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Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latino screening of her film “Rebel”

September 19, 2014 Leave a comment

A hybrid documentary employing dramatic elements explores the fascinatiing story of Loreta Valezquez, a Cuban immigrant who posed as a man to fight and spy for both sides in the American Civil War.  Noted filmmaker Maria Agui Carter will discuss her film Rebel after a 7 p.m. screening at El Museo Latino in Omaha on Sept. 25.  This is my Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) story about what drew Carter to the project and what she’s discoverd and surmised about Loreta, a woman she greatly admires.  The film has been airing on PBS.

NOTE: Filmmaker Maria Agui Carter is pictured in the second photogaph below.

 


 

 

 

Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latino screening of her film “Rebel”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

Award-winning filmmaker Maria Agui Carter has much to say about her new film Rebel, the story of a Latina who posed as a man to fight and spy in the American Civil War. Agui Carter will discuss the film, which recently aired as a PBS special, and its protagonist, Cuban immigrant Loreta Velazquez, following a 7 p.m. screening on September 25 at El Museo Latino, 4701 South 25th Street.

An immigrant herself, Agui Carter is an independent filmmaker based in Mass. and founder of Iguana Films, a film and new media company making Spanish and English language works. She’s a graduate of Harvard University, where she’s been a visiting artist-scholar.

In a director’s statement and answers provided via email, she details what led her to do the 12-years-in-the-making project.

“I’m a history buff, I look for interesting characters, especially women and Latinos, in American history,” she says. “I came across an original copy of Loreta’s 1876 memoir in Widener Library (Harvard).”

Agui Carter found powerful themes in those accounts that speak to her experience as a Latina storyteller, immigrant to the U.S. and feminist.

“I felt uniquely qualified to tell the story. I’m fascinated by the question of citizenship and national identity, having been brought here as a child undocumented and raised ‘underground’ by my mother. I felt growing up I was deeply American, but I did not have the citizenship status.”

Loreta’s story touches on issues of gender, race and self-determination Agui Carter identifies with.

“I identify with Loreta and sympathize with her painful struggle to find acceptance within her community. Loreta presents a Latina’s and a woman’s perspective on a time period and a war we usually think of as exclusively black and white. But this is less a story about the Civil War and more the story of a complex woman who reinvented herself to survive the impossible circumstances in which she found herself. And that reinvention of self is a quintessentially American experience that resonates with so many Americans – that idea we are not what we are born, but what we make of ourselves.”

Agui Carter’s fllm answers and asks questions prompted by the memoir. “My film is a detective story trying to understand the woman, the myth and the politics of how we understand our own past.”

From the time Loreta published her memoir until now, her story’s been marginalized and contested, even called a hoax.

“She was attacked as a liar and a fraud by an unreconstructed Ex-Confederate general. Jubal Early, who read her memoir and thought her story preposterous. He was quite powerful and publicly dismissed her story. Subsequent generations generally followed his lead.”

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To unravel the mystery, Agui Carter consulted historians, who informed her some 1,000 women disguised as men fought in the Civil War. They confirm Loreta fought under the name Harry T. Buford at First Bull Run and was wounded at Shiloh. At some point Loreta became a spy, first for the Confederacy, then for the Union. She went by many aliases, including Laura Williams and Loretea DeCaulp. Agui Carter’s hybrid documentary uses actors to dramatize certain scenes.

“We don’t know all the exact details of her service, nor that of the other documented women who fought disguised as men because they were hiding their tracks and identities,” she says.

As for why Loreta did what she did, Agui Carter says, “She had just lost her family and as a young girl she had dreamed of being a hero. it’s a complicated and deliciously twisted plot. ”

The filmmaker admires what Loreta did in carving out an unexpected, emancipated life and sharing her journey with the world.

“Her book popularized her story of a woman who broke the rules and social boundaries that, post-war, so many were trying to reconstruct. By writing her memoirs, she allowed others to imagine that they, too, might choose their own fates and go against the grain. This was considered dangerous at a time when men were returning from war and expecting the women to go back to their old roles.

“She refused to be bounded by the strictures of her time. She imagined a world for herself and went out and created it, regardless of what people told her she couldn’t do. She made the impossible possible for herself.”

Agui Carter has authored a new play, 14 Freight Trains, about the first American soldier to die in Iraq – an undocumented Latino. It has reverberations with Rebel and her own family’s experience.

“My mother married a Vietnam veteran who applied for citizenship for my mother and myself. War is a terrible, painful, transformative thing and yet people believe in this country enough to put their lives on the line for it, including generation after generation of immigrants. This is a profound experience and I am drawn to these stories of people who would believe in something so much they would risk their lives for it.”

She’s working on turning Loreta’s story into a narrative action feature..

See Rebel free with museum admission. Due to limited space, reservations are advised. Call 402-731-1137.

For more about the film and Loreta’s story, visit http://rebeldocumentary.com.

