It’s been nearly a year since I first traveled overseas. While there, I worked with refugees near the Syrian border. The intervening year has brought plenty of surprises (both fortunate and not so fortunate), and, as sad as I am to admit it, after so many months of the humdrum repetition of daily life I often forgot some of the things I learned there about what love really means.
For World Refugee Day I want to remind myself and others of a situation that we often, whether consciously or unconsciously, drive to the background of our lives. I also want to remember those that touched my life in that hot July, who continue to live, work, and dream as I write this.
One of the greatest problems I run into when people talk about the refugee crisis is that we fall into “statistic speak.” Treating those affected by it like some homogeneous set of numbers, we toss around the awfulness of something like ‘7 million displaced people’ with a disturbing lightness of mood, following it with little more than a shaking head and a canned comment indicating a casual remorse. The sheer magnitude of independent lives affected should crush us. Instead, we respond with a unilateral and simplified “pity” toward ambiguous suffering. In my own experience, the suffering is overwhelmingly individual. While others may just recall numbers and news clips, I remember faces and names.
I met mothers who’ve suffered losses I can’t imagine, I met fathers who exhibited constant love for their children, I met young men close to my age trying to make the best out of a horrible situation, and I met children who, despite all the pain they suffered or violence they survived, laughed, played, and made this silly American’s first classroom an extraordinary (and often exasperating) place to work in.
And, in thinking about them all over again, I wept.
At the most basic level, the lives of those I met were incredibly familiar to me. They shared many of the same basic desires, hopes, and flaws that populate my own hometown. In the midst of enormous divides, I was reminded that at the core of every man, woman, and child is a universal nature that I often neglect to notice among my own neighbors. Each one embodied an enormous soul of humanity, warts and all.
They don’t need our pity, they need our understanding. I believe any one can tell you that a romance can’t get much further than infatuation without mutual understanding. There are similar rules for the higher, more selfless forms of love; to love others more effectively, we must earnestly seek to understand them.
You may or may not have a refugee population in your own city, but you can take a few minutes to learn about them no matter where you are. You can watch a few videos on Youtube, watch a film on Netflix or Amazon (I can recommend a few, including 50 Feet From Syria, The White Helmets, and The Return to Homs to understand the Syria crisis in paticular) or read some quick articles on not only the problems but the creative, inspiring solutions nonprofits and businesses around the world are coming up with.
Today, even as media coverage of the refugee crisis continues to play second fiddle (if not third or fourth) to the American political circus, it doesn’t look like it’s stopping anytime soon. As Syrians, Rohingya, Yemeni, South Sudanese, and many other groups continue to seek safety from prolonged, devastating conflicts, we must remember that we have a humanitarian duty (especially those among us who claim to be Christians) to love those suffering around the world for no other reason than they are human beings like us, images of awesome divinity and elemental mortality. Whatever you can do, whether it’s praying, sharing, learning, or giving, I challenge you to show some love toward refugees today.
To close, I want to encourage you with a quote from the Prayer of St. Francis (which may or may not have actually been written by him) in which the author cries to God:
“-grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”
Love comes first. Remember that.
If you can afford it, consider giving a one-time gift (or even better, become a regular donor) to one of the following charities helping to build back lives both here in the states and abroad:
World Relief: https://www.worldrelief.org/give
Preemptive Love: https://preemptivelove.org/donate/
World Vision: https://www.worldvision.org/donate
“He executes justice for the orphan and the widow and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” -Deuteronomy 10:18-19
You Should Have Watched . . .
- A Perpetual Procrastinator’s Guide to What You Might Have Missed
The Square (2013)
The Square (not to be confused with the 2017 film of the same name) is a model of what a great documentary should look like, bringing a problem that seems distant and foreign into intimate focus. Centering on the planning and aftermath of the famous 2011 Egyptian revolution (a series of peaceful demonstrations revolving around an enormous protest in Tahrir Square). Considered to be the primary reason for President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, the demonstrations set off a series of events that resulted in chaos overwhelming Egypt and despotism returning in different forms. This film traces the inspiring and heartbreaking journey of Egyptian activists, who, after achieving arguably the greatest victory for a peaceful revolution in recent memory, face lingering sectarian and religious divisions within their own ranks as they watch their democracy suffer again (and again, and again).
