteers overseas.

Trail of Tears

In May 2009, Tamil protestors closed down the Gardiner Expressway for the first time when thousands turned out for a mass demonstration to call attention to civilian deaths. Some protestors at the Gardiner had lost relatives to government shelling in Sri Lanka. Others had lost touch with their loved ones, and believed the Canadian government’s reaction was lukewarm at best.

The Sri Lankan civil war, arising out of ethnic tensions between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority, began in 1983. In May 2009, the government took over the last area controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels. As of October, Amnesty International estimates 250,000 displaced civilians are living in government-run camps. The stories of people caught up in the civil war are told in Not By Our Tears, a play produced by the Asylum Theatre Group, shown Saturday, Nov. 14, at U of T’s Robert Gill Theatre.

Hosted by the Centre for South Asian Studies and the Canadian Tamil Congress, the play was part of a book release for Wilting Laughter, a collection of Tamil poetry by R. Cheran, V.I.S. Jayapalan, and Puthuvai Ratnathurai. Chelva Kanaganayakam, an English professor at U of T, translated the volume. On Saturday, he spoke of the difficulty of transferring the rhythms of Tamil into readable English.

Not By Our Tears belongs to a genre in Tamil drama called verse play, which involves a “visual and oral representation of poetry” on stage, according to the program.

Performed on a practically bare stage with few props, the play drew its power from projected images, Tamil songs, and dance. One particularly intriguing piece was “The Story of a Severed Leg,” in which the leg hung from the ceiling centre-stage as performers dramatized the poem around it, before cutting it down and laying it to rest.

After the play, a former member of the Sri Lankan parliament shared his thoughts on how the play comments on multiculturalism in Canada. “The federal constitution of Canada was a lovely constitution because it incorporated both the English and French languages,” said M.K. Eelaventhan, 77 years old and new to Canada. Eelaventhan said that he had only one message for the Canadian government: “Please do something to exert moral and political pressure to make Sri Lanka see reason.”

U of T honours war dead at Soldiers’ Tower

Last Wednesday, the annual Service of Remembrance honoured Canadian soldiers in past and present conflicts. Over 1,180 men and women from U of T gave their lives in the First and Second World Wars.

“Each year we mourn the passing of more of our veterans. As we do so, this tower, which was built to honour fallen comrades, takes on an even greater significance,” said Malcom McGrath, chair of the Soldiers’ Tower Committee.

“There are those who at certain times in our history stood between us and forces of destruction, and in that they lost their lives,” said Chaplain W. Ebert Hobbs. “To remember them, and to honour them, is something we owe them.”

This year’s Service of Remembrance marks the 90th anniversary of Hart House and the laying of the cornerstone at Soldiers’ Tower. At the ceremony in 1919, the governor general said, “Through this memorial the great name and the great tradition established for the university by those who died will be handed down as long as the university endures.”

The 45-minute service featured hymns led by a choir and the engineering faculty’s brass ring quintet. Buddhist chaplain Marco Mascarin from the Multi-Faith Centre gave a prayer offering, and Rabbi Aaron Katchen read a memorial psalm.

In the final act of the service, wreaths were laid on the Memorial Screen—which featured the names of U of T community members killed in the First World War—by veterans, members of the Canadian Armed Forces, faculty, administrators, and heads of campus organizations.

Many attendees were there for personal reasons.

“It has great personal significance for me. My father was wounded at the Battle of the Somme, and luckily he came back alive,” said Helen Bradfield, a Trinity College alum and member of the Soldiers’ Tower Committee. Brigadier-General H.E. Brown, a veteran of the Second World War, said he was deeply gratified so many people had shown up for the service.

“I think it’s important for people to realize the contribution the university made to previous war efforts in Canadian history, and take note that U of T goes beyond its academic accomplishments and reputation,” said Katherine Parks, administrator of alumni associations.

Dr. John McCrae, who composed the famous poem “In Flanders Fields,” and Frederick Banting, who discovered insulin along with Dr. Charles Best, are among the notable alumni who died in active service with the Canadian Armed Forces.

The service was organized by the Soldiers’ Tower Committee and sponsored by the University of Toronto Alumni Association.

‘Non-violence is the future of humanity’

As a philosophy student in France, Ramin Jahanbegloo admired Nelson Mandela and took part in “Free Mandela” campaigns. On Nov. 5, he was awarded the 2009 Peace Prize by the Association for the United Nations in Spain, an honour that has gone to Mandela himself, as well as Mikhail Gorbachev and South African singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba. The prize is awarded to individuals with exceptional records of promoting human rights and the objectives of the UN.

Born in Iran, Jahanbegloo initially pursued a pre-med degree. But he grew disgusted by how science was taught, with auditoriums full of students who worried about good grades rather than engaging in discussions. He switched to philosophy in France, influenced by post-1968 radicalism. In 1997, he came to Canada, teaching at U of T until 2001.

Jahanbegloo made headlines in 2006, when he landed in Iran’s Evin prison for four months in 2006, accused of preparing a military revolution. He returned to U of T in 2008, teaching political science. Jahanbegloo’s philosophy revolves around the concept of dialogue and building bridges between cultures. “People think I am idealistic, and that politics is about pragmatism,” he said in a recent interview. “I think non-violence is one of the most pragmatic philosophies today because it is about the future of humanity.”

The Varsity: Why do you think you won the prize?

