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The Diplomat Documentary Review AFI Docs

My review of The Diplomat for the Washington City Paper

The Diplomat offers an insider’s view of U.S. foreign policy by examining the storied, 50-year career of Richard Holbrooke, who is widely credited with ending the Bosnian War in 1995, with an accord signed in an Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. His oldest son David directs, gathering a who’s who of dignitaries to speak on his Dad, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, and a number of top journalists. But this isn’t a wide-eyed paean to diplomacy’s power to bring peace; nor is it a cynical exposé on the backroom dealings of a few powerful men. As The Diplomat traces the legacy of Holbrooke from his days in Vietnam to Bosnia, and finally to Pakistan and Afghanistan, it humanizes diplomacy, yet also shows its dark underbelly—a battle of wills between a select few who are far removed from the front lines. Holbrooke, though surely fallible, was keenly aware of the “service” part of the Foreign Service; The Diplomat shines a light on the strategies he employed to make peace an all-too-rare reality.

Of Men And War AFI Documentary Review

My review of Of Men And War for the Washington City Paper

The second feature film by French director Laurent Bécue-Renard (War-Wearied) offers an unprecedented and intimate look at PTSD and some of the war-ravaged men and women suffering from it. Set in the Pathway Home, a treatment facility in California for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the film benefits from its fly-on-the-wall approach, squarely turning its lens on the group therapy sessions and residents’ interactions with their families, which allows the soldiers to tell their own stories. They seem unable to extricate themselves from the war zone, forever held hostage and unable to unsee the horrors they’ve witnessed. They describe feeling “embarrassed, small, defective… crazy.” The degree of access granted the filmmaker is truly amazing, and it’s even more impressive considering the degree of trauma with which each of these soldiers is wrestling and the Herculean effort required of them to share something so antithetical to the “be stoic about it” military ethos. An unflinching exploration of the “collateral damage” of war trauma, the film poignantly illustrates that there is nothing collateral about it. Of Men And War is one of today’s most engrossing and gut-wrenching commentaries on the high cost of our recent military conflicts.

A Disconnected Modem: My Accent and Your Privilege

This piece of mine first appeared on Stoner’s Journal:

“Where are you from?” “WHERE are you from!?”

Where am I from…two places, really, but I have a feeling I already know the one you want me to identify, so I will answer that way. You might wonder how such a simple question could be so incredibly loaded. Well, this isn’t really the question I am being asked, you see. Let me present you with several real scenarios I encounter all too often.

“Where are you FROM?” (Asked with an at-best-rather-thinly-veiled-expression-of-dismay-bordering-on-disgust)

“Bulgaria. But I have lived in the United States for the last 24 years.”

“Wow. Your accent is SO strong and heavy.”

“Where are you from?”

“Washington, DC.”

“No, but where are you REALLY from?”

“Bulgaria.”

Ok, let’s parse this out. My accent, without exaggeration, is nothing short of the proverbial scarlet letter. It forces me to engage in conversations often too probing and personal and sometimes, yes, confrontational for a gregarious enough Eastern European with a smile that presents itself rather easily.

“I can’t be languid about my linguistics; I don’t get to be detached from my discourse.

Look at the first scenario. My accent could be described as droll, charming, different, or interesting. Or, it could be a signal of A. a general stupidity and/or ineptitude, or B. an inability to adapt and make myself more socially acceptable and, therefore, palatable to your Western sensibilities. Let’s talk about A. The incongruity of this will not escape you: I teach GRE test prep at an university. My vocabulary, factually-speaking, is probably far wider than that of most “native” speakers. I have no issues comprehending or speaking English. Yet, as soon as I open my mouth, I am waging a tacit battle against so many assumptions: that I am somehow intellectually-deficient, that I am only here to visit for a short while and couldn’t possibly live here, that I just got here, and am soon to return “home.” At the very least, it forces me to engage–to make excuses, to explain, to expound, to prove, to dispel, to educate, to elucidate, to open hearts and minds…that’s a lot for a girl to do. Casual banter becomes…well, not quite so casual.

