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Father Ken Vavrina Book Signing – Sunday, Jan. 3

December 28, 2015 Leave a comment

 

 

Sunday, January 3, 2016
at 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM
St Benedict The Moor, 2423 Grant Street, Omaha
Father Ken Vavrina will sign copies of his new book, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden,” from 10:30 a.m. to Noon on Sunday, Jan. 3 at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church, 2423 Grant Street, In North Omaha. The signing will take place in the social hall located in the church basement. The book chronicles Father’s inspiring life of service at home and abroad. As I helped Father Ken realize the book, I will be there as well. Come out and support Father Ken, a much beloved man of God and of the people whose ministry is both a testimony of faith and a call to action. This social justice champion has served parishes on reservtions and in Omaha’s inner city. He’s worked with lepers in Yemen and with the poorest of the poor in India. He’s aided war refugees in Liberia and earthquake surviors in Italy. He’s given all he has to give and now it’s time for the community to show its appreciation for this once close confidante and colleague of Mother Teresa.

Refreshments will be served. All are welcome. We hope to see you there.

 

 

A big thank you to Mike Kelly for his fine column on Father Ken Vavrina

December 23, 2015 Leave a comment

A big thank you to Mike Kelly for his fine column on Father Ken Vavrina

In the Omaha World-Herald issue dated today (Wednesday, December 23, 2015), columnist Mike Kelly finds the heart of Father Ken Vavrina and of the book I did with him, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.”  Mike was aware that Father Ken got to know Mother Teresa quite well during his missionary years overseas.  At Mike’s urging, he, Father and myself took in a screening together of the new dramatic feature film about Mother Teresa, “The Letters,” since Father alone among us could provide first-hand impressions of what Mother was really like.  Mike took notes as Father reacted to various things depicted in the film.  After the film, Mike interviewed us.  Mike’s resulting fine column takes the full measure of the humble humanitarian and servant that is Father Ken.  It is Father’s ardent wish that each of us cross our own bridges to experience other cultures and serve diverse peoples.  This is how we grow and this is how we make the world a better place to live.

BOOK EVENT:

Sunday, January 3rd

Father Ken will be signing his book starting at 10:30 a.m. at St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church (in the social hall in the basement of the church), 2423 Grant Street. Refreshments will be served.

_ _ _

BUY THE BOOK:

“Crossing Bridges” is available on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. You can also access it on your Kindle. You can also order the book at- http://www.upliftingpublishing.com/#!book/c24jx

The only two local bookstores carrying “Crossing Bridges” are The Bookworm at 2501 South 90th Street and Hudson Booksellers at Eppley Airfield.

_ _ _

EXCERPT FROM KELLY’S COLUMN:

 

At the new movie about Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an Omaha priest occasionally leaned over and whispered about the saintly Nobel Peace Prize laureate he knew well.

“Sadness took a toll on her,” Father Ken Vavrina said at one point. At another: “Tough lady.”

At the Aksarben Cinema for a showing of “The Letters,” the 80-year-old priest, who himself worked with lepers, admired the actress’s portrayal: “Mother walked stooped, just like that.”

Through letters Mother Teresa wrote over 40 years, the biopic tells of her work amid the slums — and her crisis of faith, never feeling she did enough for God.

Father Ken knew nothing about the letters she wrote to her spiritual adviser, but he knew Mother, who died in 1997. He tells about her in a new autobiography with Omaha writer Leo Adam Biga, “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.”

As we left the theater and walked into afternoon light, the cleric remembered the nun, who died in 1997, as an inspiration.

“We meshed well together,” he said. “She contributed so much to my life and was a great influence in the way she was so humble. She reached out to help people without expecting anything in return.”

The last time I interviewed Father Vavrina was 1998, not long after he returned from 19 years of missionary work overseas. He’d just been assigned to troubled St. Richard Catholic Church at 43rd and Fort Streets, where the former pastor was Daniel Herek, convicted of child pornography and sexual assault.

Vavrina, who had worked in poor, sad situations for most of his priesthood, proclaimed that the parish and elementary school would turn the “negative publicity” around. Always optimistic, he predicted: “This school will still be here in 25 years.”

He tried. But because of declining attendance and enrollment, the church and school closed 11 years later.

Vavrina later served as pastor of St. Benedict the Moor parish in north Omaha. He eventually stated from the pulpit that, against his wishes, Archbishop George Lucas was forcing him to retire at 75.

The priest, who since has survived cancer, now looks at the situation differently. “The archbishop was right, and I was wrong. It was time.”

In retirement, Father Ken can look back on a lifetime of helping the poor — and, as a missionary, assisting “the poorest of the poor.”

He grew up in Clarkson, Nebraska, and was 9 when his father died after a fall from a ladder. As a teen, Ken dated and looked forward to a possible law degree.

But he felt a calling and was ordained in 1962. He worked on the Winnebago and Omaha Indian Reservations in Nebraska and later took medical supplies to members of the American Indian Movement during a 1973 protest in Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

He also served inner-city Omaha parishes, taking part in the civil rights movement.

In 1976, Mother Teresa came to Omaha and received an award at Boys Town. (Its official address today is Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home, 14086 Mother Teresa Lane, Boys Town, NE 68010.)

Vavrina had long been inspired by her work, and in 1977, he received a leave of absence from the Omaha archdiocese.

In Rome, he met Mother, asking if he could help.

“She threw her hands up in her typical way when she was excited,” he recalled. “She said, ‘Father, I need a priest in Yemen to help the sisters working with lepers.’ ”

And so he went, staying five and a half years. He lived in a dirt-floor hut, scraped dead skin from lepers and witnessed amputations. He called it taxing but fulfilling work, “the best job I ever had.”

He contracted malaria, but not leprosy. Eventually, he was arrested and jailed for two weeks, suspected of spying for the CIA. (He says he was not.) The U.S. Embassy arranged his release.