As a character-focused piece, the film presents the viewer with several figures of the movement, representing different sub-groups and roles. From the young, fiery Muslim activist Ahmed Hassan to the British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla (known for his roles in The Kite Runner and the recent adaptation of Assassin’s Creed), the revolutionaries challenge our preconceptions.
One character, whose presence elevates the film’s message through the sheer complexity of his situation, is that of Muslim Brotherhood member Magdy Ashour. Walking alongside liberals, conservatives, Christians, and Muslims as a part of the greater movement, Ashour reminds us that behind the curtain of a particular ideology lie real human beings, with family and friends. The violence or abuse of authority perpetrated by a group, no matter how despicable, does not nullify the humanity of its members.
His struggle to handle the sometimes opposite pulls from his two allegiances creates some uncomfortable scenes of tension that, no matter your orientation, makes you feel for his predicament. Ashour, while I don’t want to give away spoilers (although, if you’ve googled his name, you already know what I’m talking about), is the film’s tragic figure, perpetually trapped between powerful forces of tyranny, religious and political. In today’s increasingly toxic and divided socio-political climate in the US, his story is timely.
That being said, the film’s oversight of the Muslim Brotherhood’s terrorist and terrorist-affiliated actions is irresponsible, giving viewers a simplified and sanitized picture instead of the complicated and often grotesque reality.
You Should Have Listened . . .
- A Look Back at The Overlooked
Land of the Living (2012)
Nashville-based artist Matthew Perryman Jones is anything but a household name. His music, however, marked by a distinctive, atmospheric folk rock-style has earned him a devoted following (of which I unashamedly identify as). His recent albums have utilized crowdfunding methods to great effect. By cutting out the “middle-man” Jones creates just the kind of music he wants to make, not having to yield to the needs of “the market” or the wiles of mainstream record producers.
The result of his first big crowdfunding effort was his 2012 album The Land of The Living. I purchased my own copy about three or four years ago, but I recently rediscovered it. It’s an album that is incredibly rich in both its poetic lyrics and its audio. One main influence for the album is the correspondence of Vicent Van Gogh with his brother Theo Van Gogh, which, if you listen to any of Jones’ music, is perfect source material for his songwriting and musical style. Jones took the title of the album from one of these letters, and one of the songs is even titled, “Dear Theo.”
Some could accuse Jones’ of being a bit repetitive, and, in a sense, they would be right. Jones has a signature style, which he pulls off very well. However, I believe that Land of the Living showcases a greater variety of sounds that his other albums. This diversity of sounds appears in the first four tracks, slipping from the idyllic, melancholic folk “Stones From The Riverbed” into two thumping, clattering rock-inspired meditations in “Poisoning the Well” and “I Won’t Let You Down Again,” until finally transitioning into the lofty orchestral ode of “O Theo.”
If you haven’t listened to Matthew Perryman Jones, give this album a listen on wherever you stream your music, and, after you’re done, consider supporting Jones’ next album at PledgeMusic. Since he’s already raised over 100% of his original goal, 10% of the money you pledge will go to blood:water mission, which partners with groups and individuals throughout Africa to empower communities to tackle both water/sanitation problems and the HIV/AIDS crisis. The other 90% will go to make sure that Jones create what will hopefully turn out to be another great album.
Did you spend last Friday spending four hours scouring through Netflix, constantly pressing through a swarm of films that could either be masterpieces or a load of ‘meh’? Do you want to find something unique to watch with the artsy, socially conscious friend you’ve invited over for a movie night? Do you want to expand your palate of films beyond superhero movies and Office episodes you’ve watched at least three times already? Do you want to spend some time immersed in another culture without having to leave your living room?
International films on Netflix can be an especially difficult place to navigate, as much of the library consists of inaccessible arthouse fare that won some awards but virtually no audience or crummy action films that smash together the slapstick of the Three Stooges with action setpieces that would make Jason Bourne’s head spin.
