Monday, November 26, 2007

"What are the chances of the world changing?"

Is a question we ask more and more as we begin the Christmas season, looking forward to the peace and beauty of our Winter Solstice celebrations in a world that is changing rapidly. It is also a question asked by a film that explores the world as it is by showing us what it could be - and still may be in some places.

The Chances of the World Changing tells the story of Richard Ogust, a writer from New York City who began to care for endangered Asian turtles when he saw, and purchased, one from a Chinese restaurant. These endangered Asian turtles are considered a delicacy, leading to a massive import of these animals. The majority of them are bound for China.

The film shows how Ogust began an assurance colony, basically a collection of an endangered species that is meant to simply keep the species alive, hopefully until it is possible to safely return them to a natural habitat. The growth of his colony led this work to take over his life, and the film focuses on his attempts to create a safe and permanent haven for his huge collection of endangered Asian turtles.

Why does this echo the holiday season for me? In this way: at this time of year, we transform our reality with decoration - lights explode in the darkness and nature is brought indoors. On long dark nights, these lights are magical, as is bringing nature into our homes at a time when people are not traditionally outside unless necessary.

With our global weather patterns changing, all of this changes. It may get very cold, but there seem to be more fluctuations. Outdoor activity goes on - very few people stay home at the hearth to last out the winter. We have affected change on our planet, some for the good, much for the bad. Eric Daniel Metzgar's film holds out a promise: any harm being done to the world by people can be offset by good things being done by people. Or can it?

The beginning shots of The Chances of the World Changing emphasize the differences between the natural world and the urban world we have created. We enter on a close up of green leaves. What we are looking at is unclear, until the camera dollies back and focuses to give us the correct perspective for our vision. We see bright, green and amazing nature. When we next see a forest with New York City in the background, the explicit theme is set with the simple visual juxtaposition - the relationship between man and the rest of the world. The beauty of the opening shot, so close to the greenery of the world, is then paralleled by similar shots within the city: close ups of items not so pleasing to look at - discarded coffee cups and papers flitting through the urban streets. The details of the two worlds are completely different, as are the worlds themselves - one man created, one he simply evolved from.

The story told shows how utterly exasperating it can be to develop a vision of the world that runs counter to the mainstream. The roadblocks of the government in halting the work of this man are stunningly foolish. They make decisions that seem so simply, and maddeningly, unnecessary and foolish that we are stunned. Though we may see a certain single-mindedness from Richard Ogust, and wish he could find more resources and support, we understand that his work prevented him from having time to seek out more assistance. What is driving him is simple: he can contribute to saving turtles by caring for them. It is that simple for him, which is the typical double-edged sword, because the world we have created does not allow something that simple to exist. His life is ruined in so many ways by his attempts to create a world of safety for the turtles.

Criticisms of the film that I have seen mention over-abundant close up's and a slow pace, but I feel that the strategy used by Metzgar works in similar ways to the long, calm takes of the work of Carl Dreyer. We see the reality of a situation, which allows us to initiate and ponder the possibility of solutions that are not currently real. The thoughts we have as we watch this amazing story unfold are the true rewards the filmmaker allows us to experience.

Unfortunately for Richard Ogust, his solutions seem impossible for the authorities he is working against to understand, even as they seem obvious to the viewer. "What are the chances of the world changing?", indeed. In this specific case, nil. But in every moment of our lives, we must believe it is possible for it to actually happen.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Bridge That Hanuman Built

From a story by Laurie Goering of the Chicago Tribune, Hindu nationalists in India are trying to prevent the dredging of a deep shipping canal that would destroy submerged sand and coral islands between India and Sri Lanka. The Indian government wants to improve shipping speed by clearing the waterway of any obstructions.

However, the Hindu nationalists believe the islands to be the stones that Hanuman, the monkey hero, enlisted the monkey army to throw into the water to create a bridge, thus allowing the hero, Rama, to get to Sri Lanka, the demon island, where Sita, Rama's wife, was being held captive.

According to the story, the Hindu nationalists called for violence against the politicians responsible, then rescinded that directive. But virulent protests continued, leading the government to reconsider the idea.

I cannot speak for either side, but this is certainly an intersection of the religious and the political, perhaps not quite "beyond" the veil, but certainly on the dividing line. Any religion's fundamentalists calling for violence, and the mindset that their beliefs are the only true beliefs, are actions that have absolutely no place in this world. However, is the economic betterment for some - probably the already wealthy - worth the cultural destruction of a mythological, and in this case, religious, landmark?

A thought from Joseph Campbell comes to mind. He felt it was a mistake when the Roman Catholic church eliminated Latin as the language of their mass because it took away the mystery and the awe of the rite being celebrated.

The myth, the story, the rite, the belief - it is only powerful if it still invokes a sense of wonder. Is there no other way to increase production of the ship lines that want to go through the bridge that Hanuman built? If there is no other way, is it truly necessary?

I cannot condone the call for violence to stop this action, but I sympathize with the need to better alleviate the differences between an economic and a mythological world. The bridge of Hanuman is a cultural treasure for its' Hindu believers. Since I read the Ramayana recently, I would never have guessed there was some sort of real bridge. Submerged though it is, just knowing it is there brings a new level of mystery and awe to the reading of a classic, and already enjoyable, work.

Here's hoping they work this out to both sides benefit.