I can’t be languid about my linguistics; I don’t get to be detached from my discourse.

You might read this and imagine me to be some kind of an oversensitive, chip-on-the-shoulder ideologue. I am actually none of those things. Like you, I too would like to partake in idle chatter that doesn’t involve accounting for my immigration status.

Simple, really.

I sometimes wonder how the people who say, “But your accent is SO strong,” expect me to respond. I am not sure there is a retort to this. Is there? “Ehm, I am sorry, I guess…” I wonder if the people who ask me realize this.

This, of course, is about something much bigger than my accent.  I first came to U.S. when I was twelve. I would sit in class, unable to raise my hand or speak. The words were lodged into my throat…It felt like the only way they would come out was if you turned me upside down and shook them out of me. They probably would have landed like marbles on the floor, enunciating their landing one by one. I remember my utter dismay when, after the first test I took (in geography, funnily enough), the teacher announced “Only one person got a 100 on this test and she hasn’t even been here as long as all of you have.” Even more amusingly, I later won the award for the best student in U.S. history during high school.

I digress–what I’m really saying here is that my accent is merely the manifestation of something bigger. It’s both the cause and the reminder of my general alie-nation. “I’m cut off from the main line, like a disconnected modem.” You see, my own words are foreign to me. When I speak and hear the accent, I feel divorced from *me.* Because the words certainly don’t sound accented in my head. Mostly, I feel like I am talking to people through a plexiglass window. There is a disconnect. Sometimes literally. Occasionally, I have that one cruel student in my class who grumbles about my accent being heavy. But the chasm is much deeper. I am constantly made aware of it as soon as I begin speaking, laden with–and beset by–assumptions. The words coming out of my mouth are far less weighty than the speaker. I am front and center, not them.

I sometimes wish I would lose my accent–not because of some imagined social benefit I might extract from the white-washing of me but for the reprieve from being center stage all of the time. I am proud of who I am. I would never want to lose sight or contact with my heritage–there is nothing there to be ashamed of. But I am so much more than where I was born and where I live. Correction: Maybe better put is that I am so much less. I don’t really have a “geography of self;” I don’t really belong anywhere. Yet, this doesn’t bother me on an internal level. It only bugs me when it becomes the yard stick by which people measure me.

Maybe the worst part of all this is (well-intentioned, self pep talks notwithstanding) there is a point at which you begin to feel as if you have no right to speak. Fear and loathing in *insert location of your choice.* You do lose your voice. It took me so long to allow myself the moniker “writer.” I, too, believed I didn’t have a right to a voice. I had spent so long silencing myself, I forgot how to speak. I made my own words filled with gravitas/heavy with gravity.

I don’t really need to find myself–I am pretty clear on who I am. I wish I did not have to locate myself for others, but even that is generally all right. I hope that, maybe, next time you ask someone about her “heavy accent,” you first take a moment and think about the fact that an accent is not a voice.

The Great Invisible Documentary Film Review

My review of the documentary The Great Invisible

Director Margaret Brown’s documentary The Great Invisible offers an unprecedented look at the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its aftermath. Taut and emotional, this is not a film about corporate malfeasance or environmental doom and gloom. Rather, it is the under reported story of the people on the Gulf Coast who suffered a loss of livelihood that could not be recompensed by BP’s victim benefit fund.

When the Transocean-built Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, it killed 11 workers, injured 16, and caused the largest oil spill in US history. The leak was 80 miles wide, spewing 2.4 million gallons of oil a day. After 87 days, only 176 million gallons—less than a third of the spill—were cleaned.

