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Krist to follow independent path in bid for governor

October 11, 2017 Leave a comment

Another fall, another election. That’s the fall of 2018, when Nebraskans will be at the polls deciding on the state’s next governor. State legislator Bob Krist of Omaha has shed his Republican cloak to stake himself a candidate for a race in which the heavy favorite will be the rich GOP incumbent, Pete Ricketts, who has deep wells of party and personal money to draw on. The conservative Ricketts and the progressive Krist don’t see eye to eye on much, Krist, who doesn’t back down from fights, doesn’t seem to mind being the decided underdog. But he’ll be hard-pressed to get his message heard and seen against the machine politics that will be extra focused on branding him a party traitor and flip-flopper. Whether he’s able to mount a serious challenge to Ricketts and whoever else winds up in the race remains to be seen, but Krist is working hard to share his platform. He also has a godo life story to tell. He’s a U.S. Air Force veteran and Jesuit-educated free thinker who votes and goes his own way. Read my profile of Krist in the October 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Krist to follow independent path in bid for governor
b©y Leo Adam Biga
Appears in the October 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha knows the steep climb ahead in his 2018 gubernatorial challenge. The moderate has left the Republican Party to run as an Independent against Nebraska’s deep-pocketed Trumpian incumbent, Pete Ricketts, in this Red state.

The GOP’s long viewed the vote-his-own-mind Krist as a rogue. The U.S. Air Force veteran entered the Unicameral as an appointee. He twice won election to his District 10 seat. Not towing the conservative line saw him clash with Gov. Dave Heineman over prenatal care for illegal immigrants. Krist advocates state juvenile justice and adult corrections reforms and takes Gov. Ricketts to task for inaction on these issues.

The state GOP crucified Krist for leaving the party and he fully expects an attack campaign. But bolting made sense for someone variously described as “passionate,” “fiery” “nonconformist,” “bulldog,” “hurricane,” “contrarian” and “vocal critic.”

“Yeah, I do own all those very easily,” said Krist, who’s married with two adult children. “I’ve been accused of running with my heart on my sleeve and I do sometimes, but still I remember who I represent. For me, staying on script, staying very to the letter is tough. It’s not the way I do business.”

He ascribed his maverick ways to “a family upbringing that taught me to question and rationalize through issues” and being “educated by the Jesuits at Creighton Prep.”

“Interestingly enough. my time in the military I was rewarded for thinking outside the box and solving problems. We used to say in Air Power, if you want to succeed you make a plan and that plan is something from which to deviate. So, it’s always been in my nature to look for the right answers. It’s never been what someone is going to tell me to do or what the party line or the dictate should be.”

Krist, 60, retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2000. He feels his military experience prepared him to lead.

“My last few years in the military my job culminated in being chief of plans and programs for the largest wing in Air Combat Command. A lot of detail, a lot of logistics. Being able to compartmentalize and working through problems and finding solutions.”

This mission-driven approach carried over into the Nebraska Unicameral.

“I like to define a problem and find a pathway to success. Sometimes you have to develop an overall strategic approach concerning your task and solving the problem to get mission success. Sometimes along the way you just have to stop, regroup and tactically change your direction.”

Working across the aisle is a must in his eyes.

“Understanding how people think and trying to build consensus is an art form and in order to get to that point you really have to understand the legislative process.

Learning when to speak up, when not to. When to file a motion. When to do those kinds of things.”

He’s critical of partisan politics.

“It’s not allowing us to succeed and that’s where I believe independent leadership is so needed. I believe people honestly want a change. If you look at the last few election cycles, I think it’s proven people want to cast their vote for something that counts.”

Krist wants to be evaluated on his record. he said, including “hundreds of individual bills and more I’ve spoken and voted on – you can measure, weigh and judge who I am and what I’ve done by my body of work.”

Besides his wife Peggy, Krist said he sought feedback to his governor’s run from “a pretty special guy I rely on who happens to be a Catholic priest.” His clergy counsel reminded him even if he should lose, he might spark dialogue about issues important to Nebraskans. Then there’s the possibility he could win, too.

“My friend ended by saying, ‘So, what have you got to lose?’ That was instrumental in solidifying my decision to run. The pathway to success for me is not relying on the Republican Party, which has been trying to kick me out since I got there, or the Democratic Party (whose pro-life stance is a non-starter for him).”

“The two party system has made it very difficult for an Independent to run and succeed in this state,” he said referring to a statute requiring 5,000 signatures. “But if the climate has ever been right. probably this is it. My biggest concern right now is raising enough money to make sure people can hear what I have to say so they can make a valid decision at the polls.

“It’s going to take about $3 million.”

He’s scheduled a statewide listening sessions circuit.

“We’ll talk to Nebraskans east to west, north to south, and see if we can’t get the message out there.”

The experienced pilot will fly himself to outstate stops.

A topic sure to surface is Nebraska Department of Correctional Services issues with officers’ overtime pay, inmate overcrowding. violent incidents and prisoner escapes.

“We have a director (Ricketts appointee Scott Frakes) saying it’s just going to take time. Well, we don’t have any more time, we need to do something about it. I don’t know any way to solve the problem than to change the leadership and declare an emergency. We’ve done everything we can within the system and we’re going in the wrong direction. We have a director who needs to resolve the issues.

“Overtime’s going up incredibly, exponentially. Mandatory overtime destroys lives and continuity because people quit. We have to keep people employed. We have to make it a profession with a merit system. I’m asking the director to negotiate again with our corrections officers. The safety of the officers and the inmates is in question. There’ve been people killed and hurt very badly, on both sides, and we know now almost every one of those issues involved someone under the influence of something.”

Krist said if the state can’t fix the mess, then a federal ACLU suit could compel the U.S. Department of Justice to step in and determine what inmates get released. A new corrections facility could be mandated.

“The last thing the people of Nebraska want is another $400 million penal institution locking people up.”

The corrections morass runs deep.

“I became really involved with this issue serving on the committee that started out just looking at Nikko Jenkins (committed spree killings after early release). Preventive action should have happened when he was bouncing from foster home to foster home and coming to school with a knife and a gun. At some point, you’ve got to break the chain, because if you don’t there’s going to be a tragedy. That’s why I’ve been so active in juvenile justice. We have cut detention of kids by 50 percent. We found alternatives to detention that work.

“The more testimony we heard, the more the onion was peeled back, we decided we needed to expand the investigation into all of corrections. There were too many things happening. The problem is out of control and something dramatic is going to have to happen or we’re going to have another incident, another riot, another person killed.”

Krist bemoaned a lost opportunity with a justice reinvestment initiative council that pushed reforms.

“We had a group of stakeholders around the table – senators, law enforcement officers, the attorney general, public defenders, judges – that worked very hard in conjunction with the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments trying to find solutions and looking forward to the kinds of changes that need to be made. When Heineman left office and Ricketts came in, there was a lack of attention to detail, lack of focus and no fidelity to where we were going.

“At a time when we most needed input from various levels, Ricketts disbanded the group, saying, ‘We don’t need you, we’ll just handle all this stuff internally.’ Well, he hasn’t done a very good job of that.”

In this heavily taxed state with lagging tax revenues, Krist proposes reforms.

“Business people don’t believe giving away tax base is the way to grow our economy – and you can’t keep giving things away and expect you’re going to build an economy. Look at what happened with Conagra. We gave them everything we could and as soon as that enticement was over, they left.

“Tax Incremental Financing is sometimes used effectively and sometimes misused. When you give away TIF and taxes, it affects the public education system. There are plenty of cities that have given their tax base away and seen their school districts go down.”

He and Rickets both champion property tax relief.

“As a state we’ve made decisions that have made us almost 100 percent reliant on property taxes to fund critical services, education. et cetera. We’ve got to stop that,” Krist said. “We’ve also got to stop the escalation of the property tax assessment.”

He said he advocates “controlling spending at the local level, controlling the levy process and most importantly the assessment process,” adding, “I believe by looking at income tzx, property tax, fees for services and corporate tax loopholes we can come to a consensus that’s good for the state. We have to.”

“We’re close to looking just like Kansas,” he said, referring to that state’s epic budget crisis following failed economic reforms, “and that’s not a model anybody wants to emulate.”

Is he ready for the rigors of an uphill race?

“Physically, I’m ready for it. Mentally, I’ve had great training being in state government 10 years and knowing the state and being involved in all the standing committees. What am I going to do different? I’m going to listen to people about what they think isn’t working. We’re going to have those discussions

“I know there are some long days ahead. I get it, I’m up for it. I just want people to give me a chance to represent them. I promise there will be results.”

