Stepping up to success

I was not looking forward to seeing How She Move. It is the latest entry in the hip-hop/step dance subgenre that has proven to be consistently successful at the box office, but less so with the critics. Now, I know next to nothing about hip-hop and step dancing. I grew up on Lloyd Manor Rd. in Etobicoke and was once referred to as “the whitest white boy in the world,” so there you are.

I woke up at an ungodly hour on a dreary January morning to catch the press screening. All I could think about was how nice it would be to skip the movie and catch a few more hours’ sleep. Oh, sure, The Varsity would probably fire me, but man, some more sleep would be heavenly…

But no. Instead I got up and saw How She Move. And you know what? I’m glad I did, and not just because I would have been fired if I missed it. It’s a surprisingly good movie, and an above-par entry in its subgenre.

A Canadian production, the film is set at Jane and Finch, where an ambitious Caribbean-Canadian girl named Raya (Rutina Wesley) has been forced to return after her college money was used on her sister’s funeral. She needs money to break out of the ghetto environment and go back to college, and an unlikely salvation arises: she joins a step dance team working its way towards a championship. If they win the prize money, she’ll be able to afford college.

This plot is formula, but who cares? It has likable characters and a positive message, and it moves at a fast pace. The cast, most making their big-screen debuts, is uniformly excellent. And damn, I really liked those dance scenes. They were kinetic, energetic, and impressively choreographed, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a snob.

Two days later, I met the film’s director, Ian Iqbal Rashid, a Canadian filmmaker who garnered critical attention in 2004 with his first feature, A Touch of Pink. If you’ve seen that film, you’ll recall that it was about a gay Muslim who works up the courage to tell his mother about his sexuality… thanks to advice from the spirit of Cary Grant (played by Kyle MacLachlan, no less).

“The Canadian producers who coproduced A Touch of Pink also made How She Move, and initially they brought me on as a kind of story consultant, which I do from time to time,” said Rashid. “And then when they were looking for a director they were sort of interested in my take on it, and I kind of got invested in the project, and we went from there.”

“There was a lot in the script that I identified with and that felt familiar to me. The setting is very familiar for me, as I grew up in a neighbourhood like that in Toronto, and the story of Raya—second-generation immigrant kid who’s trying to get out and has her own ambitions to deal with, her own dreams to follow—that all sort of felt very familiar.”

How She Move was filmed in Hamilton in an astonishing 25 days. “The most I had on any dance number was four or five hours, whereas a Hollywood movie would be days if not a week for each number.” Rashid compensated with an extensive rehearsal period. “We had 25 days’ prep as well. It wasn’t a luxurious amount, but we just used every second of it. We put the kids through dance camp—they were dancing eight hours a day. Some of them had never acted before, so I was working with them doing improv and acting rehearsals as well. So that’s where we nailed the movie.”

Indeed, How She Move was one low-budget production. When I asked Rashid about the film’s gritty cinematography, he said, “That evolved just out of necessity. With 25 days to shoot, we had to come up with a visual strategy to help make the schedule and the budget, as well as tell the story. So we decided to go with a 16mm, handheld camera, which just is lighter, more mobile, we can get more coverage. We shot it like a documentary, really. That was our plan, really, just our way of getting our days, but it also gave it a sort of edge. And we just went from there. The colour palette we tried to keep quite neutral—the browns and greys—and the look emerged from that […] necessity is the mother of invention.”

Despite being a genre film, How She Move was a surprise official entry at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. “I was a bit surprised when we got in, because it is a kind of mainstream project, and I wasn’t sure that its indie credentials were enough to get us into Sundance. But they loved the movie and gave it a great slot, and […] we sold it within seconds.” The buyer was Paramount Vantage, which plans to release the film tomorrow on over 1,500 screens across North America.

For years people have moaned, “the musical is dead,” although the genre has seen a recent resurgence with the successes of Hairspray, Once, and High School Musical. For the most part, musicals from the last 40 years that have failed at the box office have been rigidly traditional, while the ones that are finding success today are the ones that are most eager to embrace contemporary music genres. Dare I say it, but perhaps a film like How She Move is the next logical step in the evolution of the musical

Mercury rising

After almost 33 years, NASA has returned to the planet Mercury through the aid of the MESSENGER spacecraft. MESSENGER, which stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging, made its first flyby on Jan. 14, 2008 at 2:04 p.m. EST, passing within 200 kilometres of the surface.