At the time of the disaster, BP CEO Tony Hayward’s assurances that BP’s priorities were to “eliminate the leak and defend the shoreline,” rang rather hollow and placated no one. In the anxious days following the spill, BP’s cost-cutting practices that sacrificed safety for profit received attention. The Great Invisible shines a light on a much scarier and less known issue —BP’s fellow oil giants are no less reckless. In footage from Congressional hearings, we see that Exxon and all of the other oil behemoths are no better equipped to handle spills than BP. Their emergency plans are all prepared by the same company, Marine Spill Response Corporation, and are all equally outdated and inadequate (referencing walruses in the Gulf Coast, natch).

The film talks about the oil drilling culture, explaining how workers were rewarded by the company for offering any money-saving ideas. On the Deepwater Horizon, there were 26 systems that if redundant could have prevented the explosion, but in an industry where time is literally money, the impetus to save time led to perilous decisions on shortcuts that should have never been taken.

One of the greatest strengths of The Great Invisible lies in its examination of the impact of the spill on the lives of the people working on The Gulf Coast. The film takes us to Bayou La Batre, the home of Alabama’s seafood industry. We meet the shrimpers, oysterers, and oyster and crab shuckers whose lives were destroyed by the spill, and we meet the good-natured Roosevelt Harris, who runs a mobile food pantry to help those in need following the disaster. It’s a trenchant commentary, with people who previously earned a living on the fruits of the ocean literally reduced to poverty.

The Great Invisible extensively interviews Kenneth Feinberg, the attorney put in charge of the administering the 20 billion BP victim compensation fund. The film brings up an important point—that what initially was posited as a plus, which is having “money upfront,” and not requiring the victims to litigate for compensation had a much darker underside—that victims could not sue BP for damages much larger than what the fund assessed. More importantly, this fund really took advantage of the people who suffered the most—those Gulf residents who had trepidation about dealing with “big city folk” and did not have the ability to produce the kind of proof of losses required for them to be compensated. Nearly half of the claims filed were rejected—not because of lack of validity but because of lack of “proof.” How does one prove how much money one has lost from not being able to do what one has done for generations!? As one person poignantly put it, “we do things with a handshake here.” Paper proof was impossible to come by. The shrimpers and oysters shuckers from Alabama received nominal sums of a couple of thousand for a loss of livelihood amounting to much more financially and even more importantly psychologically.

The Great Invisible offers a novel take on the 2010 disaster, one not reliant on talking heads but on the people who suffered the most. It ends with an important point: lease revenue from leasing areas to oil companies is the second largest source of income for the U.S. government after taxes. Currently, there are 3500 oil rigs operating in the Gulf Coast, the largest in history and certainly more than in 2010. The U.S. government routinely earns billions from leasing ocean space to oil companies. How surprising is it then that they stand little to gain from regulating deep ocean drilling!? It is a deep quagmire and one that should definitely not let us rest easy.

 

 

 

Expert Panel Shines Light on ISIS

My article:

Two months after President Obama launched air strikes in an effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the militant group known as Islamic State or ISIS, the operation now has a name—”Enduring Resolve”—a reference to the long, difficult task of combating such an amorphous organization.

In an October event at the School of International Service convened by Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence, David Gregory, Ambassador Akbar Ahmed of SIS, Politico’s Susan Glasser, and The Washington Post’s David Ignatius discussed the prospects for the American-led campaign against ISIS and broader U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Moderator David Gregory began the talk by posing the question about how well the war on IS is going.

“It’s going badly. Wars often start badly,” explained Ignatius, reaffirming the need for the U.S. to form a strong coalition with other Arab nations. “Basically, we would have to tell them, ‘You have to put some skin in the game if you want the American help.’”

David Ignatius CSIS Panel

He also suggested that training CIA-style guerilla fighters in Syria to combat IS might be a more appropriate style campaign than the air bombing one used thus far. Ignatius expressed concern about “whether we are walking into a trap that locks us into the kind of warfare our adversaries want and how can we mitigate that danger.” He was of the firm conviction that Iraq is “as sectarian as ever. It is badly fractured and I do not see a coherent strategy in our policy to pull it together.”

