Meditations on Meditations: Contentment (10.1)

O soul of mine, will you never be good and sincere, all one, all open, visible to the beholder more clearly than even your encompassing body of flesh?

Will you never taste the sweetness of a loving and affectionate heart? Will you never be filled full and unwanting; craving nothing, yearning for no creature or thing to minister to your pleasures, no prolongation of days to enjoy them, no place or country or pleasant clime or sweet human company?

When will you be content with your present state, happy in all about you, persuaded that all is and shall be well with you, so long as it is their good pleasure and ordained by them for the safety and welfare of that perfect living Whole – so good, so just, so beautiful – which gives life to all things, upholding and enfolding them, and at their dissolution gathering them into Itself so that yet others of their kind may spring forth?

Will you never be fit for such fellowship with the gods and men as to have no syllable of complaint against them, and no syllable of reproach from them?

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10:1

Read in front of a raging fire on a frozen starry night in the Tomsleibhe bothy on the Isle of Mull, Scotland. With grateful thanks to the Mountain Bothies Association.

The School Bus Project, Calais

One of the beautiful things about this bike ride is that we can connect places to places and people to people. In Whitstable we spoke to Shernaz, an active organiser of support going from that part of the world to Calais and beyond. She told us that, while in Calais, we must visit Kate McAllister, who works on an educational project there. So two days of cycling later, that’s exactly what we did.
Continue reading The School Bus Project, Calais

Refugee Crisis: Which Side Are You On?

Last week, I visited the Slovenian-Austrian border. What I saw there shook my perception of the “migrant crisis”.

What I saw resembled nothing less than the black and white photographs we’re so familiar with from World War II: lines and lines of patient refugees, holding nothing more than a bag and the hands of their children. Except this isn’t in black and white. This is happening now.

I shot this short video to try to capture the severity of the conflict in Syria and Iraq right now, and to inspire people to realise that this isn’t something that they can ignore for ever.

The conflict in the Middle East is only escalating, displacing more and more people. 200,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq entered Greece in October alone. David Cameron has said the UK will accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years. That is the same number that is arriving in Austria every five days.

For all of us, history is being written in this very moment. The question is: Which side are you on?

Very Short Film: “The Wind is Free” – Calais June 2015

This very short film shows the basic living conditions of the migrants in the windswept “jungle” of Calais. Currently over 3000 migrants are surviving on one meal per day, in self-made shelters that vary from the miserably basic to the downright ingenious.

Filmed 21 June 2015.

Dean Puckett & Sengwer: Conservation vs Communities

This is the twenty-fifth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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Dean Puckett is a film-maker from the UK. His films Crisis of Civilisation (based on the book by Nafeez Ahmed) and Grasp the Nettle are Elevate favourites; you can see his promo stickers all over Forum Stadtpark and in the most unexpected of public toilets.

He is currently working on two documentary films, one set amid house demolitions in the Kenyan mountain jungle and another set in a volunteer-run radio station in Totnes, Devon. They might sound very different, but they are bound together by Dean’s driving fascination: communities. “I’m fascinated by how human beings function in small communities,” Dean says. “It’s kind of anthropological,” he adds. “People open up to me. I remember, as a kid, people would just come up to my mum at the bus stop and open up to her. I’ve inherited that.”

I ask Dean how he sees his work in the context of Antonino D’Ambrosio’s concept of creative-response. “Any art is creative-response,” Dean says. “It doesn’t have to be political, but with the Sengwer, there’s a fundamental injustice that I’ve been attracted to.” The Sengwer are a Kenyan tribe whose ancestral lands have been demarcated as national park by the Kenyan government, in a programme funded by the World Bank. Dean is filming the resistance to what has become a brutal campaign to evict the Sengwer from their homes.

Sengwer man

Grasp the Nettle (embedded at the bottom of the page) is another politically-charged film, about an environmental activist community in London. Dean lived and worked alongside the activists as they occupied a stretch of waste ground in Kew and followed them to a three month occupation of Parliament Square. There is one key difference between the Kew occupiers and the Sengwer in Kenya, however. While those at Kew chose their struggle, the Sengwer have had their direct action forced upon them; their houses are being burnt to the ground.

What draws Dean to make these kind of activist films? “I do get addicted to those kind of things. I’ve always felt like a total outsider myself,” he says. “It’s like a force of nature,” he adds. “I’m not thinking, I want to be a film-maker, I just feel utterly compelled to make these films.” The fact that film is the medium through which he tells these stories appears to be entirely coincidental. “I always wanted to be creative,” he says. “My career as a film-maker has risen hand-in-hand with the tools of my generation: digital cameras, YouTube. It was just the thing that I got into.”

Dean is keen to stress that his films aren’t “black-and-white” campaign films. “There’s quite a lot of humour in my work,” he says. “I’m attracted to the absurd, even with the Sengwer.” Despite the ongoing destruction of their way of life by the Kenyan Forest Service (KFS), Dean does not want to gloss the Sengwer as the one-dimensional miserable victims you often see portrayed in emotional campaign films.

Embobut Forest

“There’s a gallows humour there too,” Dean says. “One minute they’re talking about getting arrested and their house getting burnt down and the next minute they’re joking about their co-wife.” It’s these contrasting moments that capture reality in full colour. “Nothing’s black and white,” Dean says. “There’s often humour side-by-side with tragedy.” He doesn’t want to ignore those elements of life, which would limit the scope of his films. “You can either do a campaign film about the Sengwer,” he says, “or you can do a film about the life of the Sengwer.”

I appreciate his nuance. I feel betrayed when I see a one-sided film that doesn’t concede areas of grey; it makes me distrust the premise, no matter how well-intentioned. “I think that’s my strength as a film-maker,” Dean says. “I embed myself in the community and allow the grey areas to come out.”

It’s exactly the same approach he took with Grasp the Nettle, which shows every aspect of activist life, from the everyday struggles of cooking and cleaning to the more extraordinary struggles with accidental arson and a self-proclaimed messiah. “It’s about what it’s really like to live in an activist camp,” Dean says. “I do agree with the anti-war message, but I didn’t want to make a campaign film.”

Dean feels the same about his work with the Sengwer. He does believe that his film can make a difference – he has recently been contacted by officials from the World Bank and believes that pressure can be brought to bear on them – but that isn’t the limit of his scope. He wants to show us the Sengwer’s way of life in all its richness and complexity. “What some NGO films do is give you a warped view of Africa,” he says. “I understand it’s sometimes appropriate, but if you’re going to make a film about a community, then people should find out how they really are.”

Sengwer man and boy

Dean remembers shooting one beautiful scene of a group of women sitting around in a hut, chatting. When his interpreter translated the conversation later, he discovered they’d been talking about how they thought Dean should give them money for the filming, while another person off-camera berated them for such an idea. “The world on the one hand is a dark place,” Dean says, “and these funny moments can really bring things down to earth.” He quickly adds that this kind of cynical conversation was a rarity. “The Sengwer are a wonderful, warm people,” he says. “It’s surreal,” he adds. “You’re in this misty forest, up on a mountain, and people are having their homes burnt down, but you’re enjoying being around these warm people.”

Dean found the same thing when he went to support around four hundred travellers who were to be evicted by riot cops from Dale Farm in Essex. “On the one hand, they’re about to have their homes destroyed,” he says, “but on the other hand they’re cracking jokes.” This is another common thread to Dean’s films: communities under siege. Grasp the Nettle was a film about a community under siege by police, by the government and, eventually, by themselves as well. “It’s about the human spirit,” Dean says, “to laugh even when the worst things are happening.”

