This American Life

What would you rather do: Sit down and read a dry, statistical and numbers-driven article or devote an hour and a half to watching an emotional and intense documentary? For some the answer is neither. What if there was a middle ground? A riveting and relatable radio show that combined the best of both journalism and fiction. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Ira Glass, creator of the Emmy award winning radio show This American Life would agree. He brings his gift of storytelling to the radio to deliver theme-driven podcasts to the American people, hungry for drama in a form that fits their busy schedules. The radio broadcasts range from accounts of babysitting to the journey of a Muslim convert; stories that would generally not have a place in the media. The radio show has been critiqued in the past for its ‘theme-driven’ philosophy and its devotion to storytelling. The claim is that this only allows for the perspective of the interviewer and does not leave much room for contradiction. In addition, some state that the show is too light and shies away from harsh realities. Still, however theme driven the content, the show does open the eyes of the American public in a way that arguably no radio show has done before.

In light of the recent Refugee Crisis, This American Life aired a special to illuminate the issues plaguing those trapped in refugee camps across Europe. The broadcasts focused on the sprawling camps that began to spring up around Greece. The interviews in the episodes are prefaced by short snippets of background information to set the stage for listeners. The broadcasters do a remarkably good job of not oversimplifying the information in light of the time constraint.

Listeners do not tune in week after week for educational purposes, however. They are hooked on the stories. In my opinion, the distinguishing feature of This American Life from other radio shows is its ability to allow the listener to feel as if they have a connection with the subjects. Empathy and connection are created by listening to personal interviews, such as one with a mother of two, Aziza. She speaks about her visit to the doctor with her seven-year-old son, Hammad. Due to war-induced trauma, he is behaviorally stuck at age four and his learning abilities are severely hindered. Hearing his mothers pain allows listeners to feel a more human connection than distant facts or statistics.

Despite the show’s ability to create this relationship, there are a few draw backs. These stem from the methods used to produce an entertaining show. Some critics believe that the show gives up truth-telling in favor of good story-telling. This directed type of story telling is criticized by a review in the New York Times. In it, the author criticizes Ira Glass for pushing too hard to stick to a specific ‘theme’. He argues that there is only one story being told, and it is not the subjects,

“Ultimately it’s maddening to watch Mr. Glass force this point on Ralph and Sandra, two fascinating people whose dual intimacy with the fading art of ranching and the ascendant art of cloning should have earned them the microphone for the full hour. But Mr. Glass apparently can’t help himself. Only one person really has a story to tell here.”

Although I do not agree with this argument, it did remind me that I was listening to a radio show. I found it easy to forget that This American Life is, at its basis, a form of entertainment. A basic theme can be easily found in each episode, but I did not feel that any interview was too heavily guided.

Critics also claim that the show has a tendency to gloss over more difficult themes. In a review by the A.V. club, Dennis Young argues against this claim, “…he [Dennis Young] has found plenty of examples of stories with unhappy endings, unchecked dictators, and even borderline nihilism, including an episode that actually makes a case for the effectiveness of assassinations.” Although I have not listened to all of This American Life, the two shows I did listen to definitely did not shy away from dark stories. The section titled “The Parents are Trapped” was particularly jarring. The act focused on the severe trauma experienced by young children due to war and displacement and the toll this takes on their parents. One mother recounts her child telling her, “you’re the one who’s deciding about our lives, whether it is the beginning or the end”. Of course, there were happy accounts shared in the broadcast. I do not think that this means producers are trying to keep a heavy situation light. These lighter stories helped humanize the subjects. For example, in one interview a husband jokes about how it is hard to keep his wife happy in the refugee camps. He jokes with the interviewer in such a way as if to say, “you know how it is”. Bringing up these types of universal issues creates a point of relation for the listener.