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Ex-Gonzo journalist-turned-filmmaker James Marshall Crotty resolved to celebrate debate in new films “Crotty’s Kids” and “Master Debaters”

March 6, 2014 1 comment

The longer I do this the more I happen upon folks from Neb. doing really interesting things.  The subject of the following story, James Marshall Crotty, is a good example. He created a career and brand for himself out of whole cloth when he co-conceived and executed a magazine and lifestyle, Monk, and authored city guides predicated on the freedom of the open road and the exploration of all things alternative, fringe, off-the-beaten path, iconoclastic, and, idiosyncratic.  After this gonzo period in his life he’s “gone straight” to report on education for Forbes and to weigh in on the cultural stream for the Huffington Post.  More recently he’s turned filmmaker by producing-directing two documentaries, Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids, that marry his subculture leanings with his love for speech and debate, which he excelled in at Omaha Creighton Prep and coached at New York City high schools.  His experiences observing and coaching debate in inner city environments are captured in his films, both of which are playing the Omaha Film Festival.    See my companion story about the festival on this blog.

 

Ex-Gonzo journalist-turned-filmmaker James Marshall Crotty resolved to celebrate debate in new films “Crotty’s Kids” and “Master Debaters”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha ex-pat James Marshall Crotty, co-creator of the underground Monk magazine and author of alternative city guides, gained a cult following for his irreverent dashboard reporting about America’s fringes. His arch leanings are on display in two documentaries he’s produced-directed showing at the March 5-9 Omaha Film Festival.

Both films focus on a subculture subject close to his heart, competitive debate. This once itinerant gonzo journalist now based in Los Angeles was a champion debater at Omaha Creighton Prep in the mid 1970s. This self-described “evangelist for debate” passionately portrays the hyper intense activity’s transformational power in his own life and in the lives of South Bronx kids of color.

Master Debaters shows March 6 in the 8:30-10:15 p.m. block of Neb. short docs. Crotty’s Kids shows March 8 at 12:30 p.m. in the feature-length doc block. He’ll do a Q&A after each.

He’s hoping his films inspire funding for an urban debate league he wants to start here as a way to motivate kids to excel in school.

Those familiar with Crotty may find his new gigs as Forbes.com education reporter and crusading debate advocate a departure. It’s actually a catharsis after tiring of the vagabond Kerouac thing, dealing with a protracted lawsuit and losing his intellectual guru and most influential debate mentor – his mother.

He says, Monk, “the National Geographic for freaks,” was as much a rebellion against his Catholic Republican upbringing as anything.

“I was Mr. Alternative hipster subculture guy with Monk and I had this nagging sense the whole time I was interviewing people like the founder of the school for boys who want to be girls to Kurt Cobain to just any kind of an eccentric person or place across the fruited plain that I did not grasp the dominant culture conversation.

“I just felt deep inside I was an uneducated man even though I’d gone to Northwestern. I felt like i was a fraud even though I was really good at spinning this alternative universe.”

He could no longer square his “out there” image with the Jesuit call to be a man for others instilled in him at Prep. He resolved to improve himself and to use debate – “the most profound education experience of my life” – as a means to serve kids from disadvantaged straits.

He felt the discipline of debate helped him and his Prep teammates, among them Alexander Payne (who appears in Crotty’s Kids), find success and he saw no reason it couldn’t do the same for others.

“We were this tribe of academic athletes that learned through debate the ability to speak on our feet, to persuade others about the rightness of our cause. It gives you incredible confidence to tackle any subject. When you’re at the top of your game you’re spending four to five hours a day on it in addition to your schoolwork. And you’re not just reading secondary sources you’re looking up primary sources, you’re going to law libraries, you’re reading studies, you’re really digging deep and you’re able to sort fact from fiction.

“When you have a finely-tuned debate brain the most innocuous statement can be broken apart and you’re able to see through poppycock almost instantly and it’s something really missing in the culture. People are easily bamboozled by false prophets who just because they have such a strong opinion people think they’re telling the truth. That is dangerous for Democracy.”

He says the research skills he learned have served him well.

“I’m able to look beneath the surface to find the truth. Doing Monk I was able to find these people and places that even locals didn’t know existed. That’s because debate trains you to be a geek researcher.”

 

 

 

Crotty'sKids-DVD

 

The sudden death of his mother in 2002 set him on a “sea change” that led him to become a high school debate coach.

“I really felt the calling to help inner city kids.”

But first he needed to immerse himself in education.

“For years I really wanted to study the classics, the great books of civilization. I finally got the chance after we sued Tony Shalhoub and the producers of the Monk TV show in the late ’90s for stealing our brand. It took two years. In 2000 I decided to give up the Monk (mag) hat and go back to school and study the great books at a great little school called St. Johns College Santa Fe (N.M.).

“You sit around a table seminar-style and the tutors ask really good questions to help you dig deeper into the text. I really became a disciple of their method.”

He emerged from his mid-life crisis with a teaching certificate that allowed him to teach the classics and to coach debate. He began at two elite New York City schools to freshen his chops.

“I had been so long out of the game and I knew it had changed a lot. It’s like coming back to play any sport 25-30 years later. It had gotten so much faster.”

He says coaching proved emotional for him because “it gave me a way to give back during a difficult time in my life – I was mourning my mother through coaching these kids.”

After joining the newly formed Eagle Academy in the mid-2000s he made his experience there the basis for Crotty’s Kids.

 

 

 

 

He says the difference between a product of white privilege like himself and “a kid who grows up in the South Bronx is not as great as people might think,” adding, “The one thing that was really obvious to me is that a young man in the South Bronx does not just walk into a whole bunch of cultural capital just by osmosis.”

He says his growing up in a home filled with books and dinner-time conversations about current events is a far cry from what the kids he worked with experienced.