Catholic Relief Services hired him to manage a rebuilding effort after an earthquake, and then to supervise aid in India. As he says in his book:

I will never forget my first night in Calcutta. I said to the driver, “What are in these sacks we keep passing by?”
“Those are people.”

Hundreds upon thousands of people made their beds and homes alongside the road. It was a scale of homelessness I could not fathom.

Father Ken was reunited with Mother Teresa, noting the admiration she received wherever she went. When he left Calcutta in 1991, he wept. He said Mother teared up, too.

He next went to Liberia during civil war, supervising Catholic Relief Services aid and dealing with ruthless dictator Charles Taylor, whom the priest calls “a paranoid egomaniac.”

 

Father Ken hadn’t planned to write a book, but so many people urged him to do so that he agreed, hoping his story might inspire readers.

He contacted Biga, a freelance writer whose work includes a book about director-screenwriter Alexander Payne. Biga also has traveled to Uganda and Rwanda to write about relief work by world champion boxer Terence Crawford of Omaha.

For the rest of the story, visit-http://www.omaha.com/columnists/kelly-from-mother-teresa-to-a-liberian-dictator-nebraskan-priest/article

 

 

 

My Year in Review (as determined by the folks at Facebook)

December 18, 2015 Leave a comment

 

My Year in Review (as determined by the folks at Facebook): It’s actually a pretty good representation of 2015.

It was a very good year…

A year of milestones and firsts, of familiar and new faces, of long distance and closer to home travels, of ongoing and emerging projects. Good health and good friends. Many blessings. Much gratitude.

Happy holidays and may 2016 bring us all peace of mind and heart.

Leo’s Year in Review
'AFRICA TALES: Most of the crew at our first lodging place, the Adonai House in Kampala, Uganda. Not pictured was our team leader, Jamie Fox Nollette.'
'AFRICA TALES: Me interviewing our team tour guide in Uganda, Apollo Karugaba, a sweet-natured man who escaped the slums to  get an education and to do good work with Watoto Child Care Ministries. He helped give me a local's sense for the way of life and the scale of need there. This interview took place outside the Bomah Hotel in Gulu, the largest city in Northern Uganda. In that northern region we visited Bless a Child and Sister Rosemary's St. Monica's site in Gulu and Sister's second site in Atiak.'
'North Omaha Summer Arts (NOSA) celebrates 5 years. Come be a part of this FREE community festival for the whole family!! 

Saturday, July 18th
Art and Gardening
10 am - 12 pm
Join NOSA, No More Empty Pots & WhyArts @ Florence Branch Library making art on clay pots and planting flowers that attract pollinators. Pots provided but bring your own pots if you like. Call 402-502-4669 to register but registration not required.

Mon.-Fri., July 20-24
Mural Making Community Project
9 am - 12 pm
Youth participants from Project Everlast, YouthLinks and Solomon Girls will collaborate with Heartland Family Service Senior Center residemts to create a mobile mural with the theme of Peace in North Omaha. Participants will work under the supervision of muralist and sculptor Pamela Hinson at the HFS Intergenerational Campus. The mural will have its first public showing at the NOSA Arts Crawl on August 14.

Weds. through July 29
Women’s Writing Workshops; An Adventure in Art Journaling
6 - 8 pm
Kim Whiteside leads workshops at Trinity Lutheran Church

Friday, August 14th
NOSA 5th annual Arts Crawl
6 - 9 pm
Featuring work by established and emerging artists.Take a stroll or a drive down North 30th Street from Metropolitan College Fort Omaha campus north to various churches to Heartland Family Service/Solomon Girls Center.

The Arts Crawl lineup:

Metropolitan Community College Fort Omaha campus, Mule Barn Building #21

Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd. (just northwest of 30th and Kansas Ave.)

Trinity Lutheran Church, 6340 North 30th St. (30th and Redick)

Parkside Baptist Church, 3008 Newport Ave. (30th and Newport Ave.)

Heartland Family Service/Solomon Girls Center, 6720 North 30th St. (30th and Titus Ave.)

NEW THIS YEAR: The Washington Branch Library, 2868 Ames Ave. is hosting an Arts Crawl reception from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Enjoy art and refreshments at the library.

Remember all NOSA activities are FREE and open to the public.

Please come participate in this important milestone of 5 years bringing art to North Omaha. Your support is appreciated.

For more info, email pamelajoh100@hotmail.com or call 402-502-4669/402-709-1359

No art experience necessary for the workshops.

Please come participate in this important milestone of 5 years bringing art to North Omaha. Your support is appreciated.

For more info, email pamelajoh100@hotmail.com or call 402-502-4669/402-709-1359'
'I only just now became aware of this fine review of my Alexander Payne book that appeared in a 2014 issue of the Great Plains Quarterly journal. The review is by the noted novelist and short story writer Brent Spencer, who teaches at Creighton University. Thanks, Brent, for your attentive and articulate consideration of my work. Read the review below.

NOTE: I am still hopeful a new edition of my Payne book will come out in the next year or two. it would feature the additon of my extensive writing about Payne's Nebraska. I have a major university press mulling it over now.

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film—A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998–2012 by @[1690777260:2048:Leo Adam Biga]
Review by Brent Spencer
From: Great Plains Quarterly 
Volume 34, Number 2, Spring 2014 

In Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film—A Reporter’s Perspective 1998–2012, Leo Adam Biga writes about the major American filmmaker Alexander Payne from the perspective of a fellow townsman. The Omaha reporter began covering Payne from the start of the filmmaker’s career, and in fact, even earlier than that. Long before Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Cannes award-winner Nebraska, Biga was instrumental in arranging a local showing of an early (student) film of Payne’s The Passion of Martin. From that moment on, Payne’s filmmaking career took off, with the reporter in hot pursuit.