The two-chapter episode in Greece touched on many more issues faced by those living in the camps. Ira Glass introduces the broadcast by stating, “Today we have on our show stories of people trying to have semi normal parts of their lives in a place that is not normal at all”. The producers chose to air stories covering a wide array of subjects, including relationships, parenting, running a camp, and seeking asylum papers.  As a listener, I appreciated the diversity of the stories. One would expect to hear about the logistics of trying to obtain asylum papers, but hearing a love story between a Muslim and a Christian is far less expected. For me, it is these types of stories that bring to life the people of the camps and help to understand them on a deeper level.  One major setback in these episodes, however, is the language barrier. Many questions asked by the producers prompt emotionally charged responses, but the answers must be stated by the translators. The authentic response is lost in the process. In addition, although the scene of each broadcast is described in great detail, the potency of the story is lessened by the lack of visuals. For these particular episodes, however, This American Life offers a virtual tour of the camps on their website. These highly detailed tours, which include photos and small video clips, greatly help to supplement the radio broadcast.

In a quote with Jim Henderson, a younger Ira Glass states with eager excitement, “capturing the way things really are just seems like its worth doing”. The mission to tell honest stories of people’s everyday lives was evident in each episode. This American Life has brought to light a number of important issues in such an interesting way that it has captured the attention of millions. It has created a platform for stories that would have otherwise not had a place in the media.

 

Sources:

Trapped

We watched the documentary Salaam Neighbor earlier this semester in class. The project includes two young men who film in the Syrian refugee camp in Za’atari, Jordan. This is currently one of the largest refugee camps in the world. One of the most intriguing and captivating aspects of this camp is the massive industry that has boomed within the past five years. Trapped for an undetermined amount of time in the camps, the refugees have tried to find every possible way to keep themselves and their thoughts occupied. In the case of Za’atari, this desire to remain active has led to an entire market of goods and services complete with a bustling market street. The Jordanian government has even worked with members of the camp, allotting credit and allowing for trade of goods. Although on the surface the productivity of the camp seems promising, there is a dark side to it as well. The creation of this market, while amazing, highlights the more pressing issue of the fact that millions are trapped in camps with no idea when they will leave. Their lives have been halted. This film and many others documenting the lives of refugees comment on the the decline in mental health caused by a life full of stagnation and uncertainty. It is extremely evident that refugees would be willing to work, but the vast majority face a large number of barriers to employment.

This problem has been made extremely apparent by the fact that thousands of refugees are opting to return to their home countries, feeling that they had been lied to about what life would entail in Europe. They are choosing to return to their war torn countries over remaining trapped in refugee camps or in countries without their families and with no opportunity. This fact is startling when one realizes how difficult it was for most refugees to reach Europe and receive refugee status. There is a great sense of betrayal and disillusionment felt. It reminds me of the documentary Which which-way-home-1024Way Home which followed the lives of young boys from Guatemala and Mexico trying to cross the border to enter the United States. They had glorified the idea of the United States as a land of  dreams and opportunities. But after arriving, one boy found the lack of freedom to be so stifling that he returned home.

The Politics of Fear

This semester, I am taking a course with Anthropology professor Michael Peletz focusing on law and social justice. For the course, I read a book titled Sex Panic and the Punitive State, a historical analysis of the past fifty years that highlights how the politics of fear gave rise to the moral and sex panics of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  While reading, I could not help but think about the rhetoric used during the political campaign, especially in terms of immigration reform. A specific video that we viewed during class seemed particularly relevant. The video, posted on Breitbart News, is an overtly aggressive anti-immigration piece that suggests that refugees are entering Europe in order to take over the West in the name of Islam. The film utilizes clips full of hysteria, aggression, and violence focusing specifically on rape cases and protests against Europeans. It redefines a refugee as a Muslim who is aggressively and easily entering Europe with the goal of repopulating the West.

In Sex Panic and the Punitive State, author Lancaster focuses on rampant “sex panics” of the 1970’s. He talks about the creation of the idea of a lone sex predator who preys on small children. For quite some time, anyone homosexual was seen to fall under this category as well. He uses these examples to show how the media can construe issues as being larger than they are in order to create a population so afraid and panicked that they will give up their rights and the rights of others in the name of security. This idea was very prominent during the campaign and especially after the election of Donald Trump. It seems that people are more than willing to vote in favor of curbing the rights of others if they feel threatened enough. This is nothing new. Again I think of the anti-immigration video posted on Breitbart News and the millions of people who viewed it and believed every minute of it. Donald Trump himself made an appearance in the clip stating that Angela Merkel was insane for allowing so many refugees into Germany. He states that the refugees entering are mostly strong men, insinuating that they are eager and ready to fight. In reality we know that 60% of refugees who enter Europe are comprised of women and children and that it is extremely difficult to obtain refugee status, particularly for those coming from countries other than Syria.