Ambassador Akbar Ahmed framed ISIS in a tribal Islamic context, a topic he wrote a book about: “ISIS has very little to do with Islam. Its members are tribesmen from tribes that have imploded over the last few decades. We all tend to think of this as radical Islam without considering this is tribal Islam which espouses a code that encourages revenge for wrong-doings.”

Akbar Ahmed Chatham House 2013

One major distinction he made, however, is that this code has become mutated. Out of the trifecta of bravery, courage, and revenge, revenge is seen as the only thing left. He underlined that the creation of borders that split the tribes in forced ways, fanning the flames of conflict. That conflict is not Islam vs. the West but periphery versus center—societies left on the fringes fighting a central government they perceive as antagonistic to their interests.

Ambassador Ahmed explained that tribal Islam is a militaristic culture and one that is constantly in conflict with Islam itself—for example, tribal Islam eschews the inroads made for women by Islam, such as inheritance rights. “We need to understand the context of these movements and not call them Islamic movements.” In couching the conflict in center vs. periphery, Ahmed also suggested that public opinion in Pakistan, for example, is in favor of strikes against ISIS, whereas public confidence in Iraq has collapsed. He believes that Muslims worldwide support the fight against ISIS and that getting the support of the people is important in forming an alliance.

Susan Glasser Politico New America Foundation

Susan Glasser spoke a bit more on the policy side of the issue, calling Obama an “extremely reluctant warrior.” “We are seeing a fairly public debate between the President and the generals on strategy. We have a lot of generals saying the war plan will not work, that it is based on false theory, premised on the notion that an air campaign on guys in pick-up trucks.”

All three panelists expressed the opinion that ISIS is an aggressive, flexible, and adapting enemy and that there is tremendous trepidation about entering into yet another quagmire of conflict in the Middle East.

David Ignatius discussed some of ISIS’ tactics, referring to the beheading of people as “their version of shock and awe. The element of raw physical intimidation, of an almost pornographic  level of violence, is what is so attention-grabbing.” But he referred to the case of Al Qaeda that had grown so hated because it made so many enemies in fighting a sectarian battle against more than the U.S. “It is not possible to brutalize your way to success.” He explained that ISIS is able to gain wealth by engaging in kidnapping, selling oil, and taking over central bank branches. They also have clever strategies for gaining recruits. In addition to a powerful social media empire, they have the practice of attacking prisons, specifically in Mosul and Ambar, whereupon liberating several thousand prisoners, they gain new fighters from that cadre. “They are really smart in how they plan operations.”

Watch the entire video here.

 

Book Review of The Other Language

My book review of The Other Language by Francesca Marciano


Francesca Marciano’s The Other Language is essentially the literary and literal antithesis of Eat, Pray, Love—it upends the insufferable, Oprah-sanctified-and-sanctimonious trope of a privileged white woman who travels to exotic locales to “find herself” and replaces it with something all the more magical in its realism. The acclaimed author of Rules of the Wild gives us nine stories that conjure emotions and places with the kind of natural story-telling that eschews cheap grabs for our emotional investment, reliant on lachrymose and saccharine writing, and instead explore the truism that “home is really where they love you.” The vibrant characters in The Other Language travel across the globe, but the territory covered is far wider than merely geographical. The book is a beautifully-written testament to the absurdity of ideas like “finding yourself,” whether it be through travel, escapism, or intervention. The natural fluency and virtuosity of Marciano’s writing will take you on an engrossing journey and speak to you in a language you can viscerally understand.