The last spacecraft to visit Mercury was the Mariner 10, which made three flybys from 1974 to 1975. However, it was only able to photograph 45 per cent of the surface, as the same hemisphere was lit during each of its passes. Even so, the photographs and information uncovered by Mariner 10 were enough to pique the interest of scientists.

MESSENGER has already sent back many highresolution images of the first planet from the sun, including photos of the hemisphere not seen in the mid-1970s. The spacecraft is equipped with wide and narrow angle colour and monochrome cameras. Better known as the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) instrument, the images of the hemisphere show it to be heavily cratered, much like Earth’s moon, revealing ridges, cliffs and evidence of volcanic activity. Planetary geologists study the high-resolution close-ups to understand how Mercury’s surface has evolved over the last four billion years. The MESSENGER mission aims to answer questions about the structure of Mercury’s core, the nature of its magnetic field, and the reason behind its unusual density.

A major point of interest for NASA scientists is Mercury’s Caloris basin, one of the largest in the solar system. Mariner 10 saw less than half of it, but the MESSENGER has already photographed what its predecessor could not. “Caloris is huge, about a quarter of the diameter of Mercury, with rings of mountains within it that are up to three kilometres high,” said Dr. Louise M. Prockter, instrumental scientist for the Mercury Dual Imaging System, and a scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. “By looking through different colour filters, we can start to understand what the composition of the Caloris basin may be and learn something about the subsurface of Mercury.”

Even with massive amounts of data to sift through, the spirits of NASA scientists involved with the project are high.

“I’ve been waiting for this for 38 years—since my parents woke me up at age 18 months to watch the first Apollo moon landing on our black-and-white TV,” wrote MESSENGER instrumental scientist Noam Izenberg. “Today I joined a small crowd of scientists and engineers in the MESSENGER Science Operation Center, and watched the first picture of Mercury in 33 years—showing almost a third of the planet that had never been seen in any detail before—pop up, BLAM, on a screen in all of its alien glory.”

NASA scientists aren’t the only ones impressed by the new photos of Mercury. “Even though the pictures reveal, to our eyes, another uninteresting, barren planet in our solar system, they also confirm the high value of our little unique and beautiful planet in the cosmic shore,” said Siavash Ganjbakhsh, a fourth-year evolutionary biology student and member of the Astronomy and Space Exploration Society. “We ought to protect and appreciate this beauty.”

MESSENGER will make two more Mercury flybys— one later this year and one in 2009 —before settling into orbit around the planet in 2011.

History calling

When Joe Strummer passed away in December 2002, it was obvious that a new chapter in the story of The Clash needed to be written. The 2000 Clash doc Westway to the World had hit too soon to capture and contextualize the outpouring of emotions and memories following the death of the band’s frontman and only consistent member.

The Future is Unwritten calls upon a large ensemble of voices (band mates, ex-girlfriends, co-workers, and celebrities) to build a well-rounded biography of Strummer. However, the most surprising and powerful voice in the mix is Strummer’s own. Retrieved from BBC archives of his World Service radio show London Calling, his own descriptions and recollections add an important and unexpected dimension, making it almost surreal to remember that he is dead.

The narrative follows Strummer’s globetrotting youth (his father was a diplomat stationed in Iran, Turkey, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia), his eventual entry into a strict private boys’ school, his older brother’s stint with Nazism and subsequent suicide. When music arrives in Strummer’s life, the film vividly details the history of his four major music projects: The 101ers, The Clash, his “Wilderness” phase, and The Mescaleros.

Unwritten makes great use of old home videos, concert and backstage footage, as well as present-day interviews. Certain conversations are filled out visually with re-purposed stock footage, presented in an appropriately tongue-in-cheek manner. Unfortunately, this trick was overused and sometimes confusing.

Another interesting choice was not superimposing the names of any of the interview subjects. Most people quickly made reference to how they fit into the Strummer story, but remembering the massive cast of players was difficult, and could prove impossible for people not already well-versed in Clash mythology.

Also odd were some of the celebrity talking heads. The weird list includes: John Cusack, Matt Dillon, Martin Scorsese, Steve Buscemi (who was actually great), Johnny Depp (wearing his costume from Pirates of the Caribbean for some insane reason), and Bono (sporting threads from the How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb tour for some other insane reason—including sunglasses at night).

That being said, Unwritten offers an intimate look into the difficult and often contradictory path taken by Strummer. Seen now in pop culture as one of the archetypes of punk, watch him perform rockabilly with hippie squatters in his first band The 101ers.

After getting upstaged by the then up-and-coming Sex Pistols at a gig, Strummer is recruited by a manager to form a band that will play off the Pistols’ new punk sound. With that, The Clash is born and Strummer instantly adopts the punk look, disbands The 101ers, and stonewalls all his old hippie friends.