“These kids don’t have that by and large. As a result their vocabulary and basic reasoning powers are not being developed. So my job as a coach was to fill in that gap – the cultural capital piece – and the way I did that was to have adult, intellectual, fact-based conversations with them about whatever interested them. I also had my kids read the classics.”

He says the process of competitive speech and debate develops critical thinking skills in youths that have “an incredible trickle down effect that enables them to excel in school at a much higher level than their peers.” He adds, “It sort of feeds on itself. Young men and women at-risk are looking to compete and win. You get them to see it as a sport and they do whatever it takes. It becomes infectious.”

Sure enough, his kids became champions. One earned a full-ride.

Yet the central focus of Crotty’s Kids is Crotty, not the kids. He comes off as charismatic, quirky, caring, driven. He didn’t intend being the “star” but the footage or lack thereof dictated it.

“It’s not the Hoop Dreams of debate I wanted to make, it’s some other film,” he says.

He’s still in touch with some of his old students, several of whom are doing well in college.

“I’m a kind of surrogate father figure but I don’t push it. I had my chance to really impart as much as I could while I was with them but they need to figure things out on their own. They always know I’m there for them if they ever get in a jam.”

Nik Fackler’s ‘Sick Birds Die Easy’ captures a paradise lost

February 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Sick Birds Die Easy falls uneasily in that long lineage of films about Westerners who go to Third World nations and become part of the legacy of exploitation that happens there.  Nik Fackler’s new film set mostly in the jungles of Gabon, Africa is a wonderfully strange concoction because part of his intent with it was to indict the sort of post-colonial entitlement and paternalism that finds privileged Westerners spoiling paradises, in this case ancient Bwiti culture and the use of Iboga, with their poisioned attitudes and behaviors.  His other intent was to find healing for a crew member and friend.  But since his film straddles the line of documentary and fictional film, with some scenes real and others fabricated, it may actually have the reverse affect of what he intended.  Regardless of how you feel about what he depicts and  how he depicts it, he does capture arresting, sometimes beauitfully surreal visuals and poses some profound questions.  It is one of those works that will likely leave you hot or cold about it.  It took me two or three viewings before I fell into its quixotic internal rhythms and logic.  This weird mash-up of The Last Movie, The Emerald Forest and Apocalpyse Now is definitely worth a look.  It’s been playing festivals and now it’s come to his hometown, Omaha, for a one-night only screening at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11 at Film Streams. The writer-director will do a Q&A after the show.  This is my soon to appear piece about the project for The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

Nik Fackler’s ‘Sick Birds Die Easy’ captures a paradise lost

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Filmmaker, musician and psychedelia aficionado Nik Fackler is a millennial seeker. It’s no surprise then he followed his well-crafted made-in-Omaha feature debut Lovely, Still (2008) with documentaries exploring cultures half-a-world away.

One doc brought him to Nepal to capture the phenomenon of a boy buddha returned from remote self-exile back into civilization. That untitled film is as yet unfinished. The completed other doc, Sick Birds Die Easy, brought Fackler to Ebando Village in Gabon, Africa in 2011, to contrast ancient Bwiti culture with modern Western culture.

After a taxing shoot and edit the visually-arresting Sick Birds hit festivals last year. Now it has a one-night screening at Film Streams. Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. Fackler will do a post-show Q&A.. He’ll surely address the pic’s self-referential depiction of privileged cultural tourists, namely himself and his crew, experimenting with Iboga and its well-known hallucinogenic effects and reputed healing properties and the surreal, self-indulgent weirdness that ensued.

Fackler intentionally encouraged mayhem – from giving every crew member a camera to not securing an interpreter to bringing along two addicts to working without a structure.

“Shooting the film was a complete disaster,” he says. “I was setting up a disaster for myself because that’s what I wanted it to be.”

Mentor-producer Dana Atman reluctantly went and soon regretted it.

“He didn’t want to do it, he didn’t want to come to Africa,” Fackler says of Altman, who’s since taken a step back from filmmaking. “He had the hardest job. There’s so much behind the scenes he had to deal with, like how difficult it was to get us fed and how the Ebando were constantly renegotiating how much money we needed to give them for their help. This was happening every day and it was all on Dana’s shoulders. There were a lot of times he wouldn’t come on set.”

Several days of shooting presented Fackler, who edited alone, a daunting task once back home.

“Editing Sick Birds was hell. I had literally hundreds of hours of footage.

It was like taking a pile of chaos and making order out of it. It’s definitely a film made in the editing room.

“I didn’t know what documentary editing was going to be like. I should have known it would take a lot longer than narrative. It’s a really tough process.”

The project’s harsh realities – everyone got wasted and sick and relationships were strained – humbled Fackler. But playing God still comes with the territory. In voice-over narration and interviews he makes clear he sought to find in Gabon a lost Eden that is the antithesis of the West. From his POV America is a sick nation that destroys the indigenous cultures it touches. In this first-person, Werner Herzog-like immersion into a strange land he shows the collision of two cultures and the inevitable spoiling and corrupting of paradise.

Even though he says off-camera, “This is not the film I meant to make,” he clearly manipulates things to arrive where he intended to be.

The set-up finds Fackler enlisting two addict friends for the journey. Small farmer-actor-comedian Ross Brockley spouts paranoia, conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism. He ostensibly goes to kick his heroin habit. Musician-poet-alcoholic Sam Martin goes as the company’s resident “minstrel” and acerbic archival of Ross. In Gabon the team meets Tatayo, a French expatriate initiate in Bwiti spiritual practices whose gone jungle wild with mysticism, ritual and drugs (think Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now).