I’ve put together a short list of three films if you’re considering a break from the normal movie night and want to wander (without too much culture shock, cinematically or otherwise) into some distant or not-so-distant lands. These are just appetizers before developing a taste for international film genres, so they’re not necessarily the “best” international films on Netflix, just some of the ones I find the most accessible to newbies of international cinema.
Indian movies bring a lot to mind. Absurd dance routines, crazy car chases, slapstick humor, and mustachioed embodiments of machismo to name a few. Thoughtful dramedy about India/Pakistan relations is definitely not one. Filmistaan, an Indian film originally screened at the Busan International Film Festival, did not receive its nationwide release in India until 2014. It’s a shame this film doesn’t get more recognition, treading a very thin line between embracing the ridiculousness of the cinematic legacy of India it draws from (the main character is a Bollywood fanatic and aspiring actor) and the harsh realities of the tensions at the border between India and Pakistan.
The film’s initial premise serves as a kind of foil to the corny Bollywood-style narratives most people associate India with. Opening on Suneet, or “Sunny,” a perpetually out-of-work actor, struggling through several auditions with a less-than-mediocre talent to balance out his delusional dreams. Eventually, however, Sunny does get a role in a film, only this time he’s the assistant director, and he’s working for an American film crew looking to film at the dangerous border between India and Pakistan.
Next thing you know, hapless Sunny, a Pujabi Hindu, gets captured by Islamic militants, who trap him in a crudely constructed jail cell in a small village on the border in the hopes of retrieving some information on the Americans he worked for or a hostage trade. Unfortunately for them, the villagers around him partake in the highly illegal trade of foreign films, peddled by the very owner of the house Sunny’s confined in. Sunny’s knowledge of film endears him to the population, and before long, the Indian makes fast friends with a large group of Pakistani film enthusiasts.
I don’t want to give too much away beyond that, but leaves the viewer both educated and inspired by the efforts of Sunny to connect with his captors. Sunny encourages the isolated villagers to dream, empowering them with the timeless gift of storytelling. Filmistaan portrays film as a natural bridge between disparate peoples, with romance, humor, and music as unifiers in a very divided world. For the makers of Filmistaan, real change may not be in the hands of politicians and policymakers, but in the artists around the world who focus less the borders between us and more on sharing the stories inside us.
2. Sing Street
You may not know the name John Carney, but his work on the breakout hit Once, which, recently adapted into a Broadway musical of the same name, rocketed him to indie filmmaker fame back in 2007. The film featured the hit folk song, “Falling Slowly,” written by its star, Glen Hansard. The song went on to win 2007 Academy Award for Original Song and some cover version probably plays frequently at your local coffee shop. An Irish filmmaker facing sudden success, Carney leveraged his breakout hit for a deal with producer Judd Apatow to direct an $8,000,000 American musical (while still a modest budget, this number marks a significant upgrade to the $150,000 price tag of Once). Starring Mark Ruffalo and Kiera Knightley the film, the film, titled Begin Again, should have been Carney’s coming-out party to mainstream American filmgoers. Instead, while it did earn a very good return on investment, the transition to Hollywood filmmaker resulted in a loss of the musical magic that Carney composed in 2007. His next film, Sing Street returns to his Irish roots, casting mostly unknown actors in the main roles, cutting the budget of his previous film in half. Emulating a lo-fi musical setup backed up by fantastic talent rather than brutalized with over-production, Sing Street is a return to form for the director, speaking to the crazy dreamer in all of us through a great script and even better music.
Centering on the journey of teen Conor Lawlor, who goes from awkward outcast to promising rock musician in a little under two hours, the film takes place in 80s Dublin. After meeting the aloof wannabe model Raphina (played by Lucy Boynton) and falling head over heels for the mysterious delinquent, Conor does the only sensible thing to impress the girl of his dreams: start a band. By sheer luck or curious providence, the hodgepodge gang of amateur musicians under the leadership of Conor and rabbit-loving musical prodigy Eamon (hilariously portrayed by Mark McKenna) manages to make some great music. Carney, who put together a team of excellent musicians and songwriters to compose the teen rock anthems, leaves viewers with rhythms that I guarantee will replay in your head for days, even if you don’t listen to the original soundtrack on Spotify on repeat, which you will be tempted to do. Although not an indie film per se (it was distributed by the Weinstein Company and Lionsgate), Carney strips away much of the over-production that plagued Begin Again and crafts a stripped-down experience that celebrates the raw, whimsical nature of youth, creativity, and the dreamer in all of us. I’ve seen it two times with small groups of friends and after each viewing, the entire room erupted with the echo of ludicrous hope, “WE SHOULD START A BAND!” After watching Sing Street, you’ll probably say this too.