Dean’s words remind me of a fundamental flaw in the capitalistic ideology of more, more, more: we humans have only a limited range of feeling. While more might be more for capital, more isn’t more for us. You can always add five pounds to the bank balance of a billionaire, but you can never add five “pleasure points” to the happiness balance of a boy bouncing around on a trampoline. The human scales of happiness, pain, pleasure, fear, suffering, love and joy are finite.

This explains why you can neither measure nor compare the joy of staring into the eyes of your newborn baby niece with the joy of sharing a lingering kiss with a lover or a gasp of fresh air after being sucked under by an ocean wave. It also explains the absolutism of our emotions; how, whenever the worst thing imaginable happens, it feels no worse than it did when you got fired from a job you loved, when your teenage crush ditched you or when you lost your favourite blankie as a kid. Prisoners on death row are as happy as lottery winners.

Understanding the finite nature of our emotions explains otherwise difficult questions: How can disabled people be happy? How come billionaires get depression? How could I ever come to terms with the death of my grandmother? The answer is simply because there is no profit and loss account of emotions, there is no capitalism-style more, more, more.

The moral consequence of this realisation is not that we should leave the Sengwer – or anyone else – to find the light moments in the darkness of their suffering. The daily hardships of their persecution has a chronic damaging effect on their happiness that no one deserves.

Dean illustrates this with a story about two Sengwer women he met, who had just been released after being arrested by the Kenyan Forest Service. To escape, the women had to tell the KFS that they didn’t live on the land, but were just passing through. As they were “just passing through”, the KFS decided that the women wouldn’t need the bags of flour that they had carried all the way over the mountain. They slit the bags with knives and poured the flour out onto the floor. The two women passed the incident off with a laugh, but faced the prospect of a night away from home and a week without flour.

Sengwer woman

No. The moral consequence of the finite nature of our emotions is that we should support each other, not in our pursuit of more, more, more, but in our pursuit of enough. The Sengwer are having their enough, their homes, their livelihoods, taken away from them by people who are pursuing more, more, more. The same is true, on a broader scale, across the entire continent of Africa, where western corporations extract natural resources for profits that rarely return to their country of origin.

The question we need to ask ourselves is why do we subject ourselves to capitalism’s addiction for more, more, more, when we humans fundamentally can’t process more, more, more? We have nothing to gain in going after more precious metals or more money or more slaves; we have enough. Ultimately, happiness is not gold, frankincense and more, but a blood red sunset, a dive into a cold river or an apple straight from the tree. We have no more need of more; happiness is enough and there is enough enough for all on earth.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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(Yes, that is the same Simon in Grasp the Nettle who inspired me to write about why we need people who go on crazy, stupid and arduous adventures!)

All photographs © Dean Puckett, taken from the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for his film Sengwer.

Let Fury Have the Hour: Antonino D’Ambrosio

This is the fourteenth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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“Let fury have the hour
Anger can be power
Do you know that you can use it?”
– The Clampdown by The Clash

Let Fury Have the Hour by Antonino D’Ambrosio is a documentary that follows a whole generation of artists and activists, from rappers and punks to comedians and lawyers, who use their creativity to respond to reactionary politics. That’s the bare synopsis, anyway. In visceral experience, it’s a ballistic assault on the mind, shot through with adrenaline, that will dynamite any resistance to participation and creativity. You will be split between running out of the cinema screaming and melting yourself down into your seat for the next screening.

The documentary took seven years to make and Antonino filmed seventy-five conversations with artists, fifty of which made it into the final cut. “The original idea was to have a hundred voices,” he says, “to really push the boundaries of film-making.” Some of his intended interlocutors disappeared or went into exile, like Chinese artivist Ai Weiwei. “This inspired me more to make the movie, as a testament to them,” he says. “I’d like to dedicate the film to Ai Weiwei and to the city of Graz.”

The lights dim and we hold onto our seats.

An hour and a blood-pumping half later, we emerge, sweating. “The movie is not finished,” Antonino says, “with each screening it continues to be made with the audience.” So here are some of our questions and comments, along with my attempts to capture Antonino’s responses.

Was it difficult to get these artists involved?

No one said no to me. The artists never usually get a chance to speak like this, but these were just discussions that I would have with anyone. It was a discussion about how they see the world, how the essence of what they do is based on connecting. I wasn’t from that generation; I only discovered The Clash in 1983, when I was twelve. I think they really appreciated that I wasn’t quite of their time period.

What about the music?

There are forty-five pieces of music in the film, including fifteen original tracks. There were originally sixty pieces, including an entire album by Thievery Corporation. When I make a film, I switch off the visuals and, if I can follow the story just in the soundtrack, then I know I’m onto something.

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How can we distinguish creative-response from a potentially harmful ideology?

Ideologies are reactionary, they want to hold onto power. Creative-response is anti-ideological because creative-response is openness to ideas. Be flexible and fluid. Your idea might be a good starting point, but always keep bringing in new ideas.

Once, Nazi officers came into Picasso’s apartment in Paris and saw a photograph of Guernica, Picasso’s depiction of the Nazi strategic bombing of civilians in Spain. The officer remarked, “This painting, did you do this?” “No,” Picasso replied. “You did.”

Aha.

The film ends before electronic music starts. Can electronic music be creative-response, or is it too abstract to be political?

When I’m creating, I don’t distinguish between genres. And, quite frankly, when you make overtly political music, it’s often not very good. I love the remix, the re-imagination of electronic music. You can find inspiration anywhere if you keep your heart and your mind open.

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Creative-response can go in the opposite direction. Punk is used by the far right, for example.

In some ways, I wanted to reclaim punk, because it did fall into the hands of the far right a little bit. When you come from a position of hate, you’re doing terrorism. That’s not creative-response. What’s interesting about the interviews is that, not only did these punk people stand up to fascism then, but they still stand by their politics now.

Are you only preaching to the choir?

We, the choir, still need new songs to sing. Our time is here, it’s now. We have the ideas and they don’t. The way I look at it is, if I feel this way, then there must be someone else who feels that way.

How do we get the creativity to change the world?

Well, what do you think? We all have the talent to creatively respond. Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but always as a citizen of the world. Citizenship is repressed in the US; there is very low voter turnout. At the end of the day, that’s what citizens are doing; their creative-response is participation.

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What else do you do for a living?

I’m an author and a visual artist as well as a film-maker. I’m able to cobble the three things together and make a living. I’ve created a non-profit network called La Lutta, so it doesn’t cost me much to make these films. The budget of Let Fury Have the Hour should have been around a million dollars, but it didn’t cost that.
Artists support my work. I have some patrons. And every time I do something like this, it leads to something else that will help me grow as a person and as an artist.

What was the point when you realised you had to do something now?

I take my responsibilities seriously as a human being on this planet. So when I realised I had a talent for this storytelling, I kept doing it.

Creative-response for me is also looking after my daughter. My daughter is my greatest inspiration. She inspires me to be greater than myself – and that’s one idea of creative-response. There is an incredible demand to never give up. She was six years old when I was editing and people like Chuck D would come in and sing to her.

I think the impact of political bands is very small.

For me, art and culture doesn’t change anything. We have to change. These are just tools. I love The Clash and their songs about working class people – but it was still up to me to do something about it. Picasso painting Guernica didn’t stop war, but it stopped a fourteen year old boy growing up in Philadelphia from thinking that war was a viable solution. Twitter doesn’t change things, Rage Against the Machine doesn’t change things, we change things. Like Joe Strummer said: “Without people, we’re nothing”.

And what’s the measure of impact? I don’t think about quantity, but quality. We have to push each other, inspire each other, give each other strength. Everyone I’ve ever met who’s done something has done it because they’re afraid; they’re afraid that things aren’t going to change.