If punk ethos is all about self expression, it’s telling to hear Clash drummer Topper Headon say it took years for him to ever see Strummer “out of character.” The circumstance for this revelation was that Headon and Strummer were both arrested and imprisoned in the same jail cell for three days after getting busted with 30 stolen hotel pillows while on tour.

With all his imperfections, Strummer still emerges as one of the most talented lyricists and singers of the 20th century. His love for a diverse array of musical styles (dub, rap, reggae, country, rock, punk) is reflected in the music that accompanies the film (oftentimes the selections are introduced by Strummer himself in clips from his radio show).

Taken as a whole, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten is a fitting, if slightly imperfect look back at one of the most influential rock musicians of all time.

Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten opens February 4 at The Royal Cinema.

CFS leader skips out

The Ontario chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students has appointed Carleton University Students’ Association president Shelley Melanson as its new chairperson starting June 1. Melanson will replace current chairperson Jen Hassum, a former UTSU president.

“We agree way more than we disagree. Shelly’s going to have a great year,” Hassum predicted of her successor.

The choice came at a CSF-O general meeting held last week from Thursday to Sunday in which two other positions, the treasurer and national representative, were decided. For the second year straight, all of these positions were acclaimed.

As with Hassum, tuition fees top Melanson’s priority list. “In the spring we will be having lobbying sessions at Queen’s Park,” she said. “Armed with the information that will enable us to argue articulately why we really need to have a cultural shift in post-secondary education.”

At these lobbying sessions, Melanson promised to call special attention to practical issues students face, such as debt and escalating fees.

“It’s becoming less and less feasible for students who need those opportunities of social mobility to attend post-secondary schools,” she insisted.

Also high on her priorities list will be reviews to the government’s scholarship fund. “Gaining momentum on ending the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, and having an actual needs-based grant system, is going to be a huge priority both nationally and provincially,” she said.

During Melanson’s time as president of CUSA, her executive voted, controversially, to call for killing the CMSF program.

This fall, CFS has announced they will hold a national day of action to draw awareness to the federation’s many post-secondary education campaigns.

CFS has had its share of internal rifts this year. In fall of 2007, CFS-Quebec weathered through legal battles, impeachments and political scandal over its executive elections. It has been effectively shut down by court order since late September.

Last year, students at BC’s Simon Fraser University voted to leave CFS. Meanwhile CSF-O has kept a steady keel, remaining free of major internal disputes.

Hassum’s year as CFS-O president featured the MMP referendum campaigns and She looks to the tuition fee freeze and as a major success in recent years.

In the upcoming months, Hassum will be preparing to pursue graduate studies in Canadian history, though she said she won’t be returning to the University of Toronto.

“Definitely not U of T. Costs too much.”

She does plan to remain politically engaged, she said.

“I have always been involved as an activist. But I have enjoyed the academics. It will be interesting to be back in the grassroots level. I can’t imagine not being involved.”

Cheaters never prosper

Internationally renowned track and field star Marion Jones was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment recently, for lying about her use of performance- enhancing drugs and involvement in a check fraud scam. The former winner of fi ve Olympic medals at the 2000 Summer Games—they have been stripped from her—was made an example of by U.S. district judge Kenneth Karas, who issued the maximum sentence recommended by the prosecuting attorneys. “Athletes in society have an elevated status,” said Karas. “They entertain, they inspire, and perhaps, most important, they serve as role models.”

Many might argue that Jones should have been treated like any other member of the public charged with a crime. Still, she isn’t your average person. Jones will now have the opportunity to educate young people on the consequences of deception not only on athletic endeavours, but in the greater scheme of life. One can only hope that she will take advantage of it.

There are more severe crimes that are not judged as harshly as the sentence given to Jones. But this should not serve as an excuse for her conduct or a reduced sentence, particularly when smaller penalties are caused by the internal defi ciencies of the criminal justice system. The judge’s role was to give her a sentence in light of all the evidence and circumstances of the case, plain and simple.

We must recognize that the law is adaptable to the circumstances of society. The media’s bombardment of athletes indulging in performance-enhancing drugs sensationalizes the issue without any significant steps taken to curtail it. Judge Karas has set a precedent that will hopefully discourage athletes from substance abuse and enforce scrutiny. While this may not lead to systemic overhauls of drug testing programs in sports, perhaps a trend of faster development of preventative measures will rise.