Biga’s book contains a collection of the journalist’s writings. The approach, which might have proven to be patchwork, instead allows the reader to follow the growth of the artist over time. Young filmmakers often ask how successful filmmakers made it to that point. Biga’s book may be the best answer to this question, at least as far as Payne is concerned. Biga presents the artist from his earliest days as a hometown boy to his first days in Tinseltown as a scuffling outsider to his heyday as an insider working with Hollywood’s brightest stars.

If there is a problem with Biga’s approach, it is that it occasionally leads to redundancy. The pieces were originally written separately, for different publications, and are presented as such. This means that an essay will sometimes cover the same material as a previous one. Some selections were clearly written as announcements of special showings of films. But the occasional drawback of this approach is counterbalanced by the feeling you get that the artist’s career is taking shape right before your eyes, from the showing of a student film in an Omaha storefront theater to a Hollywood premiere.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the book is Biga’s success at getting Payne to speak candidly about every step in the filmmaking process. These detailed insights include the challenges of developing material from conception to script, finding financing, moderating the mayhem of shooting a movie, and undertaking the slow, monk-like work of editing. Biga is clearly a fan (the book comes with an endorsement from Payne himself), but he’s a fan with his eyes wide open.'
'MORE AFRICA TALES MEDIA
I joined @[1619391711:2048:Jamie Fox Nollette] and @[100001709629160:2048:Terence Crawford] for a taping of KETV's "Chronicle" public affairs program with host Rob McCartney. Stay tuned for the date and time when the show will air. Photo courtesy KETV.'
'Pam, having enchilidas tonight with our friends @[584511938:2048:Linda M. Garcia Perez] and @[1567029979:2048:Jose Francisco Garcia]. I couldn't make it. Hoping they send her home with an extra enchilida. Enjoy honey.'
'HOMETOWN HERO TERENCE CRAWFORD ON VERGE OF GREATNESS AND BECOMING BOXING'S NEXT SUPERSTAR

When hometown hero and reigning WBO world welterweight champion  @[100001709629160:2048:Terence Crawford] takes care of business as expected against challenger Dierry Jean Saturday night (Oct. 24) at the CenturyLink, everything then opens up for him. The scuttlebutt is that he would fight Manny Pacquiao or, should he come out of retirement, Floyd Mayweather, in which case Terence would be fighting for the chance to be boxing's next great superstar. TopRank has already indicated they are looking to hand off the baton of King of Boxing to the right candidate and they are clearly grooming Terence to be that guy. 

Anyone who knows Terence understands that he has been preparing for this nearly all his life. Nothing fazes him because he's come through a lot to get here and ever since getting shot in the head back in 2008 he's made boxing, outside of family, his singular focus. And now that he's already gotten this far there is no one and nothing that he will let stand in his way, not if he has anything to say or do about it. 

In a way, he really doesn't have anything left to prove, other than showing that he truly belongs among the pantheon of contemporary and perhaps even all-time boxing greats. Only time will tell there. But it does appear he will get his opportunity to make his mark and knowing him he will take full advantage of it. 

I have written before how Terence is in a long line of outstanding athletes to come out of North Omaha to do great things at high levels. In terms of boxers from here, he stands alone, with nobody really even close. Among all athletes from North O, I argue that he is the most accomplished in his sport since Bob Gibson dominated for the St. Louis Cardinals in the late 1960s-early 1970s. A case could be made for Gale Sayers as well. In terms of the most beloved, Bud's only close competition is Bob Boozer, Johnny Rodgers and Ahman Green, and maybe Maurtice Ivy.

It has been fascinating to see how in such a short period of time, ever since he won his first title as a lightweight in 2014 and subsequently defended that title twice in Omaha before huge crowds, he has won over such a large cross-section of folks. He has single-handedly resurrected the sport of boxing here and put this town on the national and international boxing map, thus giving this place one more thing to take pride in. And at 28 he may be the best known living Nebraskan now outside of Warren Buffett and Alexander Payne. 

Omaha has gotten behind him and his passion for his hometown and for his North O community in a way that I don't think anyone could have predicted. It's very heartwarming to see, He already had a strong team around him in his Team Crawford crew of managers, coaches and trainers and now a whole team of advisers has come on board to help guide him and protect his earnings and to help him realize his vision for the B&B Boxing Academy. At Wednesday's meet-up down at the gym, there was an incredibly diverse mix of people present – B&B members, neighborhood residents, family, friends, movers and shakers and media, of course. Lots and lots of media. 

The Omaha World-Herald has reported about Terence's heart for community and others and those are threads I've been writing about for some time. I have helped frame the B&B Boxing Academy story and I traveled with Terence and his close friend and former teacher, @[1619391711:2048:Jamie Fox Nollette] to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa to see first-hand his curiosity about and concern for people in need in the Motherland. I hope to follow more of his journey as time goes by.

Read my extensive reporting and writing about Terence at-

http://leoadambiga.com/tag/terence-crawford/

I will be covering his fight against Jean and so look for my impressions about that fight and many more things about Terence and his ever evolving story in future posts and articles.'
'NOW AN OMAHA STAR COVER STORY
Omaha couple unoffIcial ambassadors for Ghana, West Africa

READ THE STORY BELOW OR CLICK ON-
http://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/13/omaha-couple-express-their-love-for-ghana-west-africa-in-many-ways/

Omaha couple Martine and Sam Quartey’s passion for Ghana finds them promoting aspects of that West African nation through various cultural, commercial and charitable activities. One of their activities is an every-other-year group trip they lead to Ghana, where Sam was born and raised. They organize the trip via their own S&M Tours. The next tour is scheduled December 20-31. Reservations are closed.

They call their tours Back to Our Roots – A Journey to the Motherland. This time around the couple will take a travel party of eight to see various sights in and around the capital city of Accra and the country’s next largest city Kumasi. Among the historical spots they will visit are some of Ghana’s coastal slave castles where thousands of Africans were detained against their will bound for slave trade ships making The Passage to the Americas and the Caribbean.