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Do you have a favourite medium of expression?

Human expression. All artists are writers in some way. But, in terms of medium, for me it’s writing. I can really engage intimately with what words mean. Everything I do is writing, including the visual.

What’s that great Van Jones quote in the film?

When he went to Yale, Van Jones’s father said to him: “The next time I see you, you’re going to be smarter than me. But I want you to know something. There are only two kinds of smart people in the world: there are smart people who take very simple things and make them very sound complicated to enrich themselves; and there are smart people who take very complicated things and make them sound simple to empower other people. Now: the next time I see you, I want you to be that kind of smart guy.”

Did you face a lot of criticism?

The right wing don’t give a shit. They have the power, this doesn’t threaten them.

Any final words?

The film is a starting point. Where can we go from here with creative-response? What kind of a world do you want to live in?

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Creative Response / Ability

This is the twelfth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

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What is Creative-Response?

“Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit

Strange Fruit (originally published as Bitter Fruit in 1937) was a poem written by Abel Meeropol in protest at the lynching of African Americans. Over the course of seventy years, from the late nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century, 4,733 people were recorded as killed by lynch mob. The mob’s preferred method of execution was by hanging from the branches of a tree: strange fruit indeed.

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Why am I telling you this? Because, as Antonino D’Ambrosio explains, the song is a great example of creative-response, this afternoon’s topic for discussion. Billie sings of the poplar trees, beautiful and vital in nature, now transformed into an instrument of death. “To use that as a metaphor, the strange fruit of people that are hanging and then rotting on the branch,” Antonino says, “is a creative-response.”

Antonino is a passionate advocate of the concept of creative-response, a term he coined to capture the impulse that makes an artist create art. Abel Meeropol read about the lynchings and was moved to write Bitter Fruit. In 1939, Billie Holiday heard Bitter Fruit and was moved to share those lyrics on a recording that, sixties years later, Time magazine named the song of the century.

For Antonino, the song is so successful as creative-response because Billie sings the song from her the bottom of her soul. “Creative-response is an embracing of our emotions and our passions and linking them with thoughts and ideas,” he says. “This resistance that we feel from the dominant culture is that you cannot express your emotions and that is somehow considered weakness – and, being Italian, I’m emotional first.”

Antonino sees all creative work as an integral part of the politics of society, whether the artist realises it or not. Creative-response is the conceptual framework that enables this realisation and allows artists “to think about what they’re doing, to frame their work in the context of a greater good and the community of solidarity”. Some art is more obviously a part of this community of solidarity than others, a protest song like Strange Fruit for example, but all art is, at root, a response to something and can therefore be placed in a wider political context.

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Indeed, creative-response sits at the very core of Elevate. “The festival is a combination of music and critical political discourse and art,” Elevate co-founder Daniel Erlacher says. “Not necessarily having the artists being politically outspoken on stage,” he explains, “but rather bringing topics and content together in a certain framework.”

Swivelling gently in his chair, Antonino agrees. “The Elevate Festival truly is a creative-response,” he says. That creative-response is even embodied in the history of Dom Im Berg, the mountain-heart of the festival. “A cave that was built by slaves to protect an occupying powerful military force, transformed into a place that brought all of us together from all around the world to engage in art, culture and connection is itself a creative-response,” Antonino says. “So that’s a very tangible example that many of you have already participated in.” I look around at the audience; we’re all doing creative-response without even knowing it.

Antonino D’Ambrosio grew up in Philadelphia during the Reagan years; not a politically auspicious start for the son of a immigrant bricklayer, you might think. “It was a great time of despair,” he says. “For people like my family, there just seemed to be no future, no place for us.” He pauses, drifting back to memories. “Then I discovered, all at the same time, punk rock, rap, graffiti and skateboarding.” As he transformed his city walls into canvasses and his side walks into skate parks, he realised that another world was indeed possible, where obstacles were opportunities.

These art forms, which operate in the free space between public and private, permitted and prohibited, embody what Antonino calls creative-response. “We transform our world by asking the questions that we’re told not to ask: What if? Why not?” Antonino says. “Creative-response is about not asking permission; it’s about embracing our imagination to see us connected as one people, that allows us to make everything possible.”

In times that are overtly political, the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the turmoil of 1970s and 1980s Reaganomics and Thatcherism, art seems to become more overtly political, with We Shall Overcome protest songs, Fight the Power rap and London Calling punk. Yet creative-response is nothing new, it has been “alive in us throughout history” according to Antonino. “Creative-response,” he says, “is embedded with compassion, our greatest human talent.” Public Enemy couldn’t have written Fight the Power without compassion for the suffering of others.

For Antonino, creative-response, embedded with compassion, is the opposite force to cynicism. “Over the last thirty years, cynicism has become a dominant force in our lives,” he says. “The United States has been a great proponent of cynicism, it has exported that as one of its cultural products.” For a country traditionally more famous for the wild optimism of “The American Dream”, this is a strange export indeed. So what changed in that thirty years?

According to Antonino, Reagan and Thatcher “transformed compassion into cynicism”, telling us that society doesn’t exist and that the individual is paramount. Their rhetoric of cynicism bled into our minds and changed the way we think about our roles in society; from “citizen” to “consumer”. “If you’re cynical, then you don’t participate,” Antonino says, “and, without participation, you don’t have society or democracy.” In this way, the rhetoric of cynicism becomes self-fulfilling.

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What does Creative-Response mean to You?

Ursula Rucker, a US spoken word artist, is the daughter of an Italian mother and a black father from the south. This “revolutionary union” made her political from birth. “Creative-response is really everything I do,” she says. “It’s why I’m sitting here, it’s why I don’t give up, it’s why I started in the first place.”

In her poetry, her music and her life, raising four black boys in America, she fights back against the apathetic belief that one person can’t do anything. “What can one person do?” she queries incredulously. “One person can do a lot!” For Ursula, we must always speak out, we must always give a creative-response. “If you never say anything,” she says, “then you’ll certainly never find out what one person can do, and you also won’t find out what one person in cooperation with other individuals can do.”

By making a creative-response, we break open a crack in the conversation and give others the opportunity to speak out for themselves. Fight the Power, a mere song, gave African Americans (and others) a voice and a coherent way of resisting the discrimination they face in the US (and beyond).

Ursula’s chosen track, Sound of da Police by KRS One, although twenty-one years old, reminds us of the very current events in Ferguson, Missouri, where African American Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer. Despite the tragedy, Ursula sees hope in the mass demonstrations since. “I am so excited about the response, the human response, from people about Ferguson,” she says. “I hope everybody is paying attention for how far we can take this if you’re brave and courageous and compassionate enough.”

For Deanna Rodger, a British spoken word artist, creative-response is “saying aloud the things that are on my mind, the things that frustrate me, that don’t make sense to me, that make me feel small, that quite frankly just piss me off”. She figures those things out on a piece of paper, constantly asking herself, Why am I feeling like this? How have I been conditioned? How can I challenge myself to recondition myself? For Deanna, creative-response is an exploration of the self and of society. “Laws, norms and values should constantly be scrutinised to see whether they still fit,” she says.

For Austrian electronic musician Chris Hessle, the response part of creative-response is not so obvious. “For me,” he explains, “it’s not always such a conscious response to an issue or something I read in the newspaper – but I guess it’s somehow in there. It takes some detours or takes some time until it becomes visible in maybe a completely different place.” Daniel Erlacher speculates that electronic and noise music is “working on a different level”: it’s not as explicit as other art forms, like hip hop or writing, where you can speak directly to your audience.