We appear to see Fackler and his on-screen crew, all playing versions of themselves, shooting a doc. Fackler is the intrepid writer-director seemingly intent on getting his film at any cost. But the film was actually lensed by Lovely, Still director of photography Sean Kirby, who’s unseen and only referred to in the credits.

Fackler acknowledges some dramatic moments in his film-within-a-film were staged. Given this odd melange, which he calls “a hyper creative” hybrid of documentary and drama, he may field some tough questions from purists who prefer more definition or transparency.

So is Sick Birds real or contrived?

“It’s all those things,” he says. “What’s real is the guts of it, the history and Bwiti, my interviews with Tatayo, the Iboga ceremony, Ross getting up in the middle of it and yelling at Tatayo. None of that was planned. When you see us all fucked up on Iboga and tired we really are fucked up and tired. That’s pretty accurate. That was part of the disaster.”

 

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Real or not, the film indicts self-indulgent Westerners running amok in a pristine land.

Fackler says he did assemble an edit where he revealed at the end “it was all fake” but he preferred the “enigma of weirdness and questions.” That other version, he says, “didn’t spawn any questions or conversation, but when people thought it was real it spawned this wave of conversation. I loved that.”

“The lesson I learned is that the more you research the great enigmas you’re going to get more questions. There are no answers.”

Besides, he adds, “Bwiti is a trickster culture and the film itself is a trickster film. It’s not a traditional film. It’s not one that is safe in any way. What I like about the art of filmmaking is you can take people to a place and attempt to put them in a mind-altered state. I like mind-altered states. I like to show there’s more to life than just your current perception.”

With Sick Birds Fackler tried breaking from hidebound filmmaking.

“There’s different ways of doing film. I did the music video thing (for Saddle Creek Records label artists), and I did the narrative feature thing and learned about using my intuition through that. I’d go to set every day with Lovely, Still with a shot list and by the end of shooting I didn’t have anything, I was just showing up on set and looking at everything and saying, ‘OK, this is how to shoot this scene.’ This (Sick Birds) was an extreme version of that.”

 

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Nik Fackler gone jungle wild

Even though no one’s “saved” in the end, Fackler says, “I really believe in Iboga and I’ve seen it work for people. But I learned you can’t change people. If anything, Ross has gotten even more paranoid.”

Fackler, a recreational drug user and alternative health adherent, hopes his film’s depiction of wayward Westerners doesn’t distort the path of fellow travelers seeking enlightenment and cure,

“I wouldn’t want Ebondo Village to get flooded with 18 year-olds dropping acid. though psychedelic tourism is happening. I don’t want to be promoting this type of behavior. I was trying to expose it. I don’t want to hurt Bwiti’s cause or this underground movement of trying to heal drug addicts.”

Fackler’s glad for the experience.

Lovely, Still is very much the film of a child and Sick Birds Die Easy is the film of a rebellious teenager. This film is very much about me growing up and the harsh hit of reality, the fear, not having answers to anything, rising from that dark night. I think it was a very important step for me as a filmmaker. I feel I succeeded making a film that could have been given up on. I’m proud of it.”

As for what’s next, he says, “The art you’re making is directly connected to the searching you’re doing within yourself. As long as I don’t stop searching I will be making art. That’s my way of  understanding what I’m searching for.”

 

New film “Growing Cities” takes road trip look at urban farmers cultivating a healthy, sustainable food culture

October 21, 2013 7 comments

Dirt, as in soil that you dig in with your hands, is becoming cool among a certain set of young people who are joining the multi-generational ranks of folks practicing urban farming as a response to the food deserts and unhealthy eating choices plaguing many American communities and the disconnect between Americans and the food they consume, most of which is highly processed, pre-packaged crap supplied by corporations that operate out of self-interest, not the public welfare.  Two young men fresh out of college have produced a new documentary, Growing Cities, that takes a road trip look at the burgeoning urban farm movement and its cultivation of a healthy, sustainable food culture that aims to put the power of food back in the hands of the people.  For their project filmmakers Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette traveled from our shared hometown of Omaha, Neb. across the country to both coasts and several stops in between before ending up back where they started.  Growing Cities is playing festivals around the nation.  It has a 7 p.m. Filmmakers Screening Oct. 29 at Film Streams in Omaha.  Susman and Monbouquette will field questions from their hometown audience folliowing the show.  My article about their new film will soon be appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  For related stories, check out my pieces on this blog about three Omaha endeavors:  No More Empty Pots, Minne Lusa House and the culinary-horticulture marriage at Metropolitan Community College.

New film “Growing Cities” takes road trip look at urban farmers cultivating a healthy, sustainable food culture

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

With words like justice, security, healthy and sustainable increasingly attached to food in America, two Omaha filmmakers with an undisguised POV have plugged into the sustainable edibles culture with a new documentary.

In Growing Cities urban agriculture advocates Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette present farming operations around the nation as smart remedies to inner city food deserts. The doc’s. 7 p.m. Film Streams screening on Oct. 29 will be followed by a Q&A with the creators.

Writer-director Susman, cinematographer Monbouquette and production manager Brent Lubbert logged 13,500 miles in a Dodge Caravan van on a three-month road trip to 20 cities in 2011. They searched out the best, biggest, most innovative urban agriculture models and found farmers not just in trippy spots but everywhere and farming everything from front and backyards to lots to rooftops to windows.