Sam Quartey, who works as an automotive mechanic, said it’s not unusual to see visitors cry upon touring the slave castles. “It’s a big story and very emotional,” he said.

Martine Quartey said she found herself “overwhelmed” by the experience.

With its southern border situated on the Atlantic Ocean, Ghana today is a tourist magnet with stunning beachside resorts and history-laden landscapes. Rich in mineral deposits and in cocoa production, the country is more developed than many first time visitors expect.

The December tour will be the fourth the couple’s led to Ghana. They enjoy introducing travelers to a continent and a nation they feel has much more to offer than many realize.

“There’s a lot to see – the beautiful scenery, the vivid colors and bold patterns of the clothing, the entrepreneurial spirit of the people, the bustling markets, the highly developed cities,” Martine said. “There’s also the painful history of slavery and colonization and the successful bid for independence.

“We invite people to take the journey with us, to cross those bridges and cultural boundaries to experience something they don’t expect to find.”

Ghana, like all of Africa, is known for the warm hospitality of its people. Americans are well-received, Martine said, but for African-Americans it truly is a heritage homecoming with deep currents.

“Because we are of our ancestors, we are returning in a sense and Ghanians greets us by saying, ‘Welcome back my sister, welcome back my brother.’ It’s so beautiful to hear that because finally you feel like you’re at home.”

Ever since she met Sam she has been fascinated with his homeland and she has developed an appreciation for its food and fashion, among other things. She and Sam often dress in Ghana attire and he cooks many traditional dishes. He is president of the Ghana Friendship Association of Nebraska (http://www.ghanafan.org/). The organization holds events that keep alive traditional culture for Ghanians living here, it helps new arrivals from Ghana adjust to American life and it supports schools and clinics in Ghana.

Martine made her first trip to Ghana in 2011, a year after the couple married. Whenever the couple go they bring back authentic garments and accessories as well as natural bath and beauty products because they and Omaha’s resident African community crave such hard to find items here. There is also high demand by local African-Americans for Ghana-ware and incidentals.

Requests for these goods got so frequent the Quarteys saw a business opportunity. Thus, they opened their S&M African Boutique in August. The small store at 6058 Ames Ave. features a surprisingly large array of fashion, bags, jewelry, art, fragrances, oils and shea butter products.

“The boutique is kind of birthed out of feedback we were getting from friends and family” to have these things year-round,” Martine said.

S&M African Boutique is open only on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit https://www.facebook.com/SandMAfricanBoutique.

The Quarteys have also formed the Pokuase Promise Project Initiative to support a school they adopted in the village of Pokuase. Sam’s grandfather settled the village. Sam’s father and uncle followed as village leaders. In a spirit of giving back, the couple collect donated supplies (books, computers, markers) they variously ship or personally deliver to the school serviing elementary through senior high students.

To consolidate their school assistance efforts, the couple are building an International Headquarters house in nearby Accra. It will have ground floor storage bays for supplies and a second story private residence. When in Ghana the Quarteys will stay and operate the Pokuase Project from there. They hope to have someone run the Project in country when they are back in the States.

The International House also represents Sam fulfilling a commitment he made to his late mother. The family owns the land the house is being constructed on and Sam’s mother made him promise to do something of substance on it.

“I told my wife about it and she said, ‘Yeah, let’s honor her wishes,’ so we started the project,” Sam said.
His dream is to build a library for the school and dedicate it to the man responsible for him coming to America, the late Bishop William Henry Foeman, who was a much revered and recognized foreign missionary. Sam and his oldest son lived for a time with Foeman, who came to Omaha to pastor Mount Calvary Community Church, where Sam is still a member today.

Working with the school is meaningful to Martine, an education professional. She is an administrative assistant in the Omaha Public Schools’ superintendent’s office and a part-time adult education instructor at Metropolitan Community College.

The Quarteys’ Ghana work is borne of a love that keeps expanding.

“It’s a beautiful thing because it’s blossomed,” Martine said, “and it’s all connected. We have our trips, we have our boutique and we have the school.”

There is also the blog she writes, “Follow My Braids, I Love Ghana, West Africa” at https://followmybraids.wordpress.com/.

The couple are available to speak about Ghana to media and groups.

They will soon be taking reservations for a late fall 2017 trip to Ghana.

For more information, call 402-972-0557.'
'EXCERPT FROM MY UPCOMING NEW STORY ABOUT TERENCE CRAWFORD 
IN THE NEXT REVIVE OMAHA MAGAZINE
 @[100001709629160:2048:Terence Crawford] cemented his status as King of Omaha Sports Figures by dispatching Dierry Jean in a WBO super lightweight bout on October 24 before 11,000 hometown fans at the CenturyLink Center arena.

Crawford, who's quickly become The People's Champ, imposed his will on the game but overmatched contender from Canada. He dropped Jean three times and had him in serious trouble again when awarded a 10th round technical knockout. The Omaha native carried the fight from the opening bell, using superior boxing skills and decisive height and reach advantages to repeatedly back Jean against the ropes and in the corners, landing nearly at will when pressing the action. The few times Dierry managed an attack, Crawford countered with combination barrages that left the challenger bloodied and bruised. 

The end was never in doubt because Crawford was never in trouble. It was just a matter of when Derry would go or when the referee would stop the scheduled 12-rounder.

The event marked another coronation for Crawford, who's gone from a hungry kid just looking for a shot to a mature champion on the cusp of being one of his sport's highest paid big names. Along the way he's captured the hearts and minds of a city he's proud to call his own. From the moment this local hero entered the arena that night amidst entourage members holding aloft his two title belts, the fighter exuded the confidence and star quality associated with sports icons. 