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Ksenia Ermoshina, a musician and activist from Russia, sees her homeland distancing itself from the international community of creative-responders. “What I’m seeing now is the Iron Curtain is closing again,” she says. “It’s closing Russia from other cultures, from respecting and seeing others as others, with their right to be other.” This brings back memories of the Soviet Russia that her parents knew. “My dad was engaged with the radio amateur community,” she remembers, “building radios, so he could get to Radio America and record Pink Floyd, Doors, Deep Purple and all this sixties music that was important for the generation of my parents.” This kind of cultural resistance was almost criminal in Soviet Russia, but it opened up the wider world of music to Ksenia and to her father’s friends.

But Ksenia became disappointed with the commodification of that world. “Even rock and jazz harmony became mainstream, incorporated into capitalism,” she says. “Jazz was a form of resistance, but now it is a product.” So she asks: “How can we create something that will not be an object of desire?” The answer is noise music.

By definition, “noise” is something that we don’t want to hear. “Noise is somehow a metaphor for all these marginal people,” Ksenia says with a smile. “We, here, who are not very pleasant guests in this society, we are kind of noise for global corporations.” She gesticulates at us with her pencil. “Let’s be noise, let’s become noisy and break into the frequencies of this culture – SZSH!” She’s replied with the static SZSH of applause.

At this point, Daniel Erlacher reminds Ksenia that, in Russia, the SZSH is being repressed, citing the infamous imprisonment of Pussy Riot. “It depends when, where and how you make the SZSH,” Ksenia admits. “Pussy Riot made SZSH like a BOOM!” Laughter. “They are not only about creating sound, but about creating sense. When you do this, you become enemy.”

Art as Activism?

This brings us to the concept of art as activism and to the repression or censorship of artists. For Ksenia, whether art is activism depends on the form and how it is shared. She was an adbuster in Russia for three years, rewriting messages and adverts put up by corporations and Putin’s political party. Her group used to stick speech bubbles on billboards selling cosmetics, making the models quote philosophy and criticise Russian politics. “We had a creative-response to every law that we judged unjust,” Ksenia says.

“I take my responsibilities as a citizen of the world very seriously,” Antonino says. “I don’t know if I’d call it activism, but art, by creating, in its very nature is an action.” Creativity is a response to a particular set of circumstances; sometimes that response will be more overtly political than at other times, but it is always in the background. “Have I experienced censorship?” he asks. “Yes, of course, all the time.”

Antonino’s current project is working with Frank Serpico on a film about police corruption called Only Actions Count. After the recent publication of an article on politico.com, Frank, who still carries a bullet in his brain for exposing police corruption in the sixties, received a slew of death threats for being “anti-American”.

For Daniel, these death threats raise the question of how far you should go, as an artist. “That’s what these threats are there for: they want you to withdraw,” Chris says. “I think it’s really important to stand together and speak up together in a way that you and they and everyone else knows that you are not alone.”

Ksenia tells the story of Voina, an activist group in Russia. They started out quite tamely, throwing cats over the counters of McDonalds and holding a wake for an absurdist poet in a metro carriage. They ended up by filming a tutorial on how to flip a police car with four people and throwing Molotov cocktails. They spent three months in prison, with Banksy putting up the bail money
. “Everybody doesn’t have to go that far,” Ursula says, softly. “That’s awesome, but what I always try to tell people is you don’t have to do that. Everyone has different levels and different ways of speaking up and standing up.”

Molotov cocktail-throwing artists are creative-response; a comedy boyband writing about “Pies of Peace” are creative-response. It’s a question of what level of response you’re interested in. “Everybody can do something,” Ursula adds.

2014_10_24_FORUM_CREATIVE_RESPONSE_ABILITY45

Creative-Response Today

Despite the environmental and social crises facing our generation, Daniel does not see the same mass artistic response that we had in the seventies and eighties with hip hop and punk. “Where are the artists speaking out on climate change?” he asks to a roomful of silence. Chris makes the point that climate change is really hard for people, including artists, to grasp. “As a phenomena, it’s just so huge,” he says. Chris suggests that perhaps you might be able to see a creative-response to the more immediate secondary consequences of climate change, such as the refugee crisis in Europe. Even then, from the Austrian music scene, Chris can only offer us one reggae and one hip hop track about refugees who were killed in police custody. “But I don’t know any more than these two songs in the last fifteen years,” he adds.

Deanna has done some small events on climate change, but nothing on the scale required. “We need to be doing a lot more,” she says, “in terms of making more noise and more visible noise.” Ksenia suggests that creative-response has evolved to take in new media, citing viral YouTube videos of the ice bucket challenge, which raise awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Okay, so it’s not high art or anything, but it’s a popular response to a real problem. More interestingly, Ksenia describes one such video that went viral in Russia, in which a message floating on an ice cold river changed from “Putin forever” to “Putin is defective”, a difference of only one letter in Russian.

“Creative-response is not just the terrain of musicians and writers and painters and film-makers,” Antonino points out. “Scientists and economists have to mine creative-response.” Chris and Ksenia nod in agreement; you can feel understanding spread through the room. “We all have the talent to creatively respond,” he explains. “Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but as a citizen of the world,” he adds. “That’s very important. We have a chance to make history by our actions or our indifference.”

Ursula puts it even more succinctly: “Say something, do something, let’s continue this work,” she says. “That’s the lesson from tonight. We need more of this, we need more Strange Fruit, we need more Who you callin’ a bitch?, we need more response – I mean positive, palpable, effective response that leads to positive, palpable, effective change.” Applause cracks and breaks out.

This idea brings us back to the purpose of the Elevate festival itself. “We hope to inspire artists also in the next ten years,” Daniel promises. “When you try to inspire someone,” he says, “you can be sure inspiration comes back to you.” He smiles. “That’s the most beautiful thing.”

So we turn the speakers up loud and listen together to Public Enemy, Shut ’em Down.

“I like Nike, but wait a minute
The neighbourhood supports
So put some money in it
Corporations owe
They gotta give up the dough
To the town
Or else we gotta shut ’em down.”
– Chuck D on Shut ’em Down

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Creative Response/Ability >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Lia Rädler

What the Woop Woop is Creative Response?

Antonino d’Ambrosio grew up in Philadelphia during the Reagan years; not a politically auspicious start for the son of a immigrant bricklayer, you might think. Then, all at once, Antonino discovered the mysteries of punk, rap, graffiti and the skateboard. And, as he transformed his city walls into canvasses and his sidewalks into skateparks, he realised that another world was possible.

These art forms, which grew up in the free space between public and private, permitted and prohibited, Antonino calls “creative response”.

The rest of this evening’s panel contributed their ideas of what creative response means to them as artists. For Ursula Rucker, a US spoken word artist, “creative response is everything I do. It’s why I’m sitting here, why I don’t give up.”

Ksenia Ermoshina’s creative musical response is with experimental noise. “Noise is somehow a metaphor for everyone who is marginal – for us, here,” she says with gathering excitement. “We are kind of noise for global corporations. Let’s be noisy, let’s become noisy and break into the frequencies of this culture.” On cue, the crowd breaks into applause, laughter, whooping.

“Creative response is saying aloud the things that are on your mind,” says Deanne Rodger, a British spoken word artist. “The things that frustrate me, that don’t make sense to me, make me feel small, marginalised. Creative response is an exploration of the self.”

For Austrian electronic musician IZC, creative response is not so simple. “For me, my music is not always a conscious direct response to something I read or saw – but it’s in there. It takes some detours and it takes some time, but it’s in there.”

And, of course, as Antonino says, the Elevate Fesitval itself is a creative response: electronic music and visual arts side by side with intense political discussions. Dom Im Berg, the heart of the festival, is a cave that was hollowed out by slaves and is now transformed into a place for all to come and celebrate our common struggles.