The quest was fueled by their disenchantment with scant local urban farming initiatives, though they acknowledge great strides have been made through No More Empty Pots and Big Muddy Farms, for example. The pair run their own mobile program, Truck Farm, that intros youth to growing things.

The urban ag movement has emerged in response to an industrialized food system that leaves consumers disconnected from the sources of what they eat and therefore reliant on processed, pre-packaged products.

Studies show a lack of ready access to fresh, organic foods may contribute to such health problems as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

Susman’s advocate-activist efforts got their start at Dartmouth College. The environmental studies major led a large outing club program, waged a sit-in at the president’s office and helped develop a Sustainable Living Center. He also co-directed a short film about the development of some pristine land.

The filmmakers obtained grants from Dartmouth to fund the Growing Cities road trip and raised $40,000-plus during a 2012 Kickstarter campaign. They’ve since found support among the same urban ag community they tout. Back home, they served as resident fellows at the Union for Contemporary Art and got free studio space there and at the Image Arts Building, whose owner, Dana Altman, became a producer.

The Central High grads lionize grassroots, community-based efforts that support natural, local food production.

Susman, a vegetarian who has a garden and chickens in his midtown backyard, feels they’ve caught a trend.

“What we tapped into is this intense support and desire by people to get involved. We made the film at the right time when I consider this wave because I know it’s only getting bigger,” he says.

“There’s so many different ways to get involved. You don’t have to be a farmer. You can grow a little bit. If you don’t like growing maybe you can cook or preserve or can. Or maybe volunteer at the local food bank. Eighty percent of our country lives in cities, so we have this huge population that could be doing this.”

The filmmakers contend there’s great interest in urban farming and that it can be practiced at some level by anyone, anywhere.

“There’s a lot of people who have never worked with a sustainable organization or who have never farmed but they’re super excited about it,” says Monbouquette. “It’s  something everybody can do. The biggest thing for us is encouraging people to grow a little bit of something.”

 

 

Andrew Monbouquette and Dan Susman

 

 

“Grow where you are” is the mantra they’ve adopted

Monbouquette says, “I think our biggest goal was we wanted to inspire people to do something.”

He says warm receptions to the film at festivals indicate its message resonates widely. Susman says millennials are just as likely to recognize “it’s cool, fun, exciting and rewarding to grow your own food” as older folks.

Monbouquette suggests urban farming will scale up in direct proportion to the number of people who participate in it and the amount of resources devoted to it. He suggests the real question is, “How far can we really take all this positive energy around urban farming and solidify it in our culture and just make it one of the things that we do, so it’s not just for hippies and hipsters?”

“Nobody’s saying we’re going to grow everything we can ever eat in cities. We can grow a lot of things there though,” says Susman.

Urban farming has been popular in earlier eras before fading away.

“The closest thing we have to compare it to is the Victory Garden movement (of World War II).,” says Monbouquette. “The statistics from that are astounding. Urban farmers were growing 40 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed.” Will the phenomenon last this time? “It just needs people to embrace and try it,” he says, adding government could do more to promote it by offering incentives to property owners to enter land use agreements that transform vacant lots into gardens.

Susman says some cities go so far as to have urban ag directors.

Rather than take a critical approach about “how screwed up everything is with E.coli or Mad Cow or industrial farming,” Susman says the film is “a really positive” spin on what we can all do to make our communities healthier and more inclusive.

Monbouquette says he became a convert to the cause by working on the film.

“The food and social justice issues really stuck a chord with me. Growing food is such a simple act but it can transform into this hugely motivational, inspiring, positive, productive thing in communities that really need it. You know, everyone has to eat and I subscribe to the view that we’re all in this together.”

For tickets, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

Documentary shines light on civil rights powerbroker Whitney Young: Producer Bonnie Boswell to discuss film and Young

March 21, 2013 3 comments

The name is familiar to some and totally unknown to others, but a new documentary leaves no doubt about the significant role Whitney Young Jr. played in the civil rights movement.  The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights makes a compelling case for Young being an overlooked giant of that progressive and momentous social justice effort to give African Americans the equality promised by law and practiced in every day life they were so long denied.  The film’s producer, Bonnie Boswell, is the niece of the late Whitney Young, whose work to secure better lives for his people was largely done behind the scenes, in boardrooms and offices, rather than in public forums.  My story about the film, Boswell’s motivation to do it, and her take on Young is in the current issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  A screening and discussion with Boswell is scheduled March 28 at Film Streams in Omaha, where Young served as head of the Urban League of Nebraskas in the early 1950s.

 

 

Whitney Young

Whitney Young during a meeting with President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office (AP Photo/LBJ Presidential Library, Yoichi Okamoto)

 

 

Documentary shines light on civil rights Powerbroker Whitney Young:

Producer Bonnie Boswell to discuss dilm and Young

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The civil rights and black power movements seem distant from Omaha until noting that Whitney Young Jr. cut his teeth as an advocate-organizer here and Malcolm X was born here.

While Malcolm X moved with his family from Omaha as a child and only returned once as an adult, Young served as Urban League of Nebraska president from 1950 to 1953. Young faced racism first-hand growing up in the South and serving in the U.S. Army. In Omaha he found blacks severely restricted in terms of where they could live, work, eat and recreate. He worked with DePorres Club president Father John Markoe and Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown in mounting challenges to discrimination and segregation. He forged alliances with local business and civic leaders to try and improve opportunities for minorities.