Visit kristfornebraska.com.

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Futures at stake for Dreamers with DACA in question

October 9, 2017 Leave a comment

Here is a followup to a story I did earlier this year about DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. This executive order program of protections means everything to recipients. These so-called Dreamers and their supporters speak passionately about the need to keep DACA around and describe the devastating impact that losing it would have on recipients’ lives. President Trump has sent conflicting messages where immigration is concerned, No sooner did he decide to end the program or have it rescinded, then he gave Congress a deadline to find a compromise that would extend or solidify the program and therefore prevent young people who entered the country illegally as children from being deported and from losing certain privileges that allow them to work, obtain licenses, et cetera. My new story is part of the cover package in the October 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Futures at stake for Dreamers with DACA in question
©by Leo Adam Biga

When, on September 5, President Donald Trump appealed to his base by ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a generation of American strivers became immigration reform’s collateral damage.

He’s since given Congress six months to enact a plan reinstating DACA protection from deportation for so-called DREAMers in exchange for more robust border security. DACA also provides permits for undocumented youth to work, attend school and obtain driver’s and professional licenses. Given the political divide on illegal immigrants’ rights, it’s unclear if any plan will provide DREAMers an unfettered permanent home here.

Thus, the futures of some 800,000 people in America (about 3,400 Nebraskans) hang in the balance. As lawmakers decide their status, this marginalized group is left with dreams deferred and lives suspended – their tenuous fate left to the capricious whims of power.

The situation’s created solidarity among DREAMers and supporters. Polls show most Americans sympathize with their plight. A coalition of public-private allies is staging rallies, pressing lawmakers and making themselves visible and heard to keep the issue and story alive.

Alejandra Ayotitla Cortez, who was a child when her family crossed illegally from Mexico, has raised her voice whenever DACA’s under assault. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior and El Centro de las Americas staffer has spoken at rallies and press conferences and testified before lawmakers.

“As Dreamers, we have been used as a political game by either party. Meanwhile, our futures and our contributions and everything we have done and want to do are at stake,” she said. “For a lot of us, having that protection under DACA was everything. It allowed us to work, have a driver’s license, go to school and pursue whatever we’re doing. After DACA ends, it affects everything in our life.

“It is frustrating. You’re trying to do things the right way. You go through the process, you pay the fees, you go to school, work, pay taxes, and then at the end of the day it’s not in your hands.”

If she could, she’d give Trump an earful.

“Just like people born here are contributing to the country, so are we. It’s only a piece of paper stopping us from doing a lot of the things we want to do. As immigrants, whether brought here as an infant or at age 10, like myself, we are contributing to the nation financially, academically, culturally. All we want is to be part of our communities and give back as much as we can. It’s only fair for those who represent us to respect the contributions we have made and all the procedures we’ve followed as DACA recipients.”

Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) legal counsel Charles Shane Ellison is cautiously optimistic.

“I’m hopeful lawmakers can do whatever negotiating they need to do to come up with a common sense, bipartisan path to protect these young people. It makes no sense whatsoever to seek to punish these young people for actions over which they had no control.

“These are, in fact, the very kinds of young people we want in our country. Hard working individuals committed to obtaining higher education and contributing to their communities. It’s incumbent upon lawmakers to find a fair solution that does not create a whole category of second class individuals. Dreamers should have a pathway to obtain lawful permanent resident status and a pathway to U.S. citizenship.”

Tying DACA to border control concerns many.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable if that was a compromise we had to arrive at,” Cortez said, “because it’s unnecessary to use a national security excuse and say we need increased border enforcement when in reality the border’s secure. It would be a waste of tax money and energy to implement something that isn’t necessary.”

Ellison opposes attempts to connect the human rights issue of DACA with political objectives or tradeoffs.

Not knowing what Trump and the GOP majority may do is stressful for those awaiting resolution.

“It’s always having to live with this uncertainty that one day it could be one thing and another day something else,” Cortez said. “It can paralyze you sometimes to think you don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

“We could have made this a priority without inserting so much apprehension into a community of really solid youth we want to try to encourage to stay,” Ellison said.

To ease fears, JFON held a September 7 briefing at College of Saint Mary.

“It was an effort to get information in the hands of DACA recipients and their allies,” Ellison said. “We had more than 400 people show up.”

Moving forward, he said, “it’s imperative” DREAMers get legal advice

“Some studies show 20 to 30 percent of DACA youth could be potentially eligible for other forms of relief that either got missed or they’ve since become eligible for after obtaining DACA. If, with legal counsel, they decide to renew their Deferred Action, they have until October 5 to do so. We provide pro-bono legal counsel and we’ll be seeing as many people as we can.”

Ellison said nothing can be taken for granted.

“It’s so important not just for DACA youth to take certain action For people who want to stand with DACA youth, now is not the time to be silent – now is the time to contact elected representatives and urge them to do the right thing.”

Alejandra Escobar, a University of Nebraska at Omaha sophomore and Heartland Workers Center employee, is one of those allies. She legally emigrated to the U.S. six years ago. As coordinator of Young Nebraskans in Action, she leads advocacy efforts.

“Most of my friends are DREAMers. I started getting involved with this issue because I didn’t know why my friends who were in this country for all their lives couldn’t be treated the same as I was. I didn’t think that was fair. This is their home, They’ve worked and shown they deserve to be here.

“There has been a lot of fear and this fear keeps people in a corner. I feel like what we do makes DACA recipients know they’re not alone. We’re trying to organize actions that keep emphasizing the importance of the protection for DACA recipients and a path to citizenship and that empower them.”

She feels her generation must hold lawmakers accountable.

“I’d like lawmakers to keep in mind that a lot of us allies protecting DREAMers are 18-19 years old that can vote and we’re going to keep civically engaged and emphasizing this issue because it’s really important.”

As a UNO pre-law student who works in an Omaha firm practicing immigration law, Linda Aguilar knows the fragile legal place she and fellow DREAMers occupy. She was brought illegally to America at age 6 from Guatemala and has two younger siblings who also depend on DACA. But she’s heartened by the support that business, labor and other concerns are showing.

“It has inspired me to continue being active and sharing with elected officials how much support there is for the DACA community.”

She hesitated speaking at a public event making the case for DACA before realizing she didn’t stand alone.

“Just knowing that behind me, around me were other DREAMers and I was there supporting them and they were there supporting me made me feel a lot stronger. Because we’re all in the same position, we all know what it feels like, we all walk in the same shoes.”

Alejandra Ayotitla Cortez won’t just be waiting for whatever happens by the March 5 deadline Trump’s given Congress.

“I am hoping for the best, but I am also taking action. not only me just hoping things will get better, it’s me educating my community so they know what actions we can take, such as calling our elected representatives to take action and to listen to our story and understand how urgent this is.”

Cortez, too, finds “encouraging” support “from people across the state, from leaders, from some of our state senators in Lincoln, from UNL professors and classmates.”

The Nebraska Immigration Legal Assistance hotline is 1-855-307-6730.

Amanda Ryan brings lifelong passion for education to school board

October 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Serving on the Omaha Public Schools board has got to be one of the more challenging non-paid positions around. First of all, you have to get appointed or elected. Then comes the reality of representing your subdistrict and the community as a whole as a voting member of the governing body that’s over the superintendent and the administration of a very large and diverse urban school district serving 52,000 students. Throw in the fact that public schools are something every one has an opinion about – often a highly critical one at that – plus the fact that education brings up emotionally charged issues surrounding children, families, resources and opportunities, and certain disparities involving them, and you have the makings for one tough job. Despite all this, Omaha Public Schools board member Amanda Ryan loves the work and the responsibility. Her service is part of a lifelong passion she’s had for education. Read my El Perico profile of her here.

Amanda Ryan brings lifelong passion for education to school board
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico

When Amanda Ryan and her fellow Omaha Board of Education members couldn’t agree on hiring a new OPS superintendent last spring, it left that search in limbo and the community asking questions.

Now, this emerging young leader is gearing up with her colleagues for a new search sure to be closely followed by stakeholders and media outlets.

The Minden, Neb. native is a third generation Mexican-American on her mother’s side and identifies as a Latina. “That’s something that’s really important to me,” said Ryan, who is single with no children.

The 26-year-old is finishing work on her master’s in sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, just one of several markers she’s surpassed in her family.

“It’s interesting having to navigate being the first one in your family going to college,” she said.

Until winning the race for the Subdistrict 7 school board seat in 2016, she’d never run for or held public office before. She came on the board in a transition period that saw several new members elected to the body. The nine-member board selects the superintendent, sets policy, does strategic planning and oversees the broad brushstrokes of a diverse urban public school district serving 52,000 students, including many from migrant, immigrant and refugee populations.