In the title story, “The Other Language,” Emma is a 12-year-old girl who has recently lost her mother. She travels with her father and brother and sister from Italy to a summer vacation in a sleepy Greek village. The story presents the reader with one of the most trenchant and genuine examinations of death and how it thrusts those left behind into a social limelight that makes their personal pain all the more difficult. “The adults had decided they were too small to be told such dreadful particulars, as if their mother’s death was just another protocol they had to observe, like never ask for a soft drink unless they were offered one and never fish inside a lady’s handbag…They assumed death must be an impolite subject to bring up in conversation, a disgrace to be hidden, to be put behind.” To “survive the pain buried inside her was to become an entirely different person.”
On the Greek island, Emma develops a crush on an English boy…and of course, she must learn to speak English to communicate with him. Marciano’s touching description of Emma’s language teacher—Joni Mitchell, singing songs about “the wind is in from Africa,” is such a vivid picture of how people often learn a new language. Emma, “didn’t know what she was getting away from, but the other language was the boat she fled on.” “The Other Language” elegantly captures the indelible mark adolescence often leaves on our lives. Emma’s fascination with English causes her to move to America, where she “made sure to pick up every mannerism and colloquial expression that might polish her new identity.” The bitter-sweet melancholy and wistfulness one experiences when looking back is profoundly conveyed by Marciano’s writing.
The other stories in the book also share this theme of a seeming schism, unraveling, separation, followed by the discovery of something that perhaps was there all along. In, “Chanel,” which sort of recalled O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Three Magi,” for me, a woman buys a Chanel dress she cannot possibly afford. Eventually, she cannot possibly afford to part with this dress she has never worn, yet has now transformed into a talisman of sorts, one harkening to past “glories,” now long-gone. The dress is a reminder that finding out what is glorious simply requires a change of viewpoint. In “Big Island Small Island,” a man has escaped to an island off the coast of Tanzania. Marciano’s description of him as a “beached hippie” is incredibly humorous and apropos. Beached whale; beached hippie; beached human…all the same, in essence.
In another one of my favorite stories in the book, “The Presence of Men” is about the friendship between an extraordinary local seamstress and a divorced woman named Lara who escapes to a small Italian village after her divorce. Her past life keeps tearing at the seams of her new one, with everyone wondering what Lara is running away from, blaming it on all on some kind of a midlife, post-divorce crisis. Until she sheds the vestiges and togs of her past, everything else is only so much curtains…and obfuscation. Of course, there is yoga involved, too. But only in an incredibly hilarious way—Lara, a former yoga teacher, has the proverbial awakening that yoga is not about doing poses that give you a swollen knee (literally, in this case) and about forcing ideas about “living in the present” on yourself. Yoga happens when one isn’t paying attention to yoga. Yoga is realizing that you are not really trying to do anything with yourself.
The Other Languageexplores romantic relationships in a (mercifully) histrionic-less and melodramatic-free way (in case you are wondering why Oprah did not pick this book to sing paeans to instead of Eat, Pray, Love). The characters are all due for some big realizations; the locations are incidental to their process of disentangling. In “An Indian Soiree,” a husband and a wife decide to end their marriage, perhaps all too easily. Nothing catastrophic happens—apparently, they just choose to. “They had to say things to each other that would make turning back impossible and they obliged…How odiously clichéd it all sounded, and yet—at that very moment—so utterly real and satisfying.”
The stories are all of reinvention, but not the kind of clichéd, spoon-fed reinvention that comes seemingly all-too-readily in books like Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, the characters might be in exotic locales, but the locales are not the self-realization catalysts. “After seven years of European life, she found herself smiling at the predicament she’d found herself in. It was a reminder that there were still places in the world where one could vanish, be lost, be found and rescued by strangers.” The reinvention often comes only by seeing things that were already there—in that sense, this book will not give you “why am I not traveling” complex. You don’t need to incinerate all vestiges of your “comfortable” life to travel far, as long as you can do that some of that traveling sitting at home, it suggests.
Marciano is not in the business of cheaply tugging at the heartstrings, but her deceptively simple and evocative prose will do that effortlessly and pull you along on a tour-de-force journey rich with sensory details like, “the pots of basil on the windowsills to keep the mosquitoes away.”