Ramin Jahanbegloo: I think there is an intellectual conviction in what I have been teaching and the non-violent action that took me to prison. I have also related very closely non-violence to inter-cultural dialogue.

TV: You have had several interviews on your 2006 imprisonment. Do you feel that it defines you too much in the public eye?

RJ: I hope not, because it is a bitter part of my life. It is no honour to go to prison. That aspect of my life is of course important for me, because it has left me with a lot of consequences, but I try to go beyond it. Non-violence has helped me a lot to go beyond it. I do not have any bitterness; I try to get to pragmatic results from my imprisonment. I think one has to go beyond his or her own tragedies to think of the political construction of a country in democratic matters.

TV: Currently, there is another Iranian-Canadian, Hossein Derakhshan, who is being held without trial in Evin prison. What do you think will happen with his case?

RJ: Yes, I know him and have met him. I hope nothing bad happens. He is a very controversial figure in the Iranian public sphere because he supported the Iranian regime and attacked many dissidents. I support him because we cannot engage in dialogue with someone in prison; there is no use of condemning someone who is already suffering. What we need to do if we find individuals who are what I call philo-tyrannical—in favor of tyrannies—is support and defend anybody fighting them. It is not because we don’t agree with someone that we should not fight for their rights.

TV: If you could speak to Derakhshan now, what advice would you offer?

RJ: I would say that he needs to fight mentally and to build up his future in a more ethical way. I would suggest he do some readings and writings in prison if he can, and to somewhat revise his own ideology.

TV: You talk a lot about bridging cultures. What does this mean for you?

RJ: I wrote a book called Clash of Intolerance where I explain that there is no such thing as clashes because of culture. The clashes come from intolerance inside those cultures, from people who do not respect each other, from lack of understanding.

We need to replace hostility with hospitality. When you are a host for another culture you try to understand that culture and try to enrich your culture from that culture. This is what we try to do in Canada.

Canadian multiculturalism, if done in the best way, should be an inter-cultural dialogue and not separate communities, but support learning and listening between communities. Creating bridges is replacing the culture of monologue and intolerance with a culture of dialogue and respect.

TV: Is Canada a multicultural model for you?

RJ: In comparison to what is going on in Europe, certainly, but not in comparison to what is going on in India. India has been living with its diversity, which is much more profound than in Canada. India has never had a problem including a new religion into its culture.

I do hope that Canada also becomes like this, where cultures truly intersect and enter a dialogue together, and do not necessarily have a superficial meeting at the economic level.

TV: A lot of your work deals with India. Where does your passion for India come from?

RJ: My passion started about 30 years ago. I used to find books on India in the libraries of my parents, and at around age 12 I used to try to read them. I have been travelling to India practically every year for the past 20 years and I lived there for two years. It is a country I take very seriously. I say either I was born Indian in my previous life, or will be born Indian in my next life.

TV: Who or what was your inspiration for your philosophy of non-violence?

RJ: My most important role models are the three non-violent thinkers: Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Dalai Lama. I was very lucky to meet very interesting people who were my professors or whom I worked with, and among these I can name Cornelius Castoreadis, Paul Ricoeur, and Isaiah Berlin, with whom I [wrote] a book.

TV: Considering your philosophy, how do you feel about Obama increasing troops in Afghanistan, and his proposed closure of Guantanamo Bay?

RJ: I am very much against sending troops to Afghanistan and very much in favour of closing Guantanamo. I think these kinds of prisons are not useful at the level of making things more human. They create more cruelty and violence. There is no way you can handle Middle Eastern conflict with violence. In the long run, all the actors in this game have to find a way to sit down and dialogue together on non-violent ways of constructing democracy.

TV: In interviews you talk about Gandhi’s “democratization of democracy.” Is this the democracy you want to see?

RJ: Yes. I think the most important aspect of Gandhi’s view is that he tries to take democracy further and make it more participative and deliberative. Gandhi says that we need to bring more ethics into politics, and this aspect is related with the fact that you need to make citizens responsible for their own destiny. It is not that democracy is given from above—[rather], it is a work that comes from the bottom. He tries to talk about shared sovereignty, a shared fate: citizens have to educate themselves on how to handle democracy and its future.

TV: You talk about how you want dialogue as democracy in Iran. How do you think dialogue can be created between Iran and the West? Why has it not happened?

RJ: It has happened at the level of civil society, but not at the level of governments. Governments have political ambitions, and most of the time they put political ambitions before the common good. We have to pay attention to the fact that we need to deconstruct politics as not just politics among leaders, but among everyday citizens.

TV: You gave a speech on Thursday at a U of T graduation. What was your key advice for the graduates?

RJ: The idea that graduation is a beginning in life. I was telling the students that they need to think of their future work in a responsible way and that university has always been a shared horizon of dialogue in a very cosmopolitan civic space.
Life is like reading from one chapter to another while not knowing what will happen in the next chapter. I told students to start writing their new chapters, because if you stop writing you will never make history.

TV: Where do you think the roots for dialogue come from? How early should we begin teaching this concept?

RJ: I believe we can begin teaching non-violence as early as primary school. We should, especially [in] Canada, teach the spirit of tolerance to children of eight to10. They are very perceptive and can understand stories about tolerant figures. Later on, you can talk about peace and why it is so important. Canada is a salad bowl of cultures, and each of these students would understand who they are standing next to. They should not take it for granted.