In the days before the fight Jean and his manager called out Crawford, vowing to take his lightweight belt to Canada. When Jean trash talked during the bout Crawford first let his fists do the talking before variously chirping back, stomping the canvas and smiling at the crowd as if to say, "I've got this" and "He's mine."

During the HBO interview just after the fight's conclusion Crawford taunted Jean and his manager in the ring with, "Did you get what you were looking for?" The crowd erupted in cheers. He also got a big response when he answered commentator Max Kellerman's question about the source of his fierce fighting nature with, "Where I'm from…" and gestured to friends and family who share the same neighborhood he does. He also expressed love for all the support Omaha gives him. The way he handled everything, from the crowd to the media to Jean, and still took care of business showed a professional athlete with real poise and presence. The more the spotlight shines on him, the more the boxing world discovers he's also a humanitarian with a deep commitment to his community.

At the post-fight press conference, where WBO head Bob Arum sat next to him and all but crowned him the fight organization's next superstar, Crawford was the calm, confident picture of Boxing's Next Big Thing. Crawford's already the toast of this town.

READ THE ENTIRE STORY IN THE NEXT REVIVE OMAHA and 
LOOK FOR IT, TOO, ON MY FACEBOOK PAGE MY INSIDE STORIES AND ON MY BLOG, LEOADAMBIGA.COM'
'RANDOM INSPIRATION Got a call out of the blue yesterday afternoon from an 86-year-old man in Omaha. He's a retired Jewish American retailer. He'd just finished reading my November Reader cover story about The Education of a WASP and the segregation issues that plagued Omaha. He just wanted to share how much he enjoyed it and how he felt it needed to be seen by more people. [  374 more words. ] 

http://leoadambiga.com/2015/11/19/random-inspiration'

NEARING A PERSONAL SOCIAL MEDIA MILESTONE

December 12, 2015 Leave a comment

Heading for half a million visits…Going for a million

 

 

NEARING A PERSONAL SOCIAL MEDIA MILESTONE

As my blog nears 500,000 unique visits – that’s half a million – in the span of just over five years since I launched the site, I am grateful that so many folks have discovered or in some cases rediscovered my work. I never imagined this platform could reach so many people, but it has, and without my ever paying a cent to advertise it. Those visits have all come through word of mouth and searches. To all those who support my work, thank you. if you’re already following my blog, Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com, thanks for the follow, If you’d like to become a follower, please do. My blog also feeds into my Facebook page, My Inside Stories, which I invite you to Like if you already haven’t.

My stories and posts about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions are meant to entertain, inform, inspire. Explore and enjoy.

My Journey to Africa with The Champ: Free Talk & Video Slideshow

December 7, 2015 2 comments

AFRICA TALES
6 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 8 @ Church of the Resurrection
3004 Belvedere Blvd.
I will be presenting about the June reportng mission I made to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa that The Champ Terence Crawford was on and that his former teacher Jamie Fox Nollette led. I will share lots of pictures from the experience. All are welcome. Free.

 

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LOOK FOR MY NEW EDITION OF ‘ALEXANDER PAYNE: HIS JOURNEY IN FILM’ IN FALL 2016

December 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Coming Attraction for 2016…
The new edition of my Alexander Payne book featuring a major redesign, more images and substantial new content that looks back at “Nebraska’ and that looks ahead to “Downsizing.”

 

Considering Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’

Excerpt from an essay to appear in an upcoming new edition of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Even though Alexander Payne demonstrates time and again that commercial considerations mean very little to him, following the breakaway success of The Descendants (2011) there was every reasonable expectation he might lean a bit more again in the direction of mainstream with his next film. I say again because I count The Descendants as a conventional, even mainstream work even though its protagonist rails against his comatose wife and sets out to wreck the life of the man she was cheating with, all the while trying not to lose it with his two grieving daughters in tow.

Payne soon quashed any notion of playing it safe when he announced the small, insular back roads comedy-drama Nebraska (2013) as his new feature project. It did not help its bottom line chances that the film is set in rural Nebraska, which for most filmgoers may as well be the dark side of the moon for its unfamiliarity, remoteness, and perceived barrenness. Indeed, if Nebraska conjures any image at all it is of endless cornfields, cows, and monotonously flat, uninspired scenery. When the story laid over such a setting features a confused, depressed old cuss alienated from family and friends and wandering around in a bleak wasteland made even bleaker by black and white photography and desolate late fall, post-harvest locations, it does not exactly engender excitement. The prospect of a dour, feel-bad experience devoid of life and color does not get tongues a-wagging to generate the all important buzz that sells tickets.

Of course, anyone who has seen Nebraska knows the film is not the downer it may appear to be from glimpsing a thirty-second trailer or hearing a fifteen-second sound bite, but that it is ultimately a sweet, deeply affecting film filled with familiar truths amid its very Nebraskaesque yet also quite universal archetypes.

Payne’s insistence on shooting in black and white was a completely legitimate aesthetic choice given the storyline and tone of this stark, autumnal mood piece about an old man having his last hurrah. But it also meant a definite disadvantage in appealing to average or general movie fans, many of whom automatically pass on any non-color film. Compounding the aversion that many moviegoers have with black and white is the fact that most studio executives, distributors, and theater bookers share this aversion, not on aesthetic grounds, but based on the long-held. much repeated argument that black and white films fare poorly at the box office. Of course, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here that starts with studio resistance and reluctance to greenlight black and white features and even when a studio does approve the rare black and white entry executives seem to half-heartedly market and release these pics. It is almost as if the bean counters are out to perversely prove a point, even at the risk of injuring the chances of one of their own pictures at finding a sizable audience. Then when the picture lags, it gives the powerbrokers the platform to say, I told you so. No wonder then – and this is assuming the argument is true – most black and white flicks don’t perform well compared with their color counterparts. Except, how does one arrive at anything like a fair comparison of films based on color versus black and white? Even if the films under review are of the same genre and released in the same period, each is individually, intrinsically its own experience and any comparison inevitably ends up being a futile apples and oranges debate. Besides, there are exceptions to the supposed rule that all black and white films struggle. From the 1970s on The Last Picture ShowPaper Moon, Young Frankenstein,ManhattanRaging BullSchindler’s ListEd Wood and The Artist are among the black and white films to have found wide success. It is admittedly a short list but it does prove black and white need not be a death sentence.