Those mediating experiences undoubtedly informed his later work as National Urban League executive director from 1961 until his untimely death in 1971, a tenure that coincided with momentous civil rights events.

Young. who’s been called “the inside man of the black revolution,” is the subject of a new documentary produced by his niece, television journalist Bonnie Boswell. A free 7 p.m. screening of her PBS-telecast film, The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights, is set for March 28 at Film Streams. A Q&A with Boswell follows.

Boswell says she was motivated in part to do the project to ensure Young’s role in history got “the credit” it deserved because his contributions had become obscured over time. “The other reason I wanted to do the film,” she says, “is that I think it’s important to lift up people like Whitney Young, of whom there are many, who do work behind the scenes people don’t necessarily know about, who get things done, who make cities work. I think it’s important for future generations to have a sense of, as they start thinking about their lives, it’s not necessarily about getting your name in the newspaper or your picture on the front of some magazine but about being effective and getting a job done. I think we need to encourage people to take pride in that.”

 

 

Bonnie Boswell

Bonnie Boswell

 

Whitney Young and Bonnie Boswell

 

 

The most enduring images from the struggle for self-determination remain the public protests, marches and speeches that pricked the heart and conscience of a nation divided by race. Beyond the raised fists and voices, however, was the largely unseen and unheard back room maneuvering of activists, lawyers, politicians, ministers and others. These social justice soldiers brokered most of the change that delivered equal rights protections to African Americans.

Young was perhaps the most significant inside player among this largely unheralded vanguard of freedom fighters. Trained as a social worker, he used his pragmatist problem solving and people skills to gain access to corporate boardrooms and the White House to advance the case for equality as a good thing for America. Though famous in his time, his work was overshadowed by that of Martin Luther King Jr., who remains the enduring face of the movement.

Boswell says she fixed on doing the film after speaking at a Whitney Young health center in 2002 and reflecting on how her uncle’s diplomatic approach to facilitating compromise amid the tumultuous ’60s could be instructive for leaders negotiating our own ultra partisan, divisive times.

“I was concerned America was continuing to engage in overseas wars and the gap between rich and poor was widening, and I was like, Can’t we do better? Then as I studied the role he played as a mediator and a bridge-builder I thought, This is exactly the kind of person we need to have as a role model and more people need to know his story so he really can be that role model.”

 

 

Young with LBJ

 

Young with JFK

 

 

Now that she’s helped reclaim his legacy, what does she imagine Young would make of America today?

“I think he would be gratified and also disappointed. I think we’ve clearly made a lot of progress in many areas. We have a lot of work to do for true equity and we should be about continuing that job. I think he would want us to be picking up the baton that others left.”

Boswell says viewers would do well to remember that both MLK and Young challenged America to live up to its larger ideal of creating a better America.

“It went far beyond race, it was about the beloved community, the just society, our democracy, so we have to continue that work.”

The documentary is also extremely personal. Boswell’s early rearing came at the hands of her uncle’s and mother’s parents at the Lincoln Institute in Kentucky, where her grandfather was principal. She learned the same values her grandparents taught them. As a girl she adored her uncle but as a afro-wearing young woman caught up in Black Power fervor she favored the militancy of Stokely Carmichael to the diplomacy of Whitney Young. Her film makes clear the movement required many approaches to affect needed change.

As a middle-aged woman today, she says, “I certainly have come to appreciate Whitney’s role and the subtleties of things he was dealing with that I didn’t have the maturity to really understand. I was much more emotional about discrimination, period. He grew up in a time when you couldn’t afford to be so emotional and I didn’t understand that. I can definitely appreciate his legacy more today.”

The civil rights champion’s name adorns schools, organizations and empowerment programs around the nation. In Omaha the Urban League of Nebraska’s Whitney Young Jr. Academy offers life and career skills to youths.

Ticket reservations for the film screening-discussion are recommended. Call 402-933-0259 or visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

Anti-Drug War manifesto documentary frames discussion: Cost of criminalizing nonviolent offenders comes home

February 1, 2013 2 comments

Until the documentary The House I Live In the best film I’d seen about drugs was the Steven Soderbergh drama, Traffic.  The director of the doc, Eugene Jarecki, does something very much akin to what Soderbergh did by taking a multi-perspective look at  the insidious grip the illegal drug culture and the so-called War on Durgs exerts upon every one caught up in this human chain of destruction.   My story below for The Reader is based on a recent screening and panel discussion of the film in Omaha.

 

Anti-Drug War manifesto documentary frames discussion:

Cost of criminalizing nonviolent offenders comes home

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The much-feted 2012 documentary The House I Live In provokes dialogue wherever it plays for its critique of America‘s domestic War on Drugs. Following a January 22 Film Streams screening before a full house a local panel discussed the film’s potent themes.

Director Eugene Jarecki’s (Why We Fight?) film indicts the war as failed public policy that’s wasteful, unjust and morally bankrupt for targeting nonviolent minority offenders. He suggests its true cost lies not only in the vast expenditures for arrest, prosecution and incarceration but in the disruption caused to families and communities. Every drug case has a spiral of consequences that can span generations.