Out of all of these films, Theeb is the least accessible, with more than a few sections that linger a little too long on unimportant details and desolate vistas. However, I would recommend people to watch this film because of how it successfully captures the spirit of classic minimalist Hollywood adventures like The African Queen or True Grit and transplants it to the Arabian desert. Directed by British-Jordanian filmmaker Naji Abu Nowar, the film represents a magnificent step forward for Middle-Eastern cinema. Gritty and intense, the film pits the titular young Theeb (a Bedouin orphan played by Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) against both the elements and the raiders that patrol the World War I era wilderness of Wadi-Rum (a dry valley in Jordan more often referred to by westerners as The Valley of The Moon). With very little dialogue in English (and very little dialogue in any language) the film relies on its visual and auditory intensity to ratchet up the tension. The cinematography is top-notch for a Middle-Eastern production and so is the sound design. The terrifyingly beautiful landscape of the Arabian desert pops out in glorious color and depth.
The script is bare and simple, requiring solid acting from every cast-member involved to sell the rising tension. The story is similarly simple and raw, requiring images to carry on the plot instead of running on words. Like many of the Hollywood adventure films whose influence permeates through this film, the atmosphere occasionally obscures the story on several occasions (one of my few criticisms of the film) preventing the viewer from developing an emotional connection to the pre-pubescent protagonist. As the first Jordanian film nominated for an Academy Award, Theeb is not only a fantastic old-school wilderness adventure but a gateway film into the increasingly important and totally unique artistic landscape of Middle-Eastern film.
Last year’s Stranger Things was the breakout TV hit of the year. A huge win for Netflix, which, while cranking out some excellent original series for a few years, never quite made the same mainstream splash that they hungered for. While shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black were critical darlings, they were still niche dramas, limited in viewership by both the subject material and mature content (most of Netflix’s original content aimed for a TV-MA rating to compete with adult drama cable behemoth HBO). Stranger Things meanwhile, is much easier to distribute to the widest possible audience (and watch in the living room before the kids’ bedtime).
However, what Stranger Things did not do was sacrifice compelling storytelling. The power of Stranger Things was not in the particular market value of a TV-14 show on a network who couldn’t seem to bridge the divide between populist comedies (ala Fuller House) and gritty, adult-themed dramas (ala almost all of the “well-received” bunch of Netflix’s live-action repertoire), but rested in the superb storytelling efforts of the Duffer Brothers to bring the 80s back onto our TV screens in glorious HD, exchanging the VCR player for the world-wide-web. The entire first season pulled off the glorious intermingling exhilaration of fear and discovery that permeated much of 80s sci-fi, including Spielberg classics like ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Goonies (which, while not directed by Spielberg, was partially written by him and showcases his unique storytelling flare). Stranger Things, emulating these classics, embodied some of the best classic Hollywood escapist storytelling I’ve seen in a long time, leaving you at various times clinging to the edge of your seat or uncontrollably giggling in youthful anticipation at how the heroes we grow to love will respond to the next move of the villains we’re conditioned to hate.
When it was announced that Stranger Things’ second season was announced (officially titled Stranger Things 2) I knew one thing for certain. It could never outdo the first season. Not because it couldn’t be a better season, but it couldn’t take what the first season did successfully and improve on it.