http://www.fox32chicago.com/news/221294104-story

This video began circulating on my Facebook feed today that reminded me of this pervasive politics of fear. The clip, created by the parents of Sandy Hook, follows the week of a young boy in high school as he mysteriously writes notes to another student on a library desk. The two kids finally realize who their mystery note-passer is in the gym moments before another student arrives with a gun and begins shooting. Plain text appears on the screen stating “”. The video ends with a hopeful but ominous message that “gun violence can be prevented, if one knows the signs”. Previously I would have thought nothing of this video, apart from that it was imparting an important message. Although of course I support the cause of the video and find its goal to be extremely important, it does remind me of the ways in which media is constantly utilized to create a sense of fear and to promote the idea that we are never safe. This mentality can lead to the idea that we must police one another and constantly be suspicious of those around us. I wonder if there is a different way to convey the same message or if this fear is necessary to illicit a public reaction to an important issue.

 

The Effect of the Lampedusa Cross

The current Middle Eastern refugee crisis has reignited interest in the story of the displaced. These stories take form in different mediums. Art has the unique ability to be perceived in an infinite number of ways. Its perspective individualizes itself within the eye of the onlooker.

Francisco Tuccio’s “Lampedusa Cross” is crafted out of a scattered collection of driftwood washed ashore by the omnipotent forces of nature. These ragged scraps of wood represent the dreams of those hoping to persist and survive. One day at church, Tuccio sat and witnessed migrants mourn for the losses of their loved ones. There he was inspired to provide a sense of hope for those that left their homes with expectations of a better life. As Tuccio visited the shores of Lampedusa, he came across the pieces of a raft that smelled “of salt, sea and suffering”.

Art
Lampedusa Cross in the British Museum

Before Tuccio created the “Lampedusa Cross”, Tuccio used pieces of driftwood to make small individual crosses for refugees that lived near him. His simple gesture served as a reminder to continue to have faith. In October of 2015, his story made its way to the British Museum, which commissioned him to make a cross to encapsulate this poignant moment in history.

Rituals in Liminality

This week, we read Dr. Alexander’s dissertation on her fieldwork that she conducted in Morocco. The section of her dissertation that resonated with me the most was the part where she discussed when the Migrants were asked to make a map of the path that they had traveled so far. Instead of it being a plain and simple straight line, like from point A to point B, the migrants would often draw a fairly complicated sketch of their routes. Their sketches represent how complex and convoluted the routes they take are. I believe that this is also a representation of the liminal space they are in, as well. And, it speaks upon the issue of how complicated liminality is.  This area of liminality that they are placed in isn’t just a simple, liminal space like other spaces of liminality may be. Their space is liminal, and on top of that, it is also extremely confusing.

Another thing that Dr. Alexander discussed in her dissertation was the material possessions that the Migrants in the camps had. She talked about the symbolism of the material possessions that the Migrants chose to bring from home and what ended up happening to these possessions—they usually got stolen. This made me think of a type of ritualization that occurs in the liminal space. There are many routines people do in a liminal space that become such a common behavior in the space, that these behaviors become a ritual. This made me think of the Migrants’ liminal space and all the things they do in this liminal space that could be regarded as a ritual in this space. Below, is a video called “Liminal Rituals of Refugees” on vimeo. This video has been directed by a video artist, and it is a visual portrayal of some of the “rituals” that occur in a refugee camp. Some of the depictions in the visual include being trapped in a box, being beaten, and the women having bags put over their heads. This short silent film is so powerful and even though there are no spoken words, it still sends the message of the reality of the migrant and refugee crisis.