“We all have the talent to creatively respond,” Antonino says, in conclusion. “Maybe not as a painter or a novelist, but as a citizen of the world. That’s very important.”


For a fuller exploration of creative response and Antonino’s ear-popping soul-dropping film, “Let Fury Have the Hour”, you’ll just have to wait for the book of Elevate 2014!

Sounds Unseen: The Work of Libero Colimberti

Danger 400 volts! One glance at the auditorium tells me this isn’t your usual cinema. One solitary wooden school chair, sharing space with the electrical consumer unit, in a cupboard under the stairs of what used to be Deptford JobCentrePlus, now an art venue called Utrophia.

I’m here to see three short films by sound artist Libero Colimberti. Libero’s films are projected onto the slanting underside of the staircase, for an audience of one. As you would expect, sound is the star of Libero’s films. The unusual projection angle only emphasises this, forcing me to lean back in the creaking chair.

The first of the films (‘Microlanding Strip’) visually consists of one continuous fixed shot of a quiet residential street at night. The scene is empty: the pavement, a row of houses on one side and a grassy verge on the other. But the sound is full of traffic, of buses and cars, of dislocated shouts, a man whistling, a police siren – and a mysterious mechanical cranking noise. Sight and sound do not match.

The eye of the camera stares at the scene, but our ears are somewhere else. At the bottom of the picture a clock counts down – but to what? Then a bicycle bursts into frame, racing towards us from the far end of the street. The cyclist is Libero, holding an enormous microphone. Sight and sound dramatically converge; the bike crashes into the camera, the clock hits zero and everything goes black.

The second film (‘Salami!’) I heard as an exercise in focusing our auditory attention. We follow Libero around his world. We see him trying to cross the road, walking past a construction site and through a park. In each location, though, our attention is on the sounds; we hear things Libero’s way. The traffic noise, the birdsong, the noise of the diggers, each is turned up, crisply distinct, filling the cupboard-cinema, burrowing into our brains.

The richness of our auditory world is often overlooked for the flashiness of the visual. Libero tries to address this injustice. When we concentrate on sound, it fills our brains and we hear things that we’d swear weren’t there a moment ago. Try it for yourself for a moment. Turn off the radio and listen. Can you hear the birds? The traffic of the road outside? Your neighbours? As you concentrate, the sounds swell and you begin to realise that there’s a symphony happening out there (not always melodious symphony in London, but still).

If Libero’s ear is sensitive, his eye is playful. When he reaches his house we hear the persistent orgiastic cries of a woman in coitus and the banging of her bedroom door against its frame: she’s fucking against the door. Libero listens: half-horrified, half-fascinated. Then he sees the salami. Just inside the ecstatic woman’s door is a plate with a salami sausage on it (not a euphemism). The banging of the door stops, orgasmically spent. Libero greedily seizes his chance to slip his hand through the gap for the salami – but before he can seize his sausage (not a euphemism) the banging begins again, battering his hand and Libero has to beat a retreat.

The first two films play with the interplay between sound and visuals: the first by dislocating the sound from the visuals, the second by exaggerating the sound over the visuals. The third (‘Frame’) does away with visuals altogether. A red frame appears, bathing the cupboard-cinema in its glow. A clock counts down in the top right corner of the picture. The sounds alone suggest the story. We hear traffic, then a girl shouting in the distance. Slowly, we realise that we’re eaves-dropping on a domestic argument, as a neighbour might – we can’t see the drama, hidden behind a fence or some trees, perhaps. “Don’t you f****** dare!” Subtitles highlight essential phrases. “Oh f****** hell!” A woman is screaming at a man – her boyfriend. “Because I f****** love you!”

We piece together the scene from the dialogue: “What does it matter if I jump off here?” the man shouts. The woman, we can hear now, is trying to calm him down, trying to talk him down from his suicide. He must be standing on a window sill or on a rooftop. “I f****** love you,” the man shouts, in despair – “But I f****** hit you! What does it matter if I jump off here?”

But Libero doesn’t let us hear the conclusion to the story. The sound of sobbing shake the cupboard-cinema and a drunk walks by, singing “I love you…” The countdown stops. We’re left to fill the silence with our thoughts.

The triumph of the films of Libero Colimberti is that he directs our attention to the hidden sounds of life, those sounds we take for granted, or hear only as irritants, not as music. As I duck out of the dingy cupboard, out into the bright sunshine of Spring, I listen for a moment to the symphony of Deptford Market and sing.

‘Salami’ by Libero Colimberti

‘Microlanding Strip’ is playing at Window 135 in New Cross until this Saturday 9 March.

Straw Bale Building at Braziers Park

Last weekend, I went to Braziers Park to have a go at building a straw bale house. Here’s a little film I made about the project, run by Hugh Makins.

Straw Bale Building: Braziers Park from David Charles on Vimeo.

An introduction to straw bale building by Hugh Makins. Hugh is driven by his passion to find innovative solutions to the economic, environmental and social crises faced by humankind today. Affordable and sustainable straw bale building is just one aspect of his vision for a better world.

Hugh is a resident of Braziers Park in Oxfordshire. You can learn more about straw bale building by joining one of his experimental weekend building courses.

Filmed on location by David Charles in July 2012.

Smile or Die Trying

At the risk of sounding like a laughter yogi… smile!

It will:

  • Give you a more fulfilling and longer lasting marriage.
  • Give you a greater sense of well-being.
  • Make you more inspiring to others.
  • Make you live longer.
  • Make other people smile too.
  • Make you feel happier.
  • Give you a bigger hit of endorphins and serotonin than chocolate or money or even sex.
  • Reduce your blood pressure.
  • Make you more likeable.
  • Make you seem more courteous.
  • Make you seem more competent.

Check out this TED talk for a bit more detail:


Some more smiling research stories:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/7849905/Smiling-makes-you-happy-research-into-botox-shows.html
http://longevity.about.com/od/lifelongbeauty/tp/smiling.htm
http://education.ucsb.edu/janeconoley/ed197/documents/Keltnerexpressionsofpositivemotion.pdf

Palestinian Jokes: No Laughing Matter

There’s a Arab proverb that says: “I laugh, therefore I exist.” So here are some jokes from Palestine, proving that they do – still – exist.

The Hebronites

The Palestinians tell jokes about the Hebronites in the same way that the English tell jokes about the Welsh, or the French about the Belgians. Here’s one that is (apparently) a true story:

There’s an old man living on his own in Hebron. His only son has been arrested and is in prison in Israel. The old man desperately wants to plant some potatoes in his garden, but he doesn’t have the strength any more and, with his only son in prison, there’s no one who can do it for him.

So he writes to his son, saying, “I want to plant some potatoes in our garden, but I don’t have the strength to work the soil any more. What should I do, son?”

The son gets the letter in prison and writes back, saying: “Whatever you do, do not go anywhere near the garden – I hid weapons there!”

When the old man gets the letter, he’s shocked and doesn’t go near his garden. In the meantime, the Israeli army have found out about the letter and, the next morning, the old man wakes up to find hundreds of soldiers in his garden. They dig up every inch of the soil, searching for the weapons – but they don’t find any.

Mystified, the old man writes to his son again: “The soldiers came and dug up the garden, but they didn’t find any weapons, now what should I do?”

The son writes back: “Now you can plant your potatoes!”

Have you heard the one about the Christian Hebronite who converted to Islam? One day he met a Muslim Imam and the Hebronite said to him: “If you can show me how clever you Muslims are, I will convert to Islam!”
“Okay,” said the Imam. “Do you have any children?”
“Yes, I have one child.”
“Is it a boy?”
“No,” said the Hebronite.
“Then it must be a girl!”
At this the Hebronite bowed down, crying, “Oh Allah! You’re powers are truly great! I convert to Islam!”