Ryan feels her ethnic background, combined with her studies, her past experience working for Project Interfaith and her current job with the Institute for Holocaust Education, gives her insight into the district’s multicultural mosaic.

“I think all my education and life experience comes back to cultural understanding. With the wide array of students and staff we have in OPS. I think it’s important to remember those things.”

She sees a need for more minorities to empower themselves.

“In the political atmosphere we live in now, I think it’s really important people from marginalized communities express themselves and show that identity. That’s something I kind of ran on. It’s important kids see people similar to them doing important things so they realize, ‘Oh, I can be a leader, I can strive to do that as well.’ I think that’s something we need more of In Neb. We’re starting to have more leaders of color emerge, but it’s going to take some more time to do that.”

She credits former Omaha Public Schools board member and current Nebraska state legislator (District 7) Tony Vargas with emboldening her to run.

“Tony has been a very big influencer and mentor.”

Her decision to serve was intensely personal.

“Education has been such a huge motivating factor in my life. Everything I’ve done, every career aspiration I’ve had has to do with education. I can pinpoint teachers throughout my educational experience that have motivated me and helped me get to different places. I wanted it to pay it back somehow,”

Running for the board, she got some push-back for not having a child in OPS and for her youth. Regarding her age, she said, “I know during my campaign some people viewed it as a negative, but I think it’s a positive. It wasn’t that long ago I was in public school worrying about everything. I know some of these struggles these kids are going through.”

She has some goals for this academic school year.

“I am going to try in to be in the schools a lot more building relationships and rapport with teachers and administrators. I know morale is low. I think you can see that in board meetings when the teachers’ union and support staff come out and express these extreme frustrations.

“I want to do more community forum-listening sessions so that people are heard.”

In the wake of internal board contention that resulted in stalemates, members participated in a training session to improve communication skills and build unity.

“It was a bad experience for me starting off with all of that – the failed superintendent search, some of us wanting change in board leadership and others not wanting it. Then nobody wanting to work together to fix it. That was really hard.”

She said personality and idealogical differences – “I’m the furthest on the left politically on the board” – are being put aside.

“I do think it’s getting a lot better.”

She said disagreements are bound to occur and can even be healthy.

“Conflict isn’t bad. Out of conflict comes change and that change can be really good.”

About the new superintendent search, she said, “It’s something I really want to make sure we do right. We need to get good candidates and we need to select the right person. I think that’s going to be the biggest thing.”

Incumbent district chief Mark Evans is delaying his retirement a year to shepherd OPS until his successor’s hired and assumes the post next summer. Whoever fills that role, Ryan said, will have a full agenda.

“We’re going to be facing a lot of budget issues and we need somebody who’s going to be creative and progressive in how they deal with that. We are going to have to be very strategic to maximize as many different streams of revenue as we can. We need somebody who is politically savvy to work with state legislators and community organizations.”

Ryan knows something about making one’s own path.

“I’m ridiculously independent,” she said.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Art in the heart of South Omaha

September 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Until I saw a Facebook post about Omaha South putting on a production of “In the Heights” in collaboration with SNAP! Productions. it had somehow escaped me that South was the Omaha Public Schools’ Visual and Performing Arts Magnet. The show, which I saw and was most impressed by, was a fundraiser for a planned visual and performing arts addition at the school, which has a robust arts curriculum far surpassing anything found in another OPS building. Indeed, the quality of the show was so high that it sold me on writing a story for The Reader about the arts magnet emphasis at the inner city school. I then found out from faculty and students just how much is going on there and how passionate these educators and kids are about what they do in the arts. My resulting story is shared here. It appears in the September 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Art in the heart of South Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appears in the September 13, 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Chances are, you don’t know Omaha has a public high school of performing arts, It may further surprise you that South High School is that Fame-style institution.

South has been the Omaha Public Schools’ Visual & Performing Arts Magnet for two decades. But the architect for the arts emphasis there, retired South drama teacher Jim Eisenhardt, said “by the time we were named an arts magnet, we were already an arts magnet in all but name.”

Dramatic growth in student numbers has seen a corresponding growth in programs that finds South with the district’s most robust arts curriculum. Students can even elect to be an arts major. Seventy percent of all students take at least one arts class. Forty percent take at least two. Participation has exploded, especially in dance and guitar.

The interest and activity have South facing serious space issues to accommodate it all. Thus, the school’s embarked on a $12 million private fundraising campaign for a planned Visual & Performing Arts addition.

Becky Noble, South curriculum specialist and a drts Magnet facilitator, said space is at such a premium that some labs and classrooms meet in cramped former “closets.” Film and music technology classes share the same small digs. Neither has a dedicated studio.

“We can’t grow music tech and film anymore.”

With no permanent spaces for some classes, she said, “they’re constantly moving from place to place.” Even the dance studio is makeshift. The present black box theater lacks flexibility and accessibility.

She described conditions as “maxed out,” adding, “We need space that is appropriate to enhance learning.”

Then there’s the battle for updated technology. She said it can be difficult getting district officials to accept why not just any computers or software programs will do for the high-end things students create in film, digital art and music tech.

“We are so unusual in the district that sometimes they almost don’t know what to do about us.”

Asking for state-of-the-art gear and contracting professionals to teach dance takes some explaining.

“It’s an ongoing kind of beating our heads with having them understand that it is a special thing and it is important, it’s not just a fluff thing. We don’t have students in here for fluff. We have them in here because there is a real, honest curriculum.”

“Our basic philosophy to use art as a springboard to enhance problem-solving and abstract thought,” South theater director Kevin Barratt said.

Noble said the fact teachers make-do and still net great results speaks to their commitment.

“It is really a labor of love.”

The 55,000 square foot addition would add seven general education classrooms, dedicated studio spaces, a new black box theater and an art gallery. Noble said South’s fortunate to have a strong advocate making its case in Toba Cohen-Dunning, executive director of the Omaha Schools Foundation, the project’s fiscal agent.

Administrators, such as former principal Cara Riggs, are arts advocates, too. “She put some additional money behind it and now our current principal Ruben Cano is doing a great job of listening,” Noble said.

“The equity formula of the Omaha Public Schools allowed for dollars to follow students,” Riggs said. “As we received more dollars for our magnet students, we continued to find ways to strengthen our magnet programs, We found it important to create programs in the arts that students couldn’t get anywhere else in the metro: Dance taught by professional dance instructors; a piano lab and a guitar program; a film program and a computer gaming program.

“Our school culture improved and enrollment rocketed, with successful programs and positive word-of-mouth.”

South staffers, past and present, say they hoped the arts would catch fire but Eisenhardt said no one expected this.

“We started a dance class with 12 kids and now it’s up above 400 (with five styles offered). There are over 300 kids in guitar and piano.”

Alum Kate Myers Madsen, who was active in music and theater at South, theorizes why the arts flourish there.

“I think the reason it’s so well-received is that it’s so in the community of people who are incredibly talented but might not come from homes that have the means to put them in private voice or instrument lesson and dance classes. It’s providing huge value to students who normally would not be able to access it.”

This arts infusion didn’t just happen, it was intentionally built by Eisenhardt and Co. from 1982 to his 2006 retirement. He cultivated relationships with community arts organizations that exposed students to professionals in many disciplines. Over time, South became the district’s arts epicenter and the magnet designation naturally followed.

“My colleagues across the district knew what the arts program was at South,” he said. “No one ever asked me why we got it (magnet status) and not somebody else. There were great arts teachers already here like Toni Turnquist and Mary Lou Jackson and Josh Austin working hard to create something important.”

Then-principal Joyce Christensen granted great autonomy and Eisenhardt ran with it.

“She encouraged people to do things that were innovative and making sure the kids had the best experience they could in high school. I would just forge ahead and do something, not necessarily checking with her for permission first, but she supported it. She knew I would never do anything to embarrass South High.

“Roni Huerta, my counterpart as the magnet coordinator for Information & Technology, was a big supporter of what we did in the arts. Because of her we got the dance classes to count as physical education credits.”

Eisenhardt said Jerry Bartee, another former South principal, also lent great support.

Many things make South an arts magnet. Start with the array of class options available and the fact these disciplines have different sections and levels. There are multiple music ensembles as well.

Before coming to South, Eisenhardt was at Omaha Tech, where he formed relationships with Opera Omaha’s Jane Hill and the Omaha Community Playhouse’s Charles Jones. Opera rehearsals were held at Tech. The Nebraska Theatre Caravan rehearsed A Christmas Carol there. When Tech closed, Eisenhardt invited these rehearsals to travel to South. The ties were eventually formalized as Adopt-a-School partnerships.