The Other Side of Immigration

For my midterm essay, I critiqued a 2009 documentary titled The Other Side of Immigration, which examines the major economic, social, and political drivers of migration of individuals from small towns in Mexico into the US, specifically from the viewpoint of the other side of the border. The documentary was filmed and produced by Roy Germano as he worked on his dissertation in the small rural town of Michoacán, Mexico. It consisted of various interviews with over 20 different native Mexicans, and all interviews took place fully in Spanish with English subtitles. I found this film to be very illuminating of the underlying driving forces that lead many Mexicans, particularly young men and fathers trying to support their family, to leave their home towns in search of better economic opportunity. As opposed to other media that may present a more partisan-heavy viewpoint, this film in my opinion did an amazing job of  focusing solely on depicting the way of life in these towns and elucidating the issues faced by those that live there. This served to hopefully educate audiences about the large scale drivers in place that cause economic migrants such as these to leave their home countries, and worked to humanize these people and their tireless efforts to support their families and their community.

One of the crucial aspects to the success of the film was that those impacted were given the space to tell their own story in their native language. Especially when compared to the film we watched in class, Salam Neighbor, I thought it was indispensable that Roy Germano was able to communicate fluently with those who were the subjects of his interviews. This also allowed the focus to be taken off of America, placing the viewer in the “shoes” of the rural Mexican natives, without necessarily requiring white male intermediates to make the story relatable. Personally, I found that I learned a lot about how American policies and agreements such as NAFTA have incredible impacts in producing the so-called “immigration crisis” that are frequently discussed in the American rhetoric. Though admittedly I found some of the filming and musical selection to be of somewhat lesser quality, I would still highly recommend watching this film for audiences that are curious to understand more about the global forces at play in the Mexican-American immigration situation.

Salam Neighbor Response

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eTQkDChNftU&t=24s

For my midterm critique, I viewed Salam Neighbor through an Anthropological yet humanitarian lens.

Per class discussion, I got the vibe that their lack of familiarity with the situations of the people in these camps was a bad thing. Instead, I would view it as a positive aspect given that the average American and many people around the world do not know the situations that these children and adults go suffer through. Since the intended audience was Americans with the power of reaching out to their state representatives or donating a modest amount of money, it would make sense that the creators would try to capitalize on the misinformed type of public. An excerpt from my paper read:

“The intended audience of this work, per the creators, is everyone; but, there seems to be a specific emphasis on socially liberal individuals with not overly strong racist tendencies. From interviews on NPR to the creation of a virtual reality awareness model, the intended audience is everyone from old to young, and from technologically illiterate to the technologically savvy. By utilizing the story of Ra’ouf whom is only ten years old but has experienced immense amounts of trauma, the audience can be expanded to any adult with a child—to see extreme suffering at an innocent age is something that is universally seen as unfair (Seifman). Additionally, there was a story about a middle-aged man that possessed the desire to complete college, and that is a theme that college-going students and people struggling to pay for higher level education can understand. A review by Rescue.org highlights the kind of people whom the film crew intended on interviewing (Garrity). Instead of focusing on the extremely traumatic cases, which would seem the most likely choice, the team decided to focus on individuals who were hopeful about their future (Garrity). This artistic decision ties into the objective and how to utilize stories to convey the message to the audience—relatively affluent individuals in other countries with aspirations for their own future. Meghan Garrity of Rescue.org echoes a similar opinion insofar as that she strongly likes the “positive stories of resilience” and views them as a “welcome change” (Garrity).”

Current Events for Students

For my midterm paper I focused on the way that information about the refugee crisis can be incorporated into a classrooms setting. By looking at the work that the Choices Program, a non-profit based out of Brown University, and the curriculum that they have created for students, I was curious about how teachers can incorporate current events into the classroom. My main argument was centered on the way in which violence and graphic content should be represented in classrooms. Research has not explored the effects of violence in the media as it relates to learning, but there has been backlash in recent years about graphic content in video games. How would teaching graphic material in classrooms differ from the graphic content that students would see in video games? Why would one be acceptable and the other be frowned upon? And when is the right time to incorporate more graphic current events into classrooms?

Researchers and parents who argue against violence in video games claim that there is some sort of desensitization to suffering of others and of violent acts. Research has also showed that violence in video games may lead to more violent behavior in children. However, I argue that using graphic content in classrooms when teaching current events is essential, especially in older children who should be aware of what is happening in the world. Through curricula like the Choices Program students gain language skills and critical thinking skills that are essential in the world we live in today.