There was once a Hebronite called Abd Ali who owned a shop in Ramallah. One day he got a visit from the police. They pointed at his shop sign – “Abd Ali and Associates” – and asked, “Who are your ‘associates’?”
“Oh, it is just me, it is only the name of my shop, that’s all.”
The police shouted at him: “That is dishonest!” and then beat him up.
Abd Ali was so humiliated that he left Palestine and went to Saudi Arabia, a very devout and strict nation. This time he was very careful about his shop sign. He called his shop: “Abd Ali, the One and Only.”
He was decapitated.

Political Jokes

“We’re living through a big joke!”

(This was not a joke.)

One day in the market a man loses his father… so he buries him.

A boy asks his father for two shekels for a return bus trip to a checkpoint.
“One shekel should be enough,” his father says, “you’ll be coming home in an ambulance!”

The French President, the US President and the Palestinian President all appear before God. They each approach him in turn, presenting their dearest wishes for their countries.
The American President says, “I wish for those cowardly French to commit troops to the War On Terror.”
God replies, “That will never happen in your lifetime.”
Next, the French President approaches God and says, “I wish those damned Americans would stop killing for oil!”
God answers, “That will never happen in your lifetime.”
Next, the Palestinian President approaches God, very humbly and says, “I only wish for a Palestinian state.”
God replies, “Well that will never happen in MY lifetime!”

A dentist from Gaza goes to an international conference on wisdom teeth. A French dentist comes up to him and asks: “How do you extract wisdom teeth in Gaza?”
“Well,” the Gazan dentist replies, “first we use a scalpel to make an incision into the neck, then we break the jaw and drill into the gum. Then we get some pliers and pull the tooth out from below.”
“My god!” the French dentist exclaims. “Why so complicated?”
“Because in Gaza, you’re not allowed to open your mouth!”

Just a Joke!

This was told by a giggling school-girl – naughty!

A man rushes home, quick, quick, quick.
Grabs his wife, quick, quick, quick.
Runs to the bedroom, quick, quick, quick.
Switches off the lights, quick, quick, quick.
Makes a tent in the bed, quick, quick, quick.
Says: “Look at my watch – it glows in the dark!”


I got all of these jokes from the excellent short film (No) Laughing Matter that was shown at the Palestine Film Festival in London yesterday. If you ever have a chance to see this film, then do so. You can see a teaser below.

(No) Laughing Matter – teaser

UK Jewish Film Festival Review

I am not Jewish. For me, it is hard work hacking through the thorny tangle of Jewishness. What am I to make of the Holocaust, murderous pogroms and rampant anti-Semitism? What am I to make of the foundation of the state of Israel, Israel’s wars of independence and expansion and the on-going Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza? What am I to make of the failures of the peace process, the battle for Jewish demographic supremacy in Israel and the ‘Jewish lobby’ in the USA and the UK? The global Jewish population is tiny, only about the size of the London commuter belt, but there is no question that ‘Jewishness’ captures the world’s imagination in mysterious ways, polarised, quite often, between fear and hatred, and blind defence behind the shield of history.

Thankfully, the UKJFF tackled ‘The Jewish Question’ head on with a tongue-in-cheek short before each of the films. It was a telling of the famous ‘So, Mrs Cohen…’ joke (google it) by various comedians and celebrity Jews, including David Baddiel, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Vanessa Feltz and Rabbi Lionel Blue. We’re forced to examine the joke: is the humour inclusive or exclusive? Is the joke anti-Semitic? Funny? Just plain bad? Is it okay to laugh? The film ends with the Victor Borge quote, ‘Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,’ and the ice is broken.

The feature films, particularly Diplomat and Protektor, tackle intensely Jewish narratives: modern social problems in Israel and the tragedy of the Holocaust. However, the stories themselves are not necessarily Jewish, they are universal tales of love, loss and redemption.

Diplomat is a superbly-shot documentary film about immigrants to Israel from the USSR. Over one million Jews have immigrated into Israel since the breakup of the USSR, drawn by the promise of a better life among their own people. In a country with a total population of only 5 million in 1991, absorption of these immigrants represented a serious social difficulty, and it continues to this day. The film follows the lives, loves and losses of a few hundred Soviet immigrants who were temporarily housed in the five-star Diplomat Hotel in Jerusalem. Now, over fifteen years later, temporary has become permanent. There’s a war veteran with a hundred medals on his uniform, an elderly dancer with an obsession for hats and a man who roams the hallways with a cat draped over his shoulders. A former Soviet piano virtuoso is now reduced to playing for tiny audiences in the hotel. ‘Here my life ended,’ he says. ‘Israel is a prison sentence. I did feel good once in Israel – when I was under general anaesthetic.’ This bitter-sweet tone goes through the film. We spend time with a young violinist who lives in a room with his grand-mother and dreams of studying under an Italian master, but is ashamed of his old violin. The hotel fixer secures a grant of $10,000 for him, but shortly afterwards his grand-mother dies and the film ends with him packing her life into boxes.

Protektor is a film about the Holocaust, but it is much more than that: it is a story of trapped lives and forced decisions. A Czech radio announcer chooses to become the voice of the Nazi occupation to protect his Jewish wife, his wife chooses obliteration over the claustrophobia of mere survival, another employee of the radio station chooses to marry a Nazi official, but her former boyfriend chooses execution over collaboration. Deals are made and broken, relationships are forged and betrayed and lives are survived or destroyed as events spiral out of the characters’ control to the film’s inevitable tragic end. The scenario may be unique to Jewish history, but the moral ambiguity of the decisions forced on the characters and their blurred lines of loyalty are only too human.

Broken Lines, slated for a wider release in 2011, is lovingly filmed against the backdrop of our very own Finsbury Park. A young Jewish man, obsessed with the death of his father, the failure of his parents’ marriage and the trap of his own impending marriage, transfers his obsession to a young waitress, herself locked in a stunted relationship. The two lives are drawn together in a tight embrace as the characters struggle to break free of the past and to move forward into a brighter future.

This was an appropriate film to finish the series with because it was the least obviously ‘Jewish’ and the most obviously ‘human’ story. When I consider ‘Jewishness’ in the future, from crass Jewish jokes, to social upheaval in Israel and the Holocaust, I will remember that these are, above all, human lives.


The UK Jewish Film Festival is in London, 4-21 November 2010. On tour around UK January – March 2011. I saw Diplomat (Israel, 2009); Protektor (Czech Republic, 2009); and Broken Lines (UK/Canada/USA, 2008).

Bicycle Film Festival: Program 9, 10 & 11

After twelve hours of watching films about bicycles, what is the feeling I’m left with?

Well, apart from a blinking aversion to light and cramp in my legs, I feel like I’m beginning to understand the truth about bicycles and that truth can be summed up in one word:

FREEDOM.

A Swarovski Crystal Low-Rider. Yeah, that’s freedom.

Sorry it’s not more profound than that, but do let me expound a little.

Freedom isn’t just feeling the wind in your hair, although there was plenty of that on show today and throughout the festival. Freedom is the power to be self-reliant, to unbend the yoke that ties us to cars and lorries. There was a short film about the Pedal Co-Op in Philadelphia in the US. They use long trailers attached to their bikes to make green deliveries around the city. For every forty trips they make with these trailers, that’s one truck off the road. It gave me the feeling that anything is possible with pedal power. Why shouldn’t we trade trucks for trailers for use in the local economy?