“Both of those had great impact on our success as a magnet school,” Eisenhardt said.

Omaha music director Hal France worked with Opera Omaha then.

“We had a home on the South High Auditorium stage rehearsing all our shows with international and national opera singers and directors. Despite putting on five shows a year of their own at South, Jim always made the schedule work for us. It was a dream. It was a relationship based on trust that emanated first and foremost from Jim, a magnificent, remarkable host.”

Opera Omaha even collaborated with South on three productions with staff-students. The last of these, Bloodlines, was a 2004 original with a libretto by Jane Hill and Eisenhardt and a score by Deb Teason,

“Jane and I worked with the kids to write a script based on their experiences as immigrants in Omaha,” Eisenhardt said. “The title came from the idea that these immigrants worked the bloodlines in the packinghouses and also the bloodlines of their families.

“That year the Omaha World-Herald named it one of the top ten cultural events in Omaha. It was quite a production and really an important part of the development of the magnet. By the time that was over, the magnet was in full swing.”

Riggs said with those kinds of collaborations, “we were able to create extra-value in the school experience, beyond the many required academic courses.”

Outside district and arts circles, South’s magnet identity is a best-kept-secret. The school’s inner-city location, working-class environment and low achievement scores may not fit some perceptions of what an arts magnet should look like.

“That’s all a big part of it,” Noble said. “It’s our challenge. One of the things we talk a lot about is that we have to continue to get more and more known in the community.”

Noble hopes others see South’s diversity as an asset.

“When we go to some competitions, most of the other schools are all white, but our kids represent what the world looks like.”

Senior arts major Jax Barkhouse, who lives in West Omaha and was expected to follow his friends to a suburban school, battled those perception issues.

“It was especially hard for me because people were like, ‘Why are you going to South?’ They think bad things about it. But I only tell them good things about it.”

South has traditionally been the main receiving school for immigrant, refugee and migrant populations. After a sharp enrollment decline, it’s experienced a renaissance. The rebirth has coincided with the boon of the South 24th business district it borders and the arrival of Latino and Sudanese families in the surrounding neighborhoods it serves.

The school’s home to a dense demographic of Latinos, Africans, Asians, African-Americans and Caucasians. South’s vast arts program and additional magnets in Information & Technology and Dual Language have made it the school of choice for the overwhelming majority of students in its home attendance area.

South also draws students from outside the area attracted to its focused offerings.

Madsen, Barkhouse and junior Ori Parks bypassed their home schools for South due to its arts concentration.

“It surpassed anything I had expected,” said Madsen. “I did a lot of things outside school.”

South funded most of her travel to Great Britain for a Playhouse-sponsored theater immersion. Since graduating in 2006, she’s performed at the Shelterbelt, The Rose and Iowa Western Community College.

“The opportunities afforded me at South allowed me to really identify what it was I loved about the arts and which track I wanted to follow. I had been classically trained up until my freshman year in high school, so the opportunity to do musical theater really allowed me to see what it was that I loved about theater performing,”

Barkhouse followed his heart to South.

“I was supposed to go to Burke, but I chose to come down here because of the performing arts. I’m so glad that I chose South. I love it.”

He plans majoring in musical theater in college.

Parks, who lives closer to Benson, was sold on South because of its rich arts options.

“I was like, whoa, they have all this stuff.”

“Having easy access to the arts here at South is really a great benefit,” said Jennifer Au, among the 80 percent of arts majors on the honor roll. “I think being involved in the arts really helps me with my schoolwork.”

Results like these help explain why there’s such energy and interest from students in going there.

“When I left South, we averaged 1,300 students and now its 2,500,” said Eisenhardt, “and a lot of that’s because of the success the kids have found in the arts, the teachers there supporting the arts and the work the kids do outside the normal classroom.”

It doesn’t hurt that South graduates are findings careers in the arts. Rachel McCutcheon stage managed The Book of Mormon on Broadway. Paul Coate performed with Nebraska Shakespeare, Nebraska Repertory Theatre, Opera Omaha and the Omaha Symphony. Since moving to Minneapolis, he’s acted with the Guthrie Theatre and sung with the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

“My experiences at South were the foundation on which I built my career as a performing artist,” Coate said. “The arts programming and faculty leadership were very strong. I feel very lucky to have been in such a good place at such a pivotal time in my life.

There’s real talent there, too. Just ask director Kevin Lawler, who’s helmed work nationally. He was at the Blue Barn when Hill asked him to direct Bloodlines. In his current post as Great Plains Theatre Conference artistic director, he’s made South an integral part of the annual Playfest series. Visiting L.A. playwright Michael John Garces wrote an original piece called South drawn in part from interviews with students that he and the show’s director, Scott Working, conducted.

“The staff work immensely hard to give the education, tools and positive creative channels to these, the next generation of great young creatives and artists of Omaha,” Lawler said. “There is so much talent and energy packed into South High each day that, with the proper support, the impact that it can have on our city in terms of our cultural life and our community will be immeasurable.”

South, with students as the mainstay performers, premiered at the conference in late May to a warm reception. In July, a joint South-SNAP! Productions mounting of In the Heights elicited raves and kicked off the “Art in the Heart of South Omaha” campaign for the new addition. South theater students worked the show, including Aimee Perez-Valentin, who ran tech. Alums participated as well, including Kate Myers Madsen in the role of Vanessa and Esmeralda Moreno Villanueva stage managing.

“It was very interesting being on the other side of it this time in this more mature role,” Madsen said. “”For me, it was very much coming home because that was my first stage where I stepped out as a musical theater performer. For a lot of these students, it was their first show. They were experiencing what I did the first time. I was blown away by their talent.

“We have a lot of talent, not only in Omaha but at this school specifically.”

Theater students have made the cut for the Playhouse’s apprentice program.

Senior Jax Barkhouse earned a role in the Playhouse’s production of Mamma Mia! opening September 15.

Grad Ja’Taun Markel Pratt is attending the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts.

South’s 2016 production of Check Please was selected to perform at the International Thespian Festival in Lincoln. Three students recognized for Outstanding Performances over the last four years

The Show Choir made it to nationals last year.

“We have kids at the top levels of dance who are getting dual enrollment credit at UNO for dance and who are majoring in dance at UNL,” Noble said.

2013 grad and University of Nebraska at Omaha senior Maria Fernanda Reyes performs with UNO’s prestigious Moving Company dance troupe.

Noble said South instrumental music students get a firm foundation in music theory, ear training, sight reading, et cetera. Music tech grads are being prepared to enter audio engineering college studies and careers.

“It’s a pretty amazing curriculum and we have kids going off to college to major in piano performance. Any of our teachers can tell you about the rigor they include in their program. Everyone here understands you meet them where they are and you move them up.

“We want to equip them with whatever they need to go on and be successful at the next level. We want them to be good. We want them to have the right training.”

South’s collaborations with arts professionals continue. Earlier this year vocal students performed in concert with Grammy-recording artist Eric Church at Pinnacle Bank Arena and the CenturyLink Center. “Years ago our choir performed with Michael Buble. We have developed a nice relationship with the Grammy Foundation. We received their Community Award for our wide-ranging arts programs. They are the ones who recommended us for Eric Church, whose people seemed very pleased with our kids.”

Noble knows talent when she sees it.

“I’m obviously biased, but I’m also realistic, and if it wasn’t good, I’d know it.”

Noble is among several staffers with still active careers in the local arts scene. She’s sung with professional ensembles, was the owner-executive director of the Dundee Dinner Theatre and is founder-director of Cabaret Theatre. South theater director Kevin Barratt is a veteran of Omaha stages.

“We have a lot of people on our staff who do work as artists in the community and that’s important to us because that’s how our students learn.”

Guest artists bring additional expertise.

“That’s a big part of the reason why we did In the Heights and brought in some people from the community (including director Michael Simpson from SNAP!). The more people you work with and the more opportunities you have like that the better you get.

“I think a lot of our success has to do with people who are passionate about it and don’t back down. And we are fighters – we do fight for it.”

Eisenhardt said it’s always been this way: “We provided the kids with more opportunities than any other school. The normal school did a couple (theater) shows a year. We did five a year at South (still do). We did things beyond school. We developed Neon Theatre, an improv troupe that provides entertainment for schools and civic groups. Our show choir performs 50 or more times a years. Those kinds of opportunities are important to the development of the magnet.

“South continues to reach out and collaborate with the community. It’s not so insular that it just does its thing and that’s enough. It reaches out to theater groups and art groups and dance groups and music groups and allows the kids to see that there’s more than just school time that needs to be spent on creating great art.”