Luckily, Stranger Things 2 did exactly what great sequels do. Instead of improving on the first installment, it just changed the formula a little. Instead of making the scares better, they made them bigger. Instead of reuniting all of the “Party” at the beginning, this season divides it before bringing the whole gang back together for the season’s climax. The change reminds me of how different 80s classic Alien (referenced in the first season) and its sequel Aliens. Instead of reinventing the successes of the former, the successor expanded the scope, escaping the trap of drawing too many comparisons. This shift in structure has mostly successful results, with a few missteps. One is an almost-great stand-alone episode that ends up wasting the talent of its two leads and a subplot that would feel like a dead-end were it not for the ratcheting up of romantic tension for two characters.
Once again, one of the greatest strengths of the series lay in its performances. Millie Bobby Brown is predictably excellent, with her tense exchanges with David Harbour’s Hopper particularly thrilling examples of her ability to balance the rage and vulnerability that made her such a thrilling performer in the first installment. However, the breakout performer of the sequel is Noah Schnapp playing a tortured Will Byers, who, after spending most of the first season absent from view, gets his just reward in a much meatier role. I don’t want to give too much away, but Schnapp manages to convincingly portray a boy split between two worlds, between light and darkness.
The rest of the cast manages to bring back the characters we loved with appropriate gusto, but also convey believable growth in their personalities. All of the original party would have their hands full dealing with the dramatic onset of puberty even if it weren’t a year after a nearly universe-shattering event and most of them play these little transformations very well. One sad exception is that of Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike, although this deficiency is more the fault of the scriptwriters than the actor. Struggling to retain his authority in “The Party” Mike spends most of the season acting like an angry brat, although the character does eventually get some redemption in the latter half of the season.
The new additions are all welcome, albeit not all well-executed. Billy and Max, who play the “new kids in town” do provide some great material and new conflicts, but they are still more like pretty cardboard cutouts than people. Max is by far the stronger character, although Dacre Montgomery hams it up successfully as a kind of proto-Steve Herrington with serious anger issues, giving us a human antagonist, although in his case, not a well-rounded one.
That being said, speaking of Steve, Joe Keery returns with his gravity-defying hairstyle and infectious smirk, continuing his personal journey from the sometimes insufferable hard-partying persona of the first season to a relatable high school senior struggling to find his place in the world. His unlikely bonding with Dustin (played excellently by Gaten Matarazzo) during several later episodes providing a great example of the character’s dramatic growth.
The other, more technical elements of production are also excellent, although the original score does leave something to be desired after the excellent original music from the first one. The directors brought in for this season also did a bang-up job on helping create a tone, that while consistent with the first season, quickly takes us to new territory emotionally and thematically, forcing us to think about familiar characters in different ways. We even get two excellent episodes directed by none other than Pixar alum Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo). Overdone CG of the upside down (the result of the increased budget of this season) can become tiring and disconcerting (and not in a good way) after a while, especially in the first few episodes.
To conclude, Stranger Things 2 provides a satisfying return to Hawkins, Indiana. I’m honestly divided on whether I consider the first season better or not. They say you can’t fall in love with the same girl twice, and I think that’s true of TV shows too. The thrill of discovery does fade, but just like good relationship partners, Stranger Things isn’t too worried about recreating the first few dates in an effort to recover the distant magic of new love. Instead, it encourages us to fall deeper in love, enveloping us into a world that is bigger and scarier, while also being more hopeful, as greater threats help inspire greater heroes.
At the beginning of this semester (oh, crap! Adult life doesn’t happen in semesters!). Scratch that, at the beginning of this past season (or is it phase? section? chapter?), nevermind, at the end of the summer, my life faced a little implosion. Fresh off the plane in America after taking a big risk by serving overseas, my plans were upended by financial and spiritual struggle. Plans that were once set in stone now splintered like wood under an ax. My career aspirations split into several camps, like warring tribes of ideals in my own head (not exactly what you’d like to hear from a recent college graduate that, after showing up back at home, should have some inkling of a career path). All the things I “should” have had: the internship hours, the work experience, and the extracurriculars that lead right to that modern fantasy of the ideal “adult life.” College felt like an incubator, protecting me with a shell of security as I soldiered on toward receiving that golden ticket of a diploma. Instead, I came out a soft, sickly yellow egg, only half-baked, dragging with me an extraordinarily expensive piece of paper. Unfortunately, there is no reentering after exiting the birth canal of graduation. Life has officially started.