Jones will have a great deal of time in the coming months to recoup the broken pieces of her life. Though she may feel that this is the worst set of circumstances that could possibly occur, the athlete should thank her lucky stars that the illegal activities did not lead to more tragic consequences.

Lost in transfer

In his high-profile lawsuit against UTM, Adam Rogers has alleged that a mix-up over his transfer application cost his family their financial security. His case stands out, but Rogers is not alone. Approximately 1,000 undergraduates transfer to U of T each year. Some come from other universities, some from colleges. The process involves sheaves of paperwork. And for some, the transition means months of confl ict with U of T’s monolithic bureaucracy.

The credit transfer process is labour- intensive. Some courses have direct equivalents at U of T, but many transfer as generic credits, with a list of exclusions (in one case, all full-year HIS courses). New students negotiate their changeover with the transfer credit office, but that office doesn’t have the final word, explained Glenn Loney, Arts and Science Faculty Registrar.

“The exclusions, the prerequisites and the program requirements are all the department’s rulings,” he said. Fourth-year history student Tammy Sprung knows this only too well. She transferred from Dalhousie University two years ago.

“The transfer department actually granted me a 100-level history credit,” she said. “Then they said that I needed to get a 100-level history course specifically from the University of Toronto, which would not count towards my degree or GPA. What was I possibly going to learn from that?”

Sprung got special permission from the history department to forego the extra course—and department administrators ended up determining much of her program of study.

“Now I’m concerned about what’s going to happen when I apply for graduation,” she said. At least one crucial letter, which had granted her an exemption from another program requirement, is now missing from her file. Because she had to go back and take program requirements without credit, Sprung is currently taking six courses and planning on summer school so that she won’t have to take a fifth year.

Transfer students shouldn’t assume that they will graduate on time, said Loney.

“It’s rather like changing your program,” he said. “If you’ve done two years or three years and you change your program, it’s difficult to do that without complication, waste or making up lost opportunities.”

Matt Burgess faced a different problem when he transferred from Wilfrid Laurier University. Burgess had attended one year of CEGEP in Quebec, where he had completed a calculus course that would usually exempt him from MAT135Y1 at U of T. Laurier had allowed Burgess to skip first year calculus. Not so at U of T.

“The transfer credit office said that I wasn’t eligible for transfer credit,” he said. “They weren’t allowed to open my file because I had only done one year of CEGEP.” Burgess’s brother took the same course, but completed a year and a half of CEGEP and therefore received the credit at U of T.

Burgess’s department, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, came to the rescue, waiving the program requirement.

Some transfer students still say that they are glad to be at U of T. Sana Waseem began her post-secondary career at Selkirk College in British Columbia. She switched to U of T after one year, graduated four years later with majors in biology and human biology, and is now in teacher’s college. Waseem had to take retake organic chemistry, but is still glad that she switched.

College, with smaller class sizes and a chance to stay close to home before crossing U of T’s intimidating threshold, has its benefits. But college students don’t receive much credit for their work—no more than two credits for a year’s study, and a maximum of five credits for a three-year college degree. Universities need to start taking colleges seriously, says Joey Coleman, Maclean’s post-secondary education blogger.

“The University of Toronto sells itself as an elite university,” he said. “To them, the idea that a course such as Introduction to Psychology could be taught by a college […] is insulting.”

That attitude may be changing. A new pilot program, with details to be finalized soon, would make it easier to start in Seneca College’s general arts and science program and graduate from U of T.

“Clarity is what students need,” said Loney. “They need to know how they will go about this, and how long it will take them.”

Chinese takeout hits sore spot

Directly across from the ROM’s main entrance, you’ll find the Bishop White Gallery of Chinese Temple Art, a quiet battleground in a new war for cultural patrimony. The modest space is the namesake of William Charles White, an Anglican bishop, museum curator, U of T professor, and accused smuggler of cultural relics.

Credited with building much of the ROM’s superb Chinese collection, White exported antiquities from the Henan province from 1924 to 1934. China, however, banned exports of cultural artifacts in 1930.

Linfu Dong’s book Cross Culture and Faith, recently published by the University of Toronto Press, casts aspersions on White’s legacy. The bishop, said Dong, illegally trafficked the treasures out of China, skirting inspections by traveling through small railway stations or by packing them in other missionaries’ bags.

“He actively sought to evade [China’s] restrictions and continued to procure objects that he knew had been obtained illegally and to ship them to Toronto,” says Dong’s book.

White’s story is only a part of the book, which is primarily a biography of White’s fellow missionary James Mellon Menzies, who worked to stop relics like those in the ROM from leaving China. Virtually unknown until recent years, Menzies refused to sell to the ROM and paid for his archeological prospecting work with his salary.