South hosts a district-wide One-Act-Play Festival. Community professionals do staged readings and judging of the work.

The Opera Omaha and Playhouse partnerships continue, though not as intense.

“I think it’s just a shift in focus on the part of schools and organizations,” Noble said. “Partnerships develop because of a specific project as opposed to just a general partnership. Great Plains and SNAP! are not official partners but we do lots of work with those groups. We enjoy a great relationship with the Omaha Performing Arts education department. They are very supportive of our programs and when touring arts groups come into town, we often have the opportunity for performances-workshops.”

At South, David Weisser teaches the only filmmaking classes offered by an OPS school and he serves on the Film Streams education committee. His students and Josh Austin’s music tech students often collaborate, as do music, theater and dance students.

Noble, who teaches vocal and choral, speaks for her colleagues in describing the charge educators and visiting artists get when things click for students.

“It’s exceptional to see their passion and how they realize that something is speaking to them. You can’t downplay what the arts teach you. You can’t downplay the creativity, the independent thinking, the ability to work together and collaborate and all those things that are the skills you need to succeed in life.”

Esmeralda Moreno Villanueva, a graduate of the Playhouse apprenticeship program, said her intersection with the arts at South “changed my whole life.”

She studied drama, stage craft, guitar, music tech, film, piano and dance all for the first time at South.

“I ended up falling in love with the theater. I had wanted to be a nurse or something and I ended up changing my whole career-life plan. I love where I am right now.”

She’s pursuing an associate’s degree and working shows – currently stage managing Bent for SNAP! at the Shelterbelt.

“I call it my life calling. Theater is my life and I want it to my career. There’s so many things that make this beautiful work of art and I want to help make that art.

“It’s the perfect place for me. It’s my dream job.”

Now, South just needs enhanced facilities to help make more students’ dreams a reality.

“The addition is essential to provide adequate space for the school to develop legitimate “artists-of-the-theater,” Barratt said. “Coupled with our music, dance and visual arts departments, we need the space to help students prepare for the professional world.”

For arts and campaign updates, visit south.ops.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Omaha School Board: In search of new normal after discord

September 22, 2017 Leave a comment

The Omaha School Board weathered a rough fall 2016 through spring 2017 patch that saw the elected Omaha Public Schools governing body repeatedly fail to reach consensus. Most visibly, the board couldn’t agree on a new superintendent even though the sitting super had announced his plans to retire and selecting his successor was the board’s overriding order of business. That coming to loggerheads over the search was part of a pattern in which strong divisions, in-fighting and intransigence among members resulted in long, drawn- out votes and open bickering. Since much of this went public last year, the board’s been trying to find a new normal after the discord and to move forward with the help of some training to improve communication. Mark Evans has stayed on as superintendent to provide stability as the board gears up for a new search amidst the many other matters before it and the district. This is my piece on what went down and where things are moving. The story’s mostly told through board members’ and the superintendent’s own words. The story appears in the September 2017 issue of The Reader.

Omaha School Board: In search of new normal after discord
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appears in the September 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)


Mark Evans

When the Omaha Public Schools board failed finding a new superintendent last spring, it marked the continuation of internal conflicts and district dirty laundry being aired.

Between the suspended search and the start of this new school year, holdover superintendent Mark Evans, who earlier announced his retirement, agreed to stay on an extra year. Some board members have openly championed him. Others have been at odds with him. In the wake of all this noise, Evans and board members say they’re moving past their sometimes fractious past.

A major order of business is reactivating the stalled search and reaching consensus on Evans’ successor. That decision, along with implementing a new student assignment plan, opening schools, a pending bond issue and resuming focus on a strategic plan Evans initiated, will be scrutinized by a wary community.

Things got messy enough that over the summer all nine board members participated in trainings conducted by Omaha-based consultant Marj Plumb centered around interpersonal communication and relationship building. More coaching sessions may follow.

Meanwhile, a Board Governance committee is forming to serve as a professional development-oversight body.


Lacy Merica, OPS School Board

Some history is necessary to understand how things got to this point. In January, the newly constituted board required 100-plus votes to elect a president – Lacey Merica. Many 5-4 decisions on district matters followed tense board meetings. When the search dragged on amid sharp division, the final three candidates withdrew from the process, citing dysfunction. Heated criticism from stakeholders peaked after the Omaha World-Herald published acrimonious emails between some board members. The sniping caused some observers to question members’ professionalism and focus.

Rifts have erupted over student achievement – where despite gains, gaps persist – response to disproportionate student suspensions and student transportation snafus.

District leadership has come under fire for not seeking enough educator-public input on instituting an extended school day, rolling out a new sex ed curriculum and calling off the superintendent search.


Bridget Donovan_President, Omaha Education Association_photo by Debra S. Kaplan

Omaha Education Association president Bridget Donovan said she wants leadership to invite principals, teachers and paras to be more involved in the new search “because I think that helps set up the success for the next superintendent.” Without more transparency, she said, “We don’t even know as a public or an employee what criteria they (the board) are using.”

With the new school year now underway, the clock’s ticking and the community’s watching to see how things are different this time around.

“I’m feeling a little bit hopeful they’re going to actually engage us in a meaningful way,” said Donovan, whose organization represents OPS educators. “I do believe the board is making an effort to do that,” though she questions if they’ve learned to constructively disagree.

Evans, Snow and Merica agree the board’s performance will be judged on how the school year proceeds and on the tenor of open meetings. They say since attending the training they note a discernible improvement in how they relate to each other and Evans.

Even with everything on the board’s plate, how members handle the new search will be the most telling marker for where they’ve arrived.

“With as big an issue as it was, I think they (the board) really have to get this right this time,” Donovan said. “They’re going to be under tremendous pressure.”

In August, a subcommittee devoted to the quest voted to cut ties with the previous search firm and to commission a new one. The goal is to move on a fast track and to hire a new superintendent by the end of December.

“We started the committee that will bring back recommendations to the board for what is the next step, what the timeline looks like and how the community’s going to have input in that,” Merica said.

She said it’s key “we get that community buy-in” after complaints OPS hasn’t been sufficiently transparent.

Evans and Co. downplayed any concerns that chaotic events of the past might dissuade qualified candidates from throwing their names in the ring.

“I think the new search firm will tell whoever those candidates are … that we learned from that experience, we’ve grown from that experience,” he said. “Actually, it’s a great time to come because we wound up finding a way to work together in a collective fashion.”

The board training provided insight into individual and interpersonal dynamics member now apply in practice.

“We talked a little bit about ourselves and our personalities,” Lacey Merica said. “It was really helpful to kind of get us all on the same page of hey, look at your (fellow) board members as human beings, too.”

If Snow’s learned anything, he said, It’s to “compromise and understand where people are coming from, and no matter if I disagree with their decision, respect them . . . Our objective is to make a decision as a unified board, not one individual.

Snow said the training was a lesson in swallowing pride.

“Everyone first has to acknowledge the fact that everyone has room to improve. And the fact that we were able to get every board member to show up proved that. The downfall about our board in the past and of most school boards across the country is they (members) only meet at board meetings. They only get the chance to talk about issues in the board meeting when a decision’s made, and if I don’t know you personally, I might take that personally.”

Mark Evans said the training wasn’t a mandate but a mutually agreed upon need.

“It was a discussion we all had. We wanted to send a message that we were going to try to live together and not have the controversies and conflict of the past and to try and get a feel for what caused some of the breakdown in communication and trust. It was just a desire to turn the page.”

“It’s going to be critical as we start the ‘sup’ search,” he said. “The student assignment plan is difficult, the busing issue is difficult. The bond issue – we’ve got board members that have different feelings there and that’s a big issue.

“Three years ago I don’t think we could have compromised on some of those issues. Today, I think we can. I think that’s part of the evolution of the process.”

Snow and Merica say there’s a new appreciation for the board speaking or acting as one.

“We all need to be unified when we are talking about putting up another bond for this school district,” said Snow. “We all need to be unified when we’re talking about launching a new student assignment plan. We all need to be on the same page.”

“I honestly think the Community Eligibility Provision is a good example,” Merica said of the free meal option for low income schools. “It was not a unanimous board vote to not expand the program and it’s something I and Amanda Ryan (fellow school board member) are really passionate about (expanding). Yeah, it’s upsetting, but it’s what’s best for the district. That was the board’s decision. So let’s keep working, let’s fix the problems identified, so that down the road we can expand it.”

No one’s under the allusion there won’t be disagreements, but maintaining decorum is a new emphasis, as is making an effort to have more face-to-face exchanges outside board meetings.