There was a great little piece about freedom from stereotyping and night buses (I may be reading too much into this one) called Heels on Wheels, in which a bunch of girls go out for the night on bicycles. Why not? I don’t approve of them drinking heavily before setting off, but otherwise, this is a great advert for people using bikes under any circumstance. You don’t have to turn up sweaty, take your time, cycle slow and safe. And so our girls get to the club with all make-up perfectly applied and not a hair out of place. But then the film goes and ruins it all by having one of the bikes stolen. What is it about stealing bikes on today’s program? The only message that comes out of this is: don’t bother, mate, it’ll only get stolen anyway. A bit annoying.

But I love the freedom of Project N. A bunch of kids break into an abandoned gymnasium, set up a bunch of obstacles, drink some beer, roll some spliffs and have some damn good fun. It looks pretty cool to me; but then the police come and shut it down. A bit annoying as well. You can get a taste of it here: http://vimeo.com/10033943.

There was more emphasis on fictional stories in today’s program. The highlight of which was Bicycle Thieves, a classic Italian film from 1948. It’s a film about freedom and poverty. I won’t spoil the plot for you, but the protagonist needs his bike to do his work and when it gets stolen he is driven to further and further extremes of desperation. Sample quote:

There’s a cure for everything – except death!

Don’t worry, be happy (or miserable, like the end of this film).

Jitensha was a Japanese story which reminded me of a Murakami plotline. A loner quits his job because he got punched in the face by a colleague. He cycles around a bit, looking miserable. Then he gets his bike seat nicked. Over the course of the next few days more parts get stolen until our hero just sticks a piece of paper onto the remains of the bike saying, ‘Dear Thief, please take the whole thing.’ The next day, he is surprised to find a reply fixed to the bike, which says, ‘Thank you for your kind offer, but I am not a thief. Sincerely, God.’ When there is nothing left but the bicycle bell, God leaves a package with details of where all the parts are hidden with the message: ‘This is the world in which you live.’ And so our hero rediscovers his sense of purpose and on the way connects with all sorts of people, from a young family to a gang of youths and a street hawker. Eventually he finds the last part, the saddle, with the help of an old man who is using a metal detector on the beach. When the detector goes off, our hero runs over and starts madly digging and then uncovers it, shouting:

‘I found it, I found it!’
‘What did you find?’ the old man asks, meaningfully.
‘My bicycle seat.’
The old man looks at the saddle and says, ‘Sometimes you have to rely on others to find what you are looking for.’

I don’t know why this is profound, but I’m sure it is.

The evening program had some pretty cool features in it, but if I have to watch one more old man welding, I think I’m going to go insane. Seven – I’ve just counted them – that is the number of films which featured old men welding.

Note to film-makers: there is nothing dramatic about welding unless it is with laser beams and they are travelling very slowly between James Bond’s legs towards his groin. 

I’m sure it looks great on film and I appreciate that there isn’t very much dramatic at all about building bikes, but please: no more welding! I kept myself mildly entertained by noting the difference in safety precautions between the US (visor, goggles and gloves), The Netherlands (welding box, like it was radioactive or something) and Japan (bare hands and dark glasses). Having said that, the film about Dario Pegoretti was pretty good actually, once I had finished cursing about the welding. It was pretty good because it was about a real human being who spent most of his time swearing and talking about girls. I learnt that luomar meant a heap of shit in Italian, for example. In fairness, the last of the welding stories was also bearable, but only because of these quotes:

The bicycle is two wheels, a chain and a brake; the bicycle is not the machine. Man is the machine.

and, in allusion to bicycles:

Sometimes ugly girls are beautiful – and all the beautiful ones are beautiful, right?

Can you tell he was Italian too?

But the high point of the day, really, was the sheer exuberant joy of On Time, a blaxploitation flick from 1985, the first big hit for director Ari Taub. Our hero is a bike messenger who has to deliver a package to an address in New York for a 2pm sharp deadline. It’s pretty dramatic, and he ends up with his bike in bits and getting chased by some brothers who think he’s a thief. But when he finally delivers the package, right on time, it explodes. But the real hero of the film was the theme tune, which played pretty much throughout the whole thing:

The wheel’s are turning
And your body’s burning
Meet the deadline everyday
Nothing’s gonna get in our way!

You can check out a preview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sWZBb0xwpc – but it ends, tantalisingly, just before the song kicks in.

You know what, I’m going to miss these films, but at least I didn’t miss them. I can only say: you’d better go next year.

Bicycle Film Festival: Program 4,5 & 7

Phew, tough day in the life of a bike film reviewer. Not as tough as for Abdul Aziz, an Afghani asylum seeker who found out today that he is going to be deported on the 10.00am flight from London on Tuesday. Thanks to the new government, there’s a bit of a clear-out of left-over Afghanis going on at the moment. We don’t want them anymore, apparently, so we’re freighting them out at the rate of one flight every week, Tuesdays at 10.00am.

‘What’s that got to do with bikes?’ You may very well ask. Well, Abdul Aziz has been one of the beneficiaries of a wicked little scheme in Bristol called The Bristol Bike Project (all the creative genius has gone into the project, not the name), which takes bikes no one wants anymore and pairs them with people no one wants anymore. After a spot of repair, these bikes are given to the asylum seekers, who struggle to survive on the £35 of Tesco vouchers they’re given every week. I mean, can you imagine doing ALL your shopping at Tesco? Complete nightmare. I can give you an example from my own life only today: shopping around for some patisseries, I discovered that Tesco Express do Pain au Raisin for 84p whereas Sainsbury’s do 2 for £1! That’s the sort of value you need when you’re on £35 a week, trust me.

I should also mention that these vulnerable men, women and kids (remember, they left their countries because they were going to be killed, dude) are not allowed to work by the government here. What? And we call them scroungers? Why not let them do something useful and earn a bit of money then? Because doing something useful is a primary human need; without feeling useful a little part of us dies and we do stupid stuff. So a lot of these asylum seekers get involved with voluntary groups, just to feel useful, you know? But there’s a problem, of course: Tesco don’t do buses (yet). How the fuck are these people supposed to get around? How the fuck are they supposed to get to English classes or to their asylum interviews or to their voluntary work – or just to fucking Tesco’s for that matter?

Answer: bikes.

More than the practicality of riding a bike, though, is the spiritual element of unshackling the feet from walking for the asylum seekers:

I feel free on my bike. Just me and the road and my bike.

I feel like an eagle, like a bird…I feel freedom and peace…and no problem for me like I had before.

So hats off to the Bristol Bike Project.

That was actually the last film of Program 4; don’t worry, I won’t go on like this for all of them. There was Ben Hurt, bike chariot combat in Portland, Oregon; there was a 25 metre chain reaction like those car adverts, but this time with bike parts in Japan; there was papergirl delivering art to unsuspecting strangers in Berlin; there was a day in the life of a paperboy in Italy; there was a bike kitchen doing repairs using the alternative economy in Vienna; there was some nutty German woman doing handstands on her bike in Beijing and there was a 62 year old biologist who recently started to commute to work in Budapest (he takes secateurs with him to tend the cycle paths – ahhh, what a nice old man).

So that was all pretty heart warming (apart from the bit about Abdul Aziz getting deported, Tuesday, 10.00am, but I won’t go on about it). Program 5, in contrast, was pretty vacuous. It was all either arty or enthusiasty. I overheard some friends leaving the show, one saying to another, ‘…and Katie forced us to watch some bike geek-fest…’ and Katie replied, hurt, ‘ – it wasn’t geeky!’ Oh yes it was, Katie, oh yes it was.