The Kill Team Review

My review of the documentary The Kill Team

Director Dan Krauss’ The Kill Team is an absolutely enthralling tour-de-force documentary that stares unblinkingly down the ugly, dirty face of war, offering a sobering look at its specters. There are no heroes to be found here, only the very banality of extreme violence. As Specialist Adam Winfield says, “There are no good men left here.”
The Kill Team is the story of a platoon that made headlines in 2010 after it was discovered that 5 soldiers in the group had essentially murdered 3 innocent Afghani civilians “for sport.” The film focuses on Specialist Adam Winfield who had attempted to alert authorities to the “kills” taking place, only to himself be charged by the Army and face a lengthy prison sentence. The absurd dichotomy of someone being labeled a whistle blower and a murderer in the same breath lies at the crux of The Kill Team’s main argument: the military can be a ruthless machine that often victimizes its own, not just the enemy.

film3-TheKillTeam

The main story line of the film is Winfield’s court battle, but all of the other people involved in the murders are also interviewed, except for the mastermind and leader of the unit, Sergeant Gibbs. Spc. Jeremy Morlock’s seemingly emotionless account of how “we straight murdered that dude,” is chilling if taken merely as a sign of his apathy to violence. Looking behind the mask, we get the idea that the macho culture of the army he has been reared in has taught him to suppress feelings.  He frequently references “the ideology of the infantry world,” this idea that life in the Army was supposed to be some kind of a glorified Top Gun-esque escapade of patriotism and heroism, which by default involves the killing of the enemy. It’s certainly a novel perspective: all too often we are led to believe that the people who enlist actually seek to avoid combat. Morlock belies that stereotype — he describes an entire platoon of thirty-some men that idolized Sergeant Gibbs, who asked him to help them get “kills” as well. Gibbs’ collecting of finger bones for a grisly war trophy necklace does not strike them, seemingly, as wrong.
The Kill Team offers a scathing – though unstated – condemnation of the Army who essentially made a scapegoat out of Winfield, who had all along attempted to alert the higher-ups, labeling him not enough of a conscious objector. Winfield brings up a salient point: “We tend to handle things in-house. Had I reported it, it would have come right back down the chain-of-command to me.” As his lawyer points out, the military justice system is not impartial: they are essentially the judge and the jury. Furthermore, the film puts into question just how rogue of a platoon was this or was their conduct commonplace, as the soldiers suggest and an issue only because they were caught. The chilling concept of a “drop weapon” is introduced. It is a weapon that is off-the-books and can be “dropped” on anyone, making him/her appear as an aggressor and justifying any violence committed against him/her. Gibbs apparently had access to a whole cache of this kind, including grenades and AK47s. The film raises the interesting question of why uphold the seemingly legality of a war when the very concept of it implies a level of chaos and violence that renders such track-covering pathetic in the true sense of the word.
There is little question about Sergeant Gibbs motivations—he calls the Afghanis “savages.” But what about the other members of the platoon, bullied into submission by him and unable to dissent for fear of their lives? The terrible face of the “war on terror” is made poignantly human here: “Nobody is innocent here. We are getting blown up every time we go up there to talk to them or build them a well or a school.” As Morlock explains, “the constant pressure to having to kill and being shot at is overwhelming. It is impossible not to surrender to the insanity of it all.”
The Kill Team is easily one of the most thought-provoking documentaries this year and certainly one of the best ones on the war in Afghanistan. It’s a lot more than the plucked from the headlines story of a rogue platoon; it’s the living embodiment of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs:”
Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight?
They leave that role to the poor
The film is a testimonial to the kind of damage caused for a cause that is impossible to name or understand.

SIS Newsletter and a Number of My Articles

SIS Summer Newsletter–featuring a number of my stories:

Professor Chronicles Link Between Police Repression and Race Riots
Professor Focuses on Urbanization
Professor’s Book Redefines Child Soldiers
Professor’s Book Examines Terror Authorization Act