Marque A. Snow, Vice President of OPS School Barrd_Photo Courtesy of Omaha Public Schools

“If we disagree we’re going to sit down one-on-one and have that discussion,” Snow said.

“We have to communicate more with each other and ask questions and talk about issues,” Merica said.

“Chances are you’re going to have differences with different groups you come in contact with, but that doesn’t mean you stop the conversation,” OEA president Bridget Donovan said. “You have to be able to disagree appropriately with one another. It can’t become so personal when you disagree. It has to be worked out.”

The crucible the board underwent was perhaps unavoidable given its inexperience.

“I was hired in December 2012 by the 12-member board that in January, after I had been hired, got ousted,” said Evans. “So, these guys (current board) weren’t even a part of the selection committee for me.”

A new nine member board came on with seven new members.

“There was this whole sense of charge from the community at that point in time, and I think that was a part of the challenge, too,” Evans said. “Everybody had their own interpretation of the charge and I had my interpretation of what I was hired to do: to move student achievement in not only some schools but all schools, including schools that haven’t achieved in the past.”

Then the board underwent another makeover after the 2016 election. For many, it was their first elected public service post.

“I understood the dynamics of the political change,” Evans said. “That was tough on the board. There was not one board member that had a decade of service, for example. Usually when there’s a new board election there’s one or two that have been there a long time who can say to the new board member, ‘Well, this is why it’s this way.’ There wasn’t anyone that could do that. And I couldn’t do either because I was new, too, so I couldn’t give the whole history,”

Added to the challenge is the district’s complex profile.

“We are unique,” Merica said. “We are a large urban district. We have concentrations of poverty and not just poverty, it’s generational poverty, and that is different. We’ve got a large immigrant-refugee population.

“But we also have a community that’s more supportive of its public schools than a lot of other communities.”

Despite what Evans called “some bumps in the road,” he and the board say OPS remains a public education leader.

“When you look at all the things from 10,000 feet ,we are still educating kids, teachers are still showing up and working hard. Over 60 percent of our teachers have a masters degree or above. There are other school districts not even close to that level.”

Bridget Donovan is proud of the high caliber teachers and quality education found in OPS. She appreciates the difficult job the board has overseeing a large, diverse district. She doesn’t want a board that votes in lockstep since members represent different subdistricts and needs. But she also doesn’t want contention.

“We want thoughtful school board members who are voting what they believe is in the best interest. The more they can work together and communicate with one another, the better off they’ll be. I do think they’re working on it.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Hot Movie Takes – “Downsizing” splits Toronto

September 12, 2017 1 comment

Hot Movie Takes – “Downsizing” splits Toronto
©by Leo Adam Bga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Alexander Payne has given the world something unexpected from him with his new film “Downsizing.” So far, after playing three of the world’s most prestigious festivals, the cinema community is decidedly split about this epic sci-fi dramedy from a writer-director heretofore known for his small human satires. After being almost uniformly hailed in Venice, the film elicited divided responses in Telluride and now in Toronto, and it seems most reviewers who’ve seen it fall into either love it or hate it camps. Some reviewers are practically ecstatic about the film and praising Payne for his brave ambition in departing from what we’ve come to expect. Others are going out of their way to damn the film and take Payne to task for biting off more than he could chew. If you read enough of the negative reviews, and there are plenty of them, the critics are on the one hand admiring the fact that he dared to upset expectations and chastising him for the temerity to thing big and visionary.

All I know having only read the script and interviewed Payne and a good chunk of his creative team is that the screenplay I saw was brilliant. I can’t speak to the final shooting script and how it was executed until I see the film. I suspect I’ll like what I see but then again, who knows. It’s just an opinion and so much of that is influenced by attitudes, tastes and, there we go again, expectations. People will disagree, but “Downsizing” finds itself in a precarious position now having gone from Paramounts darling project with glowing praise, awards predictions and big box office written all over it to very much an unsure thing that just might flop.

What all this means, if anything, for how Paramount might market and release the picture differently now and how general audiences might perceive and therefore respond to it differently now is anybody’s guess. What this presages as far as awards season is also hard to predict. But it does appear that the studio and the filmmaker have been taken aback by this sharply divided reception to “Downsizing.” I haven’t had a chance yet to speak with Payne about it, but I hope to do so soon. Stay tuned.

Here are three reviews that reflect the good, the bad and the ugly response to the film.

THE GOOD

DOWNSIZING IS A CRAZY SCI-FI FABLE FOR OUR TIME (TIFF REVIEW)
POSTED BY NOAH GITTELL ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2017

There is a moment in a certain type of great film when you realize you have no idea what is going to happen next, and you cannot wait to find out. Most films written by Charlie Kaufman have a moment like this. So does Downsizing, the wise and wondrous new film from director Alexander Payne, a somewhat unlikely suspect for such unpredictability. His movies (Election, Nebraska) do often have surprising flights of creative fancy in their third act (think the wallet-stealing sequence in Sideways), but none is as persistently inventive and creatively liberated as Downsizing, which starts out as sci-fi comedy, ends as a heartwarming social fable, and squarely hits a handful of different genres in between.

Downsizing is set in a near-future in which miniaturization technology has become cost-effective and popular. There are myriad reasons to “get small,” we are told. Some people are doing it to improve their lives, others see it as a way to help the environment by reducing their carbon footprint, and some people are just trying to save money. It’s the latter reason that inspires Paul (Matt Damon, effective here in “everyman” mode) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig) to give up their small life in Omaha for an even tinier one. The painfully average couple are an embodiment of the shrinking middle class. Paul wanted to be a doctor, but he quit medical school when his mother fell ill. Now, he’s an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks, where he earns a meager income, and he and his wife live in the modest home he grew up in.

Their money will go farther in Leisure Land, one of many “micro-communities” popping up all over the world. In fact, their modest $150,000 in assets will make them multi-millionaires, and the loneliness of life without their old friends and family seems like a small price to pay for living in a utopia. After a quick tour, Paul and Audrey decide to take the tiny plunge before they can talk themselves out of it.

From this set-up, there is a clear and obvious path forward – their perfect life turns dystopian, and Leisure Land reveals a dark underbelly – but Payne and his co-writer refuse the easy way out. It’s almost as if it never occurred to them. Downsizing is a film of many surprises, from celebrity cameos and abrupt departures for seemingly important characters to the probing, philosophical soul that informs each of the film’s radical plot developments  True, the film’s heroes find their new life to be not all that was promised, but where it goes from there will surprise even the most accomplished twist-guesser.

The film’s stream-of-consciousness plotting would be bad medicine if Downsizing weren’t also hilariously funny. There are plenty of sight gags, involving large (that is, normal-sized) items that have made their way into Paul and Audrey’s miniature world, including enormous flowers, giant jewelry, and a pack of Saltines that could feed a family for a week. Payne also packs his film full of extraordinarily funny people, from Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier as Eurotrash neighbors to Hong Chau, a former Vietnamese freedom fighter who, in one gut-busting scene, enumerates the eight different ways Americans have sex. If there is any justice, the phrase “love f**k” will enter our lexicon.

So if you want to simply laugh at Downsizing, you can. In fact, the film changes lanes so many times that just sitting back and enjoying the wild ride is a perfectly reasonable strategy. Eventually, however, it will ask more of you. The through line that runs beneath the gags and wild plot is a soul-searching character hyper-attuned to our apocalyptic times. The miniaturization process is originally discovered in the search for a solution to the world’s unsustainable population growth, and Downsizing follows this idea down its natural path, shifting into a journey of exploration of how best to live in an age when of human self-destruction and spiritual indifference. There are echoes of I Heart Huckabees and the recent Beatriz at Dinner in its ethical questions and earnest probings. At its simplest, Downsizing is simply an exploration of what it means to be good in trying times, a worthy endeavor even if the final product is not your tiny cup of tea.

THE BAD

TIFF Movie Review: Downsizing
ALLYSON JOHNSON SEPTEMBER 10, 2017

Downsizing has a tonal problem in that the film we’re watching in the first act is drastically different than the one we watch in the second, which is drastically different than that of the third. At the very least, we can never fault director Alexander Payne on the scope of his vision, as he attempts to tackle a grab bag of topics and themes that all boil down to the idea of the cyclical destructive nature of humankind and the beauty and connection that is to be found amid it all. Even when the world is ending due to man-made disasters, there’s still room to be kind and decent and maybe even fall in love while finding out who you are.