To no one’s surprise Paramount did what practically any studio would have done in the same situation, which was to fight Payne on the black and white decision. In no uncertain terms Payne wanted to make Nebraska in black and white and just as adamantly the studio wanted no part of it. He pushed and they pushed back. He would not compromise his vision because from the moment he first read Bob Nelson’s screenplay he clearly saw in his mind’s eye the world of this story play out in in shades of black and white. It just fit. It fit the characters and the settings and the emotions and as far as he was concerned that was that. No questions asked. No concessions made.

I do not claim to know all the details of this protracted dispute or should I say discussion but I do know from what Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have told me that the issue became a point of some contention. I do not know if it ever reached an impasse where Payne more or less indicated by word or action he was prepared to walk and take the project with him (his own Ad Hominem production company brought the property to Paramount). It certainly wouldn’t surprise me that he let it be known, subtly or not, that he was willing to make the project with another studio if it came to that. It is a moot point now since Paramount eventually acceded to his wishes, though not insignificantly the studio did cut some of the picture’s already small budget as a kind of hedge I suppose against the small business they expected the film to do. The smaller the budget, and in this case it was $12 million, the smaller the risk of not recouping its cost.

Given Payne’s even temperament and gentility, I doubt if things reached the level of shouting or angry exchanges, though he undoubtedly expressed displeasure with their interference and pettiness. I have to think he wore the execs down with his patience and persistence to win the black and white battle but at the end of the day he was willing to give up a couple million dollars in exchange for realizing his vision. I know he says that losing a million dollars is a huge loss when it comes to small-budgeted films like this one and I understand that in order to get the film made within those constraints he and others worked for scale in return for some points on the back end, but I have to believe those “sacrifices” were completely worth it in the long run. I would even argue that having to work on a bare bones budget and a tight schedule worked in favor of getting this simple story right. It required cast and crew to live frugally like the characters and the frugal shoot placed a premium on efficiency, ingenuity, and everyone pulling together to make the most of what they had to work with. In truth this esprit de corps is evident on all of Payne’s projects anyway because of the tight, loyal stock company he works with from film to film to film. They are a family and a team dedicated to one purpose: getting the film made to his specifications.

I asked Payne if it ever seems like a studio plays this game in order to gauge just how strongly the filmmaker is invested in a choice or preference as well as to what extent the filmmaker can be manipulated. He seems to believe there is some truth in that. Perhaps it really is the studio’s way of testing how firm the filmmaker’s convictions are and how much the filmmaker is willing to give up or to stand fast in terms of creative control. As Paramount surely knew going in and if they somehow didn’t know they surely soon discovered in the process of setting up the film, Payne is no push over and he brooks no fools. That is true at every juncture in the process, from making the deal to pre-production to the shoot and on through post-production. It is his film and he will not be budged from any creative choices he feels are necessary, which is to say he will not be pressured into doing something for the sake of added commercial appeal.

Because Payne is not about burning bridges, except for his public displeasure over the way his first two films (Citizen Ruth and Election) were handled by the studios and releasing companies behind them, he is not saying on the record what he thinks about the way Paramount handled Nebraska. I have to think he is not pleased with the extremely limited release they gave it. At no time during its release did the film ever play more than 968 theaters according to the website Boxoffice Mojo. That is anywhere from two-thirds to a half to a third the number of theaters its main awards competitors played at during their runs. It is hard to understand why the film was not given more opportunities to find a wider audience given the outstanding reception it received from critics (making most Top Ten lists), the foreign press (five Golden Globe nominations) and the Academy (six nominations).

Hampered as it was by the limited release, Nebraska still pulled in more than $18 million domestically by this edition’s summer 2014 printing and I am sure when all the figures are added up from North America and overseas, where I predict the film will fare well, especially in Europe, its total gross will be in excess of $20 million. By the time all the home viewing rentals and purchases are taken into account a year from now, I wager the film will have done some $25 million in business, which would approximately double its production costs. That is quite a return on a small film that did not get much studio support beyond the bare basics.

 

 

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Payne could have made things easier for himself and the studio by filming in color and securing a superstar. Nebraska marked quite a departure from the lush, color-filled canvas of Hawaii he captured in The Descendants and the equally verdant California wine country he committed to celluloid in Sideways. Never mind the fact the stories of those earlier films, despite the radical differences of their physical locations, actually share much in common tonally and thematically withNebraska. The dark comic tone and theme of Payne’s films can threaten to be overshadowed when a star the magnitude of Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) or George Clooney (The Descendants) attaches himself to one of his projects. But as anyone who is familiar with the subdued star turns of those two actors in those particular films will tell you, Nicholson departed far from his trademark insouciance and braggadocio to totally inhabit his repressed, depressive title character in Schmidtjust as Clooney left behind much of his breezy, cocksure charm to essay his neurotic somewhat desperate character in Descendants. Each star was eager to shed his well-practiced, bigger-than-life persona in service of scripts and parts that called for them to play against type. Instead of their usual live-out-loud, testosterone-high roles, they play quiet, wounded, vulnerable men in trouble. For that matter, the men-children Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play in Sideways are seemingly complete opposites but in actuality are emotionally-stunted, damaged souls using oblivion, alcohol, and sex to medicate their pain and avoid reality. The beauty of the California and Hawaii locales work as contrast and counterpoint to the chaotic lives of these lost figures careening toward catharsis. In Schmidt Omaha is the perfect washed-out backdrop for a man undergoing a full-scale identity and spiritual crisis once he retires and his domineering wife dies.