The consensus of the experts and persons directly engaged in the war whom Jarecki enlists to comment on camera is that blacks are disproportionally targeted and punished. He explains he came to tackle the issue upon inquiring why a black family he knew from childhood struggled with poverty and crime. Its matriarch, Nannie Jeter, blames drugs for taking her late son James and leading other members down destructive paths.The film tells story after story of families impacted by addiction and imprisonment.

 

 

 

Eugene Jarecki

 

 

One observer notes, “We are engaged in a great experiment. What happens when you take large numbers of people, remove them from their neighborhoods, their families. What does this do to the broader community?”

Everyone from author Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow) to a prison chief of security agree the prison industrial complex has superseded prevention-intervention by incentivizing arrest, conviction and confinement and thus making it a big business prone to corruption that puts profit before humanity.

David Simon, creator of The Wire and a former journalist who covered the drug war, says, “Think about all the money spent on drug enforcement, on prisons and probation officers, on judges, on narcotics agents, on interdiction and everything else. But to what end? We’re the jailingest nation on Earth, yet drugs are purer than ever before, they’re more available.”

America’s draconian approach, he said. doesn’t work.

During the panel Impact One Community Connection founder Jannette Taylor reiterated a theme in the film that the war is actually a campaign to “marginalize people” that leaves  havoc in its wake. “We need to look at the broader picture of the collateral damage from this fake war on drugs,” she said. “We need to be more realistic about what this fake war on drugs really is and how it affects poor communities and the people in it.”

She knows first-hand the personal fallout. The father of her daughter has served 17 1/2 years on drug charges. “My daughter has never had her father in her life. He was out only a short period of time before he resorted back to selling drugs and got caught up again and it’s basically because you become so marginalized. You can’t get a job, you can’t find a place to live, so you resort back to what you know – you resort to the economy that pays you.”

Jarecki introduces us to individuals for whom using and dealing were all they saw growing up. Naturally, they followed suit. Picking up a point Simon makes in the film, Taylor said the drug trade may be “the only flourishing economy” in some inner city neighborhoods and “given the limited opportunities poor inner city residents have it’s a rational decision to deal drugs.” Similarly, she said drugs become a way to medicate “if you’re living in a constant state of poverty, in depressed living conditions.”

Taylor said despite never using, dealing or serving time “I’m dealing with the same things, just from a different perspective. My daughter is caught up in this drug war because she doesn’t have a dad, so she’s being raised by a single mom. It was very hard. Once somebody gets sentenced into the system because of drugs their family’s affected. It’s like a crazy avalanche. The kids no longer have both parents, the other parent is pressured into making more money and that takes them away…It’s a domino effect. It’s a cycle and it never ends.”

Scholar Richard Lawrence Miller draws comparisons in the film between the war and “the chain of destruction” he says the ruling class historically applies to minorities in order to target, control, demonize and isolate them. He and others point to profiling, mass incarceration and mandatory minimum sentences as its manifestations.

Simon terms the drug war “a Holocaust in slow motion.”

“This is basically slavery in a new form,” said Taylor, who with others cautions, “If someone else’s rights can be compromised and violated then yours can too.”

Panelist Rodney Prince, who served a federal drug sentence, said, “I believe this war on drugs is a means, a guise to deal with a segment of the population no longer needed in this transforming economy. The intention for me doesn’t really matter, this thing is happening to people.”

Taylor and others advocate America recast the war as a public health issue that gives nonviolent addict offenders treatment rather than jail time.

Prince said, “This is an economic issue. If we know our economy can’t absorb everyone now then we have to push our elected officials and business leaders to act responsibly and to make more room for people in the economy.”

Douglas County District Court Judge Marlon Polk said education is the best deterrent to being caught up in the drug culture. Nebraska Corrections Youth Facility director Marilyn Asher and other panelists suggest we all have a stake in giving people the support and skills they need to prosper.

Documentary considers Omaha’s changing face since World War II

August 15, 2012 4 comments

Omaha, my Omaha.  I have something of a love-hate relationship with my city, which is to say I have strong feelings about it and I always want it to be better than it thinks it can, though the attitude problem or more specifically inferiority complex it suffered from for so long has been largely replaced by a bold new, I-can-do confidence.  That metamorphosis is part of what drew me to a documentary some years back that took the measure of Omaha by charting the changing face ofrcityscape since World War II, and what a marked difference a half-century has made.  In truth, and as the doc makes clear, the most dramatic changes have only occurred in the last decade or two, when the city poured immense dollars into transforming parts of downtown, the riverfront, midtown, and South Omaha.  Left mostly untouched has been North Omaha, where the city’s major revitalization focus is now aimed.  The film also deals with one of the city’s biggest missteps – the razing of the Jobbers Canyon warehouse district to appease a corporate fat cat who wanted to put his headquarters there in place of what he called the area’s “big ugly red brick buildings.”  Those buildings were historic treasures dating back a century and today they would be home to well-established retail, residential, commercial developments that would be employing people and generating commerce, thus pouring money back into the city’s coffers.

Documentary considers Omaha’s changing face since World War II

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha’s evolution into a homey yet cosmo metropolis that’s discarded, for better or worse, its gritty industrial-frontier heritage is the subject of a new documentary premiering statewide on the NETV network. Omaha Since World War II — The Changing Face of the City is a UNO Television production  and a companion piece to UNO-TV’s popular 1994 If These Walls Could Speak.