In the not so distant future of Payne’s latest film Downsizing, the world is beginning to visualize the threats to the environment that up till now had benn blissfully ignored. In order to counteract this, a scientist creates a magical solution where people can chose to be shrunken to help cut down on consumption and natural resources. What began as a novel concept soon turns into a phenomenon as more and more people are lining up be to become small, transporting themselves to different portions of the world where small communities have been set up. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristin Wiig) think that they too are ready to leave the normal world behind and embark on this great new adventure together. Granted the opportunity to live in luxury opposed to barely being able to keep up with the house they have now, it sounds alluring to the couple. However, cold feet kicks in for Audrey and Paul is left to embark on this journey more alone than he’s even been before.

It’s a mouthful of a movie to explain but one that, if you’re able to get over the hiccups along the way, are well worth it for the ultimate payoff. Beginning (in easily the most dragged out portion of the film) as mid-life crisis film, transitioning into something more stylish and science-fiction geared and then melting away into something romantic, globe trotting and meditative on the meaning of life and our need to contextualize everything and prove that there’s a reason for why our lives take the dips and turns that they do, the film never lands on just what it’s trying to accomplish. Astoundingly, it’s through that indecisiveness that we’re given some of the films most cherished aspects.

The single greatest joy of the movie is the introduction and inclusion of Hong Chau’s Ngoc Lan Tran, a humanitarian who was shrunk against her will and who stowed away in a TV box to the U.S. to escape persecution. She also lost her leg and it’s through her faulty prosthetic that she and Paul strike up a temperamental bond. Up until her joining the narrative the film had been funny, if a touch icy, happy to tell a story that shouts from the rafters that our environment is doomed while also making us laugh with visual sight gags such as a miniaturized Laura Dern in a bubble bath. With Chau’s utterly winsome and earnest portrayal the film gains the heart it had previously been devoid of, proving to be the missing link in a film that so desperately needed some warmth to be greater than a film that’s applauded on concept alone.

As mentioned, the film does drag in moments with the first act taking the longest due to all of the set up and the third taking what feels like a prolonged detour but for the most part Payne and co., have created a film that feels both uniquely timely while simultaneously feeling out the past with an atmosphere that hints to both Pleasantville and Being John Malkovich. Surreal, initially a little off putting, but determined in telling a story that’s both intriguing and significant, Downsizing divisively marches to it’s own beat.

Matt Damon proves he’s at his best when he’s playing decent, albeit, ordinary men while Christoph Waltz is an utter joy as Paul’s worldly neighbor Dusan. Of the performances though, again it’s Chau as Ngoc’s that really wins the day and the chemistry between the entire cast is delightful entertaining as their difference temperaments bounce off of one another with ease. Wiig is the only one who the script truly disservices, which is a sham, considering how well she and Damon’s comedic timing played against each other.

There are, admittedly, moments when the CGI is a little out of it’s depth, but the set design makes up for it by making sure to keep a sense of artificiality even when they’re only surrounded by people who’ve also gone through the procedure. Similarly, the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is gorgeously rendered, particularly at the end as the film drives home just how wonderfully beautiful and vast our planet is.

Written by Payne and Jim Taylor, the two make sure to shine a light on the discrepancy of being offered to live in a world worry free where money isn’t an issue and you can have anything your heart desires. Like most things in life, this is focused on the privileged, with anyone else who doesn’t fit into the demo (minority groups and the disenfranchised) are still pushed to the outskirts of their community. The only thing that’s changed about their lives is they’ve gotten smaller. The films tackling of climate change is perhaps a touch on the nose but it makes sense within the context of the film where humans rush to find away to preserve life on a planet they’ve helped destroy.

A film that thinks big while keying in on the smaller but grander moments in life, Downsizing is messy, inconsistent and noisy in its many messages, but there’s something so refreshingly heartfelt about it all. A reminder that humans are always evolving, even when they don’t reflect, and that that evolution can happen both on the micro and macro scale.

AND THE UGLY

TIFF 2017: “DOWNSIZING,” “BEAST,” “WHO WE ARE NOW”
by Brian Tallerico
September 10, 2017

Alexander Payne’s latest finishes its fall festival trifecta after premiering at Venice and Telluride while a pair of “smaller” films actually feel like more complete, well-considered efforts, despite their own flaws. “Downsizing” has already become one of the most divisive films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, producing responses all across the board. I know a few critics who consider it one of Payne’s best, but more seem to fall into the “ambitious disappointment” camp, and I may be even a step below that group. It’s easily Payne’s worst film, a work that’s woefully misguided, casually racist, thematically incomplete, and tries to ride on a high concept until a ham-fisted message arrives in the final act to really drive the hypocrisy home.

The concept of “Downsizing” is the kind of thing with which someone like Charlie Kaufman could have worked wonders. As human consumption has essentially destroyed our planet, a group of scientists determines that the only way to reverse the trajectory of time is to minimize not only the waste of our species but our actual size. Think about how much less damage we would do to the planet if we were only a fraction of the size we are now. Imagine how far your dollar could go when 1,000 square foot house looks much, much bigger. Everyone could have a mansion, and produce a negligible amount of planet-damaging waste.

For Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), the allure of what has been just outside of their reach becoming available to them through downsizing is too much to ignore. What could possibly go wrong? Of course, the journey to the small life doesn’t go exactly as planned, while Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Hong Chau, and cameos from Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern fill out an undeniably talented cast. Once again, Payne wants to examine the current state of America through a satirical, exaggerated lens.
The problem this time is that I don’t think he knows what he’s looking at. There are plenty of questions in “Downsizing.” How do we literally simplify our lives? What should we value? How can one person make a minor difference against major problems? However, none of these are interestingly examined beyond the superficial. Instead, Payne meanders through a surprisingly unfunny narrative about a wanderer, amplified by Damon’s least interesting performance in a very long time. The problem is that Paul needs to be either a Chauncey Billups-esque observer or something more exaggerated than the blank slate Damon presents. There’s no character here, and not even in an interesting, non-character way. The idea that this guy just bounces from decision to decision, never making long-term ones, feels underdeveloped thematically, and just leaves us with a film that’s as unfocused as its protagonist.

Part of the tonal dilemma presented by “Downsizing” is the bad taste left in the mouth by Payne’s willingness not only to present a remarkable degree of White Savior Complex but then dive headfirst into casual racism in the portrayal of a Vietnamese dissident whose broken English is clearly being played for laughs. Payne has been accused of condescension to his “less refined,” Midwestern characters before but I never felt it as strongly as I did here. It feels like there was a version of “Downsizing” that was broader, in which everyone felt satirical, but then certain characters were softened, leaving only a few stereotypes to stand out and offend, along with an overriding sense of superiority from the filmmaker. Throughout “Downsizing,” I kept asking myself what the point of all of this was, never engaged by its hodgepodge of themes. I wish the filmmakers had asked that question too.

Hot Movie Takes: Three generations of Omaha film directors – Joan Micklin Silver, Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler

September 8, 2017 Leave a comment


Hot Movie Takes: Three generations of Omaha film directors – Joan Micklin Silver, Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler
©by Leo Adam Bga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Three filmmakers from Omaha who’ve made impressive marks in cinema as writer-directors represent three distinct generations but their work shares a strong humanistic and comedic bent:

Joan Micklin Silver
Alexander Payne
Nik Fackler

You may not know her name or her films, but Joan Micklin Silver is arguably the most important filmmaker to ever come out of Nebraska. Her feature debut “Hester Street” (1975) was something of a phenomenon in its time and it still resonates today because of how it established her in the film industry and helped open doors for other women directors in Hollywood.

Dorothy Arzner was a studio director in the early talkies era and then years went by before another woman filmmaker got the chance to direct. Actress Ida Lupino directed a small but telling batch of features from 1949 through the mid-1950s and became a busy television director. Lupino helmed the original “Twilight Zone’s” classic episode, “The Masks.” The last feature she directed “The Trouble with Angels” was a hit. Her subsequent directing was back in television for a large variety of episodic shows. But it was years before other women followed Lupino as studio directors and Elaine May and Joan Micklin Silver led that fledgling movement. They ushered in an era when more women directors began working in the mainstream: Lee Grant, Penelope Spheeris, Amy Heckerling, Barbra Streisand, Kathryn Bigelow. Hundreds more have followed.