That brings us to Woody Grant, the crotchety so-and-so at the center of Nebraska. When we meet him he is near the end of a largely misspent life. Facing his inevitable and nearing mortality he doesn’t much like what he sees when he reviews his life and where he has landed. He is dealing with many deficits in his old age. His body is falling apart. He walks stiffly, haltingly. His alcoholism has been unaddressed and it contributes to his foggy mind, mood swings, propensity to fall and hurt himself, and to utter hurtful things. He seems to derive no joy or satisfaction from his wife of many years and his two adult sons. He almost regards them as inconvenient reminders of his own failings as a husband and father. On top of all this, he is poor and in no position to leave his family anything like a tangible legacy.

This miserable wretch has seized upon what he believes to be his last chance at assuaging a deep well of shame, guilt, bitterness, and resentment. His mistaken belief there is a sweepstakes prize for him to redeem becomes a search for his own personal redemption or salvation. He desperately wants something, namely a truck, to leave his boys. The true meaning of the road trip he embarks on with his son David is only revealed to us and to his boy along the way and that gradual discovery adds layers of poignancy to the story.

When Woody arrives back in his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska word spreads he is on his way to collect a $i million sweepstakes prize. For a few moments he becomes a person of substance in the eyes of his extended family and the town’s other residents. Some family members and one old friend turn vultures and demand they get a share of his windfall as compensation for favors they did or loans they made that were never returned. But there is another side to that story. We find out Woody has a kind heart beneath his gruff exterior, so much so that he’s been known to do favors and to give money away without ever expecting repayment. That has led him to be taken advantage of over the years. Then when the truth gets out Woody has not won anything but has misinterpreted a marketing piece for a confirmation letter of his supposed million in winnings, he is publicly humiliated and made out to be a fool.

For Nebraska I Payne went one step further in distancing himself from commercial considerations by casting as his two leads Bruce Dern and Will Forte, who at first glance form an unlikely combination but in fact play wonderfully off each other. Dern’s acclaimed performance as Woody Grant earned him a Best Actor prize at Cannes and nominations from the Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Saturday Night Live alumnus Forte is triumphant in his first dramatic role as the sympathetic son David. The next largest part belongs to June Squibb, who until this film was a somewhat familiar face if not a household name (she played Nicholson’s wife in Schmidt). Her stellar work in a colorful role as Woody’s piss-and-vinegar wife Kate has brought her the most attention she’s received in a very long and productive career. Arguably, the biggest name in the picture belongs to Stacy Keach, a veteran of film, television, and stage who has little screen time in the picture but makes the most of it in a powerfully indelible turn as the story’s heavy, Ed Pegram. As strong as these performances are Payne did not do his film any box office favors by choosing actors so far off the radar of moviegoers. That is not a criticism, it is simply a fact. At least a dozen more speaking parts are filled by no-name actors, nonprofessional actors, and nonactors, all of whom add great authenticity to the film but whose obscurity hurts rather than helps the marketing cause.

As you will read in the articles that follow Payne is most proud of the casting and locations inNebraska. These are elements he always takes great care with in any of his films but with this particular film he went the extra mile yet in order to realize the very specific world of the story. Many of the small speaking parts are filled by regular folks – retired farmers and such – who populate the very towns or ones just like them where he shot. He and casting director John Jackson searched long and hard for just the right faces and voices. Similarly, the weatherbeaten, seen-better-times found locations look and feel so right as the homes and pit-stops of the characters that these real locations rather than constructed sets add another layer of verisimilitude.

The choice to populate the film with zero star power ultimately is not the reason the film failed to pull in more of an audience because there are plenty of films that do well with little known, non A-list names, and nonactor finds. No, the real problem with how Nebraska fared had more to do with the perception the marketing campaign for the film imposed on it. The film’s trailers did not communicate the heart and soul of the picture. None of the warmth or depth or populist appeal at its core registered in those clips. Instead, the film was represented as a cold, mean, depressive, rather flimsy sketch concept blown up to fill two hours. Anyone who has seen and appreciatedNebraska will tell you it is far more than that. It is a work replete with deep currents of regret, disappointment, melancholia, rage, nostalgia. and love. Alongside that run streams of humor, sweetness, irony, and slapstick. Then there is the sheer poetic evocation of hauntingly beautiful visuals that turn the wide open flyover terrain, roadside stops, and played-out small towns of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska into haunting fields of dreams and symbols of neglect. Not to mention centers of quirky, silly, sometimes surreal goings-on.

Plenty of small indie films about similarly unglamorous subject matter have struck a responsive chord with the masses. So what kept Nebraska from resonating the way, say, Juno did or Little Miss Sunshine? No one really knows. If the creatives who make the films and the suits who finance and sell them did, if there was some sure-fire magic formula at their disposal, then every film would be packaged into a box office winner. The truth is some films catch the wave and most don’t and there doesn’t seem to be any reliable rhyme or reason for why some hit and others miss that elusive, always moving wave everyone is after.

It may take a while, but I am quite confident Nebraska will eventually find the large audience it deserves. In my opinion it will be a much viewed and discussed stand-the-test of-time film for its many cinema art merits. As good as Payne’s earlier films have been I believe this to be his finest work to date because it is in my view the fullest expression of his filmmaking talents. Visually, it is a tone poem of the first order and on that basis alone it is a film to be reckoned with. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have achieved an expressive black and white palette whose hues perfectly articulate the heavy heart of the story. But Payne also found unobtrusive ways to position the camera and, with editor Kevin Tent, to cut scenes so as to amplify its many moments of humor without ever detracting from its elegiac, soulful mood. Mark Orton’s original music, plus the incidental music used here and there, add more nuances of mood. Payne artfully composed images for the wide screen format he shot in to glean added depth and meaning from the action. Within the same frame he intentionally juxtaposed characters with the stark landscapes, townscapes, and homes they inhabit. Many of these scenes emphasize sadness, stillness and desolation. Irony infuses it all. The result is an ongoing dialogue between people and their environments. Each informs the other and by consequence us.