What the new film does particularly well is frame the growth of Omaha over the past 60 years within a social, cultural and political context. Instead of settling for a Chamber of Commerce paean to development, the film makes a balanced effort at showing not only the dynamic explosion in Omaha’s ever-expanding boundaries and emerging 21st century cityscape but also some of the real tensions and costs that have come with that change. Using soaring, sweeping aerial footage shot from a helicopter video mount, the film provides insightful glimpses of Omaha’s famous sprawl and, even more tellingly, of the riverfront renaissance that’s remaking the city’s traditional gateway into a stunning new vista. Like the fits-and-starts pace of most Omaha development, major pieces in the Return to the River movement have taken decades to coalesce, but now that the new riverfront is emerging, it’s shaping up as a dramatic statement about the sleek, modern Omaha of the future.

While most of this period has seen real progress, valid concerns are raised about  one neglected area and a pattern of disregarding history. For example, the film focuses on the decline of north Omaha in the wake of the devastating 1960s riots there and the equally hurtful severing of that community by the North Freeway several years later. News footage of burning stores and marching civil rights demonstrators, along with residents’ personal anecdotes of urban ruin, reveal a community in upheaval.

The late Preston Love Sr., ex-Omaha educator Wilda Stephenson and Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith paint vivid pictures of the jumping place that once was North 24th Street and of the despairing symbol it came to represent. As the $1.8 billion in downtown-riverfront revival continues (development dollars spent in the last six years, according to Omaha Chamber of Commerce figures), it’s apparent north Omaha’s been left behind. Unlike South Omaha, which remakes itself every few decades as an immigrant haven and finds new uses for old landmarks like the former stockyards site, North Omaha still searches for a new identity.

The film also examines how city/state leaders sacrificed the nationally historic Jobber’s Canyon district to the whims of corporate giant ConAgra in the 1980s. A man-made canyon of 22 massive, architecturally unique warehouse buildings closely tied to early Omaha’s booming river-rail economy, all but one Jobbers structure — the former McKesson-Robbins Building, now the Greenhouse Apartments — was razed when ConAgra decided the “eye-sore” must go if it was to keep its headquarters downtown. After seeing homegrown Enron uproot to Houston, Omaha caved to ConAgra’s demands rather than lose another Fortune 1000 company. The canyon was an incalculable loss but, as the film makes clear, the resulting corporate campus served as a catalyst for development.

The filmmakers rightly reference Omaha’s penchant for tearing down its history, as in the old post office, the original Woodmen of the World building, the Fontenelle Hotel and the Indian Hills Theater. Spinning the story in all its permutations are, notably, former Omaha city planning directors Alden Aust and Marty Shukert, architect and preservationist George Haecker, historians Harl Dalstrom, Thomas Kuhlman, Bill Pratt and Garneth Peterson, developers Sam and Mark Mercer and entrepreneur Frankie Pane.

Warehouse district street scene. Omaha - NARA - 283718.tif

Jobbers Canyon before

 ConAgra campus that replaced Jobbers Canyon

The Jobbers Canyon debacle came at a time when downtown was reeling and in danger of being an empty shell. If not for major investments by a few key players. it may never have come back from the mass retail exodus to the suburbs it witnessed in the 1960s and ‘70s. In a real coup, the film features Old Market pioneers Sam and Mark Mercer, who describe the organic growth of this historic district into a cultural oasis — one that’s served as an anchor of stability.

The longest ongoing story of Omaha’s growth is its westward push. The film explains how this has been achieved by a liberal annexation policy that’s added subdivisions and even entire small communities to the tax rolls. The film touches on the fact that, outside a few developments, this sprawl has created a formless, characterless prairie of concrete and glass. The film also alludes to Omaha’s old neighborhoods, but only highlights one, Dundee, as an example of design and lifestyle merging.

Where the film doesn’t fare so well is in offering any real sense for the personality of the city. To be fair, filmmakers B.J. Huchtemann and Carl Milone didn’t intend to do that. Still, it would have been useful to try and take the measure of Omaha beyond its physical landscape. The only hint we get of this is via the many on-camera commentators who weigh in with their perspectives on Omaha’s changing face. And, to producer-director Huchtemann’s and co-producer-editor Milone’s credit, they’ve chosen these interpretive figures well. They’re an eclectic, eloquent, opinionated bunch and, as such, they reflect Omahans’ fierce independence and intelligence, which is at odds with the boring, white bread image the city often engenders. They are the film’s engaging storytellers.

Still, a film about the city’s changing face begs for an analysis of Omaha’s identity crisis. Mention the name, and outsiders draw a blank or recall a creaky remnant from its past or ascribe a boring blandness to it all. That’s before it had any “Wow” features. Now, with its gleaming new facade, Omaha’s poised to spark postcard worthy images in people’s minds. What is Omaha? What do we project to the world? The answers all converge on the riverfront. That’s where Omaha began and that’s where its makeover is unfolding. The monumental, sculptural pedestrian bridge may be the coup de grace. Interestingly, the film explains how much of what’s taking place was envisioned by planners 30 years ago. It’s all come together, in piecemeal fashion, to make the water’s edge development Omaha’s new signature and face.

So, what does it say about us? It speaks to Omahans’ desire to forge ahead and be counted as a premier Midwest city. No mention’s made of Hal Daub, the former mayor whose assertive energy drove Omaha, kicking and screaming, into the big time. He gave Omaha attitude. The film suggests this bold new city is here to stay.

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