But we were back on form for the evening show, imaginatively titled Program 7. It was a sell-out for starters and we all got into the swing of things with a little call and response:

RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROOM: Bikes!
LEFT SIDE OF THE ROOM: Rock!
RIGHT: Bikes!
LEFT: Rock!
RIGHT: Bikes!
LEFT: Rock!
RIGHT: Bikes!
LEFT: Rock!
ALL TOGETHER: Biriokekess…

Unfortunately, the ‘show-piece’ of the evening was a film about the wankers I mentioned yesterday – you remember the guys who cycle like idiots around New York? Well, it turns out they’re assholes as well as wankers. I don’t understand, I really don’t. They race around cities: fine. They don’t care if they kill themselves: fine. The problem I have is that if / when they kill themselves, they’ll almost certainly be using someone else to do it. Just smacking the road isn’t likely to be their demise, no. It’ll be some poor sod they’ve dashed in front of and he’ll have their blood all over his windscreen. Nothing he could have done about it, but there it is.

It seems particularly perverse to have this film showing at the BFF considering that it was started after the founder got hit by a bus! If that seems perverse, then my mind does half-pipes when I see that this film was sponsored by the BFF itself. I don’t get it. Perhaps, if the BFF is all about publicising cycling and raising awareness of cycling to motorists, then getting smashed up is about the best form of deterrent there is. For sure it gets headlines, for sure it scares the crap out of motorists and for sure they’ll look twice next time (if they’re not in therapy, that is). That’s the only logic I can see. If that isn’t the logic, then it really is just self-indulgent bullshit, suicidal wankdom. A quote from the guy who films these ‘Alleycats’:

People think we’re crazy or reckless or lucky – 

No, mate, we think you’re wankers. Arrogant wankers. I sort of feel like I should be checking this guy’s Wikipedia page on a regular basis, just so that when he dies I can write on the bottom: ‘Dude had it coming.’

But I’m not going to finish on that sour note of hostile bitterness, no. That would be unfair to the great films that preceded the self-indulgent crap. The most important moment of the evening came fairly early on, during a film of some American dudes cycling from Tokyo to Osaka. They were helped along the way by a Japanese cyclist, who was mad on bikes. They asked him why and he told them this (I paraphrase):

This bike was my father’s. He raced on it in a qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics. He passed away three years ago, but before he died we raced together, him and I. He was old but still he beat me! So now every time I ride my bike I feel like I am chasing him. I am still chasing my father.

Maybe we should all jump on our bikes and chase after that plane that’s taking Abdul Aziz away, Tuesday at 10.00am.

Bicycle Film Festival: Program 1 & 2

I have the pleasure of covering the Bicycle Film Festival at The Barbican for the London Student. Yes, I am still a student (technically). This means I get to watch films I would never have even considered paying money for. In fact, I thought I’d spend most of the evening looking around at a half-empty auditorium wondering what kind of person paid to watch pedals turning on a big screen. I suspected that I would be sitting with various members of the lower strata of the London press and that the sounds of our biros clicking in and out would be the most interesting thing happening in the room.

How I was wrong. 
Not only were the two showings pretty full, but the crowds were positively raucous and the films were – good! I wasn’t expecting that, I have to say. Now, this isn’t the place for a film review because, frankly, you’ve missed it, it just happened, but I will give a quick run-through to encourage you to go tomorrow or Sunday – or next year, maybe. (Yeah, ok, I know you won’t, but dammit, play along with the conceit will you?)
So first of all there were a series of three shorts. The first was a bunch of idiots cycling like suicidal idiots around New York City. They even boasted about how safe they felt while ‘riding the wave’, i.e. jumping red lights. Wankers. Can’t wait for one of them to get strawberried – actually I can because that would mean some poor sod is responsible for scraping them up off the road (and, being a city-cyclist myself, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but still – wankers). The second one was a fascinating story about ‘the world’s most prolific bicycle thief’, a Slovenian immigrant to the States called Kenk. Three thousand bikes he had when the police busted him. He said he stole them to demonstrate the wastage of the consumer society. Fair enough. The third one was about Rollapaluza in London, where people get up on stage and Fight Club-style bike it out against each other in 500m sprints. 
Then the main event had the crowd hooting and cheering even before it began. It was the story of Mat Hoffman, who is, apparently, a bit of a legend in the world of Big Air. Yeah – no idea either. But it was a great story and boy did that guy get hurt for something he believed in (doing big stunts on a BMX for those of you wondering). Couple of inspirational quotes though: 

Nothing is impossible; you’ve just got to keep coming back to it.

And: 

If I die with a body that isn’t completely wrecked I’ll feel like I’ve wasted it.

No danger of that, mate.
The second programme started in rollicking fashion with The Tweed Run, which takes place in London every year. A few hundred people cycle around Buckingham Palace and Saville Row in their finest tweed (and other gentlemanly attire). They stop off for tea and sandwiches in Hyde Park and finish off with a stiff gin and tonic. Spiffing. Then there was some boring Los Angeles short which was a bit pointless, but very artistic I’m sure. That’s ten minutes I could have spent getting a sandwich myself. Then there was a short about taxi-bikes in Cuba (the serious documentary of the day – there’s always one). It was genuinely interesting, though, and beautifully done too. It peered into the bicycle-heart of the social, economic and political life of Cuba. It’s major cinematographic contribution was a shot of these taxi-bikes going around and around in circles. I couldn’t spot the metaphor. It couldn’t have contrasted more with the bombastic piece of pointless fun that followed: a bunch of boys arsing about around Sacramento.
The main feature of the second program was about a bunch of pro skaters (as in skate-boarding – yeah, they do exist) who decided to cycle the length of New Zealand’s North Island to find some good skating along the way. They soon realise it’s not that easy. I felt for them, I really did, as they discovered the same things all first-time bike tourers do (including me – especially me): 
  1. Most of your time will be spent going uphill (without bending the laws of physics – work it out.)
  2. There’s a limit to how wet you can get.
  3. If you just keep going, wheel by wheel, you’ll get there in the end.
All in all, a great night’s entertainment. Just a shame you weren’t there and I was. Never mind. Oh, and I had one of the Barbican’s huge chocolate brownies as well – but I had to pay for that.

How to make a free and easy documentary video

  1. Get a YouTube account: http://www.youtube.com. Apparently other video sites exist, but I’m going with the market leader – why not? Assuming this isn’t going to be a magnum opus (YouTube is limited to 10 minutes) – just get it up and get it out there.
  2. Download a free lump of software, like this one: http://www.aquasoft.de/SlideShowYouTube_en.as?ActiveID=2124
    This is not a perfect piece of kit. Every now and again it will do funny things and time-slip your video. Live with it: it’s free and easy.
  3. Choose a topic for your documentary.
  4. Do a ton of research on your topic.
  5. Write a script.
  6. Search Wikimedia Commons for pictures relating to your topic and download them.
  7. Throw them into the SlideShow software. In some logical order please.
  8. Record your script with a microphone and Audacity (another free lump of software: http://audacity.sourceforge.net/)
  9. Edit and mess around with your sound file until it sounds good. Don’t worry about perfect, we’re happy with good.
  10. Export it as an MP3 file (you’ll need to download the MP3 Codecs for Audacity to do this bit.)
  11. Throw it into the SlideShow software.
  12. Make sure the pictures line up with your vocals nicely and that there are no ridiculous transitions (like the photo of your grandma doing a somersault whilst you talk about her hip replacement.)
  13. Upload the bugger to your YouTube account.
  14. Check SlideShow hasn’t done something very odd. If it has, mess around until you fluke upon the right timing.
  15. Publicise your baby.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw94Qtb7e-M

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3A2jQtzUbJo