The filmmaker’s economy of style has never been more evident. He has reached the point of communicating so much with simple brush strokes. Take for instance the way Woody’s harsh childhood experience is encapsulated when the old man and his family visit the abandoned farm house he grew up in. Payne has the camera fluidly glide over the detritus of this once proud home turned wreck and to peak into rooms that carry so much psychic-emotional pain for Woody, who was beaten as a boy. Payne clearly indicates this is a private, anguished, cathartic return for Woody, who has avoided this place and its memories for years.

Or consider that gathering of taciturn men in Woody’s family at his brother’s home in town. Payne arranges the uncles, brothers, sons, nephews, cousins in an American Gothic pose around the TV set, where the men engage in the almost wordless ritualistic viewing of a football game. It is at once a funny and powerful expression of their tribal, tight-lipped bond. A bond more about association by blood than affinity.

Then there are the almost incidental shots of boarded up buildings in town that symbolize and speak to the economic hard times to have befallen so many small towns like the fictional Hawthorne. In a short scene Payne conveys an important way in which the times have changed there and in towns like it when he has Woody visit the auto service station he used to own and he finds the new owners are Spanish-speaking Hispanics. Woody thus personally encounters a demographic shift that has altered the face of his hometown and much of rural Nebraska. No more is made of it then that simple reality and the brief exchange between Woody and the “newcomers,” but it is enough to say that times have moved on and the Hawthorne he knew has evolved in some ways and remained unchanged in others.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the best example of Payne distilling things down to their simplest, purest, most elemental form is the end sequence when David and Woody are in the truck David has purchased and registered in his father’s name. David, who is at the wheel with Woody beside him, stops the truck on the edge of town and invites Woody to take the wheel and drive down main street in his new rig. What follows is one of the most moving denouements in contemporary American cinema. Woody is granted a rare gift when he accepts the invitation to take a celebratory ride down main street. As the truck slowly passes through town he wins more than any prize money could provide when four people from his past catch sight of him and look at him with a combination of awe, admiration, and surprise. It is a perfect moment in the sun vindication for a beleaguered, bedraggled man who suddenly brims with a sense of confidence and purpose. Woody leaves town on his own terms, his dignity and pride intact, at least for this short interval of time.

What makes that valedictory ride so special is that his sympathetic son David is there to grant him it and to bask in it with him. These two who began the road trip not really knowing each other and often at odds with each other have traveled a journey together that has brought them a measure of acceptance, healing, and peace. David has finally come to understand why his father is the way he is. His fondest desire is realized when he gives Woody that movie-movie opportunity to prove he is not the loser or fool this day. As Woody sits high in the cab of the truck, with David lovingly looking on from the floor, and drives past the artifacts of his past and the denizens of that town, he may as well be a cowboy sitting tall in the saddle of his horse riding into the sunset. He graciously accepts the congratulations of town chatterbox Bernie Bowen. He stares down his former friend Ed Pegram, who now looks the shamed fool. Woody’s heart stirs again for old flame Peg Nagy, whose wistful expression wonders might have been. As he heads out of town Woody says a fond goodbye to Albert, the Grant brother whose favorite pastime is siting beside the road waving at the occupants of passing cars.

Outside of town the truck stops at the bottom of a hill and Woody and David once again exchange places. Doing this out of the view of onlookers preserves Woody’s glorious farewell and signals Woody now accepts his limitations and David’s love for him. With David back behind the wheel and Woody beside him father and son drive off to meet an uncertain future together. Consistent with the way Payne ends all his films, Woody’s last ride reverie does not promise any great turnaround in his life. His problems are still his problems. The fact that that sequence plays out wordlessly and still conveys so much meaning is a testament to the work of Payne and his collaborators in extracting the essence of these scenes through beautifully executed shots that give full weight to glances gestures, postures, and backdrops.

NOTE: To read the rest you’ll have to wait for my new edition to come out.

 

SNEAK PREVIEW OF DOWNSIZING
Just finished reading the script for Alexander Payne’s new film “Downsizing.” He penned it with his old writing partner Jim Taylor. I can report that it is by-turns a hilarious and heartbreaking exploration of the human condition under extremis. It is also a very brave embrace of both kitsch and visionary science fiction conventions that we all recognize from that well worn genre. It is a kind of mashup of “Dr. Strangelove,” “Fantastic Voyage,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” “The Truman Show,” and “Children of Men.” If Billy Wilder had ever made a sci satire, this would have been yet. Like all Payne stories, it revels in the mundanity and banality of life even amidst extraordinary circumstances. Based on the way the character is developed on the page, I can tell you that Matt Damon is the perfect choice as the Everyman protagonist. The miniaturization or downsizing hook allows Payne to deal with all kinds of issues related to the environment – diminishing resources, diversity, discrimination, politics, et cetera. It is at once relevant and revelatory about things that communities and states and nations are grappling with today. Much more to come from me about this film after I interview Payne, Taylor and others involved in the project. But for now just know that “Downsizing” will be worth waiting for as it shoots in the spring of 2016, then gets its specials effects all synched up and undergoes a long editing process. All of that, plus scoring and mixing, will take the project through 2016 into 2017. We won’t actually see the film until weli into 2017. All of that bodes well for a story whose social themes and concerns will likely only grow more urgent, not less, in the interim.

Alexander Payne  

My Inside Stories

November 26, 2015 Leave a comment

My blog, leoadambiga.com, features my stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. The blog also feeds into my Facebook page, My Inside Stories-

https://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga/.

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My Inside Stories

“People, passions, magnificent obsessions”

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