Yet I still cling tightly to the inside of my egg, still surrounded by the protective reality created by undergraduate attitudes. I try to ignore the cracks that form in the shell that protected me from the barbs of real-life as the demands of a world that, despite all the “preparation” I was supposedly getting, served to help me rest inside my yolk., suckling on the last remains of that membrane we like to call “liberal arts.”
Yet I wouldn’t trade it away for anything. I wouldn’t be the same person without college, not because of the utility of it, but the more intangible abilities involved in developing connections with people irrespective of their value in setting me on the path toward a specific career or attaining financial stability. It helped shape who I am and challenged me to think outside of the boxes I had created for myself (all whilst remaining ironically inside of a box).
As a slightly non-traditional student, I spent the first two years embedded in academic work, quietly hidden behind a computer screen as I tried to obtain that mythic 4.0. The fact that I was able to finish the last couple seasons of The Office during finals week should not be counted as academic brilliance, but a severe case of social stasis. College posed a two-fold problem to me, indicative of the nature of the two different institutions I attended. I dove straight into academics at my junior college, and upon arriving at university, discovered how small my world had become. For me, this lack of patience and fearlessness ended with me, at the beginning of my Junior year, “starting over” just in time for my college experience to almost be over. Those last two years embodied the paradoxical experience that liberal arts college represents. While supposedly preparing me for a “career” through a generalized set of skills, I sacrificed the ideal “work-experiences” that cast a shadow over nearly any job applications. While establishing relationships with students and faculty, I missed out on other forms of “networking” (a term which retains an inherent ickiness for me) with a specific career field. My extracurriculars, with a mind toward “expanding” myself, have actually served to limit the kinds of opportunities I can apply to. That dissonance between my academics and my personal endeavors seem only to confuse people looking for candidates they can snugly fit into a pre-fabricated position.
College reminds me of a great book, that despite all the praise and adoration showered on it, cannot be dissected effectively. It cannot be balanced with sets of weights. It cannot be added to an equation or judged by a set of statistics. As soon as you try to grasp at an absolute value, it slips through your fingers again. All the while it sinks a little farther into memory, evermore unclear in its purpose. College is a time for transformation and can be a catalyst for enormous growth. Unfortunately, I never gave myself to time to discover how to put that transformation to work. Sometimes, the pain of solace (which, while effective to encourage me to write and share pieces like this, pierces deeper than a knife), makes it hard to remember any detail about my undergraduate experience that changed me. In these times of forgetfulness, I feel the weight of its shadow, which, unclear and foggy, constitutes a more oppressing substance in its absence.
Sometimes, I simply want to run after some wayward and simple dreams, irrespective of the training I received. To learn to be a carpenter in New England, a miner in West Virginia, a deep-sea fisherman across the Atlantic, or a cow-herder in some far-off country. One of my favorite songs, by the band The Head and the Heart starts with a simple line, “I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade/ Riding along railcars and working long days.” College’s greatest burden is the weight of ambition. Often, more than anything, I wish I could be freed from that expectation of success. The reminders about my “potential,” although intended as thoughtful and true statements of my ability to grow, now elicit soft pangs with every memory. Why must I be so filled with the need to find purpose and the spectre of “potential”, when all I really need right now is a job?
Today, though, there remains hope that someday it will be worth it. One thing college teaches you is that a moment is just that, a moment, and we are not defined by one day or one season. Mistakes are not death sentences and life does indeed go on. A season of struggle does not decide your direction, and in the midst greatest times of conflict and uncertainty, the seeds of success are being sown. Facing rejection and regret can be steps toward a brighter future. Returning to my egg metaphor, that shell, which, dim and discolored as it appears, may be the key to that future. The very unpreparedness I resent could enable me to see the world through different lenses, not limited to one path toward fulfillment. Life is short, but it’s also wide. Possibilities still lie on the horizon, and it might take some time to find my path again. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t appreciate the journey, with all of its peaks and pits. Like all great stories, something’s bound to go wrong. All I can do is get to work writing the next chapter.