 

If you want to learn more about the Choices Program use the following link: Link to the Curriculum: http://www.choices.edu/resources/twtn/twtn-refugees.php

But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise: Exhibition Critique

As the migrant crisis unfolds, the world directs its focus to the Middle East and North Africa, and individuals are sharing their stories to garner attention to the realities of their circumstances. One mean through which individuals choose to share their story is through art, a medium often used to express oneself, send a message, or evoke emotion. An exemplar of an artistic representation of current global events occurring is the But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise exhibition in the Guggenheim Museum from April to October 2016.

The But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise exhibition features 17 artists and 18 works of art and is funded by Guggenheim UBS Maps, which “aims to add art to the museum’s collection from various underrepresented regions” (Pollack 1). The primary objective in creating this exhibit is to feature overlapping themes, especially migration, amongst the contemporary Middle Eastern and North African artwork. Some of the main features of the exhibition include Abbas Akhavan’s Study for a Moment, Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s Flying Carpets, and Ori Gersht’s Evaders.

Study for a Monument
Artist: Abbas Akhavan, Guggenheim Museum

Abbas Akhavan’s installation is a collection of bronze casts that reproduce the native plants species of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Akhavan’s installation represents the destruction of the environment in and around the Mesopotamia river systems due to the war and turmoil of modern-day Iraq.

Artist: Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Guggenheim Museum b. 1978, Tunis
Flying Carpet
Artist: Nadia Kaabi-Linke, Guggenheim Museum

Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s work, Flying Carpet suspends stainless steel and rubber carpet shapes to look like a bridge as well as cages from a different angle. Kaabi-Linke’s work represents the “immigrants’ vulnerable status” by contrasting “the freedom embodied by the flying carpet” with “the mobility of the [illegal] street sellers” in North and Central Africa.

Evaders Artist: Ori Gersht, Guggenheim Museum
Evaders
Artist: Ori Gersht, Guggenheim Museum

Ori Gersht’s piece, Evaders, created in 2009, is the portrayal of a journey through which Walter Benjamin traveled. The video, showing both Ori Gersht’s movements as well as the environment through which he was portraying to travel through, depicts the “primal struggle between a solitary individual and the elements” through migration (But a Storm… Ori 1). The sounds of the wind blowing and the snow crunching beneath Gersht’s feet are relatable to those who’ve experienced the sound and feeling that Gersht expresses in his video.

Presidential Candidates: Immigration Policy

As Election Day rapidly approaches, the media and public’s emphasis on the scandals of the two main presidential candidates continues to persist. Consequently, much of the discussion on public policy that the candidates stand for end up on the back burner. While the candidates’ characters are called into question, discussion of the candidates’ stances on policy, especially immigration, should also continue.

According to PBS’s compilation of Clinton and Trump’s stances on immigration*, Clinton seems to have more of an open mind about immigration than Trump. Clinton proposes opening a route to citizenship, granted the individuals are not violent criminals or lawbreakers, to whom deportation may result. Borders should only stand where appropriate as she is more concerned about the security of the borders as opposed to the physical structure of borders. While there seems to be restrictions in place for various circumstances, Clinton seems to be open to the idea of accepting immigrants into the country while maintaining certain restrictions to our borders.

Trump, on the other hand, seems to have a stricter view on immigration, though he tends to flip flop his views during his campaign. In the same PBS article*, Trump is reported to oppose pathways to citizenship “for immigrants in the U.S. illegally” and “birthright citizenship” (PBS). If individuals who do not have legal status in the U.S. but would like to stay, then they would have to apply for citizenship or legal status after leaving the country and returning home or else face deportation. Trump supports and widely publicizes a physical wall on the United States and Mexico border that Mexico would finance as well as an increase in border security. Additionally, the article discusses Trump’s strict deportation policy to remove criminals and immigrants with expired visas in addition to opposing President Obama’s bestowing amnesty to defer immigration enforcement. The article presents Trump’s stances on immigration to be much stricter than Clinton’s stance.