Silver first came to the industry’s attention with her original story about the stateside struggles of wives of American POWs in Vietnam. No studio would let her direct and the story ended up in the hands of old Hollywood hand Mark Robson, who’d made some very successful pictures, and he brought in future director James Bridges to work on the script with her. Silver was not happy with the changes made to the story and though the screenplay bears her and Bridges’ names, she largely disowns the resulting shooting script and the movie Robson made from it, which was released under the title “Limbo” in 1972. However, Robson knew how much she wanted to direct and did something unheard of then: he invited her to be on set to observe the entire shoot and be privy to his interactions with cast, crew, producers, et cetera. She may have also had access to pre- and post-production elements. This experience allowed her an intimate study of how a major feature film production gets made. This, along with the films she’d been keenly watching since falling in love with cinema at the Dundee Theatre in Omaha, was her film school. Only a couple years after “Limbo” Silver was shopping around another script she penned, this one an adaptation of a novella about the Jewish immigrant experience in early 20th century America that was part of her own family’s heritage. The focus was on New York City’s Lower East Side and the travails of a young woman trying to reconcile the ways of the Old Country with the new ways of America. Jake has come ahead to America and sends for his wife, Gitl, and their son. Gitl is little more than chattel to Jake and she finds herself stifled by social, cultural, economic pressures. Much to Jake’s surprise, she rebels. Silver titled the story “Hester Street” and again no studio wanted her to direct and she was not interested in giving control of her script to another filmmaker. To be fair to the studios, on the surface the project did have a lot going against it. For starters, it was a heavily ethnic period piece that Silver saw as a black and white film. Indefensibly though, while Hollywood by that time was giving all sorts of untested new directors opportunities to direct, it wasn’t affording the same opportunities to women.

Silver and her late husband Raphael Silver, who was in real estate then, raised the money themselves and made the film independently. Her beautifully evocative, detailed work looked like it cost ten times her minuscule budget. She and Raphael shopped the finished film around and, you guessed it, still no takers. That’s when the couple released it themselves by road showing the film at individual theaters with whom they directly negotiated terms. And then a funny thing happened. “Hester Street” started catching on and as word of mouth grew, bookings picked up, not just in Eastern art cinemas but coast to coast in both art and select commercial theaters. Before they knew it, the Silvers had a not so minor hit on their hands considering the less than half a million dollars it took to make it. National critics warmly reviewed the picture. The story’s feminist themes in combination with the film having been written and directed by a woman made it and Silver darlings of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The film even got the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as the film’s then unknown female lead, Carol Kane, earned a Best Actress nomination.

Years later “Hester Street” was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” work. In designating the film for inclusion, the Library of Congress noted historians have praised the film’s “accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process in its portrait of Eastern European Jewish life in America.”

Silver is now writing a book about the making of “Hester Street,” which is also being adapted into a stage musical the adapters hope to bring to Broadway. A biography of Silver is also in the works.

The success of “Hester Street” allowed Silver to make a number of feature films over the next decade and a half, some with studios and some independently, including “Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” “Crossing Delancey” and “Loverboy” as well as some notable made for TV movies such as “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” and “Finnegan Begin Again.” These films show her deft touch with romantic comedies. I’ve always thought of her work as on par with that of the great Ernest Lubitsch in its sophisticated handling of male-female relationships and entanglements.

I recently saw “Finnegan Begin Again” for the first time and now I see what all the fuss was about for this 1985 HBO movie starring Mary Tyler Moore, Robert Preston, Sam Waterston and Silvia Sydney. It’s a thoroughly delightful, mature and surprising dramedy that features perhaps the two best screen performances by Moore and Preston, which is saying a lot. Waterston goes against type here and is outstanding. Sidney never lost her acting chops and even here, in her mid-70s, she’s very full in her performance. A very young Giancarlo Espositio has a small but showy part. Watch for my separate Hot Movie Takes post about the movie.

During the 1990s and on through 2003, Silver directed several more feature and television movies, “Big Girls Don’t Cry, They Get Even,” “A Private Matter” and “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” among them. The tlater two made for cable movies are straight dramas, which she also handled with a sure touch. I just saw “A Private Matter” for the first time and it is a searing true-life tale about a young American married couple with kids who become the center of the thalidomide scandal and tragedy. Sissy Spacek and Aidan Quinn portray Sherri and Bob Finkbine, who discover that the fetus Sherri is carrying will likely be born severely deformed due to the effects of the then widely prescribed drug thalidomide. When their intent to terminate the pregnancy goes public, it sets off a firestorm of controversy that nearly destroys them. In the midst of the medical deliberations, legal wrangling and media stalkings, the couple learn how widespread abortions are and how secret they’re kept. Silver brilliantly contrasts sunny, placid 1960s suburban family life with the dark underside of hypocrisy, greed, fear and hate that surface when issues of morality get inflamed. In this case and cases like it, what should be a private matter becomes a public controversy and the people involved are persecuted for following their own conscience. Spacek delivers a great performance as Sherri and I don’t think Quinn has ever been better as Bob. Estelle Parsons is excellent as Sherri’s mother. William H. Macy has a small but effective turn as a psychiatrist.

More recently, Silver had been working on some documentary projects that never came to fruition. And then her longtime life and professional partner, Raphael, died. Now in her early 80s, she’s seemingly more focused on archiving her work and sharing her experiences as a woman trying to shatter the American film industry’s glass ceiling.

Her maverick ways and superb films are highly regarded and yet she remains almost unknown in her own hometown, which both saddens and baffles me. The lack of recognition for her here is a real shame, too, because she’s one of the great creatives this place has ever produced and her exquisite films stand the test of time. I believe Alexander Payne, who is her junior by some 26 years, is one of the great American filmmakers to have emerged in the last half-century and I regard the best of Silver’s films on a par with his. And yet her name and work are not nearly as well known, which reminds us that even after all this time women filmmakers are still not accorded the same respect as their male counterparts. Even in their shared hometown, Payne is celebrated but not Silver. I’d like to do something to change that.

When Silver was eying a career in film starting in the late 1960s-early 1970s, the old studio contract system was dismantled and the New Hollywood hot shots from television and film schools were all the rage. Even guys who’d never directed anything were getting their shot at studio features. Women were still left out of the equation but for the rare exception like Silver, and even then it took her battering on the walls before she was reluctantly let in to that privileged Old Boys Network. Her path to breaking in was to learn her writing and directing chops in theater and television. It was her ability to write that got her a seat at the table if not at the head of the table. She had to make her own way the hard way. She’s lived long enough to see progress, if not enough yet, for women directors to now be almost commonplace.

Alexander Payne’s cinephile development came right in the middle of the New Hollywood revolution and his entrance into the industry happened right on the wave of the indie film explosion. But like Silver before him, there was no visible Hollywood presence around him when he was coming of age here as a cineaste. No one was making anything like grade A feature films locally. The industry was remote and disconnected from places like Nebraska. His entry into the industry was his student thesis film. But it wasn’t until he wrote “Citizen Ruth” and got financing for it that he arrived.

Dan Mirvish is another Omahan from the same generation as Payne whose directorial efforts bear discussion. He’s actually been the most ingenious in pulling projects together and getting them seen. None of his films have yet crossed over in the way that Silver’s, Payne’s and Fackler’s have, but he and his work are never less than interesting. He, too, is a writer-director.

A generation later, Nik Fackler came of age when the new crop of filmmakers were coming from film schools as well as the worlds of commercials and music videos. But just as Silver and Payne used their writing talents to get their feet in the door and their first films made, so did Fackler. His script for “Lovely, Still” was good enough to attract a pair of Oscar-winning legends in Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. He directed those Actors Studio stalwarts when he was in his early 20s. He was much younger than Payne and Silver were when they directed their first films but he had the advantage of having directed several short films and music videos as his film education. He also had the advantage of having seen a fellow Omaha native in Payne enjoy breakout success. But where Payne and Silver followed up their debut feature films with more projects that further propelled their careers, Fackler did not, It’s been nearly a decade since “Lovely, Still” and many of us are eager to see if Fackler can recapture the magic he found so early.

I find it interesting that Fackler, Payne and Silver all tackled tough subjects for their first features:
Alzheimer’s in Fackler’s “Lovely, Still”
Abortion in Payne’s “Citizen Ruth”
Jewish immigrant experience in “Hester Street”

Whereas Payne and Fackler have made most of their films in Nebraska, Silver, despite a desire to do so, has never shot here. There’s still time.

These three are not the only Nebraskans who’ve done meritorious work as directors, but they are in many ways the most emblematic of their times.

Wouldn’t it be fun to get Silver, Payne and Fackler on the same panel to discuss their adventures in filmmaking? I think so.

Meanwhile. a special screening of “Lovely, Still” in memory of Martin Landau is happening at Film Streams on Thursday, Oct. 12. Payne’s “Downsizing” is playing festivals in advance of its Dec. 22 national release. And Silver’s films can be found via different platforms, though a retrospective of her work here is long overdue.

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