But White grew rich from his activities, amassing a private collection and getting a handsome $35,000 by selling parts of it to the ROM after 1934, Dong found. White’s sales to the ROM formed the basis of the Chinese antiquities collection that now bears his name. That same year, upon his return to Canada, White became curator of the ROM’s first Far Eastern collection and started teaching at U of T, heading the first School of Chinese Studies.

Mark Engstrom, deputy director of collections and research at the ROM, acknowledged that White was aware of the ban. “He didn’t know how it would take effect,” said Engstrom, who denied that the ROM artifacts were smuggled.

“They were declared and exported through Shanghai customs. We don’t have the customs forms, but I have his statements.”

Engstrom said he could not give an estimate of the size of the Bishop White collection or how much White was paid, citing spotty or unavailable records. He said that the missionary was never officially under contract with the ROM. “[White] was an individual selling to the ROM.”

Dong is not the first to unearth allegations of plundering against White. The former missionary was called “a robber of graves and a robber of souls” by a Chinese bishop as early as 1953. A 1974 biography of White notes his fl aunting of Chinese law on exporting cultural objects. The Museum Makers, Horatio Henry Lovat Dickson’s history of the ROM, says White and the ROM’s then-director Charles Currelly plotted to take advantage of China’s civil unrest and ship out as many artifacts as possible.

Engstrom downplayed the value of the ROM’s Chinese antiquities. “Frankly, although the ROM has very good collections from China, anything we have here would be minor compared to what’s available and what’s on display in China,” he said.

For its part, the Chinese government has never formally demanded the return of the artifacts, but the dispute over the Bishop White collection is part of a wave of repatriation claims that is rocking the museum world.

“It’s an issue of great concern to the profession,” said Lynne Teather, a professor at U of T’s museum studies program. “There are still all kinds of cultural groups who have or will have claims against many major collections in the world.”

Some relics are making their way back to their homeland. Engstrom said the ROM has not received repatriation claims from any country, but that the museum does have a policy for returning objects to Aboriginal groups within Canada. “Recently, we sent back two beaver bundles and two headdresses to a Blackfoot group in Alberta,” he said.

But across international borders, different laws and tangled provenance records slow the resolution of disputes. Last week, Italy celebrated the return of the Euphronios krater, an ancient vase, from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art—after a three-decade tussle.

The British Museum—home of the infamous Elgin marbles from the Parthenon and other buildings in the Acropolis—has become the most vocal supporter of a manifesto defending the “universal museum,” published by the directors of 40 major museums calling themselves the Bizot group. “Objects acquired in earlier times must be viewed in the light of different sensitivities and values, refl ective of that earlier era,” reads the statement.

Museums in 102 countries now operate under the 1970 UNESCO convention that governs the transfer of cultural property. As the website of the International Council of Museums notes, “The UNESCO Convention of 1970 has no retroactive effect; it only enters into effect on the day of its official ratification.” Canada ratified the convention in 1978.

Engstrom expressed similar sentiments. “The times in the 1930s were different than they are now,” he said. “Today, the museum is very tight about the provenance of objects. Certainly in the past, we would have hoped everything was sent in legally.”

Too many frosh in the sea

As reported in the Jan. 21 issue of The Varsity, Ontario universities have seen the highest demand for first-year spots since the OAC year of high school was eliminated in 2003, causing the “double cohort” of uni applications. This year, the number of entry applications to Ontario schools rose by five per cent, to 83,000, up from 79,000 a year ago.

Competition for popular programs is fierce, and the provincial government is under pressure to create additional spaces.

Most of Canada’s other regions have seen university applications remain roughly the same over the past few years. The Maritimes have seen a decrease in university applicants. The space crunch in GTA universities is spilling across southern Ontario. Preliminary data released by the Council of Ontario Universities suggests that applications at the University of Guelph are up nearly 25 per cent.

Despite the $6.2 billion the provincial government has invested in the higher education sector, universities are finding it difficult to cope with such a high number of students submitting applications.

“The McGuinty government deserves credit for the Reaching Higher plan in the 2005 budget, which put significant increases into student aid,” said Paul Genest of the COU, who added that the growing demand for PSE was due in part to increased government support. “We’re fortunate that Premier McGuinty wants to be known as the ‘education premier,’” he added.

Genest called on the Ontario government and the province’s universities to respond with greater investment in PSE. U of T is of the position is that limited room for growth exists at the St. George campus, but Missisauga and Scarborough campuses could both expand.