flwyd: (Taoist goddess Doumu)
I watched Kūmāré at IFS tonight. It's a documentary about a raised-Hindu guy from New Jersey who decides to become a "fake" guru. He grew his hair and beard out, learned some yoga moves, started wearing billowy orange robes, and imitated his grandmother's accent. He moved to Phoenix, AZ (so nobody would recognize him) and started attracting followers.

Most of the film is documentary footage of group sessions and individual interactions. Some of them are silly (but not in a trolling Borat fashion). Most of the scenes involve serious personal growth for the people involved. What's fascinating is that being a fake guru is a lot more like being a fake author than a fake doctor&endash;if you talk and people listen, you're a teacher. This believability is compounded by the fact that what Kūmāré teaches&endash;the guru is in you&endash;isn't far from what many "real" eastern mystics teach: god is in everyone, but you need help to realize that. In the end, Kūmāré finds it very challenging to tell his students that he's just a guy named Vikram from Jersey because they've gotten so much actual value from his guru persona.

This film is a good example of what I like to think of as religion as a spiritual placebo. When someone like me or Kūmāré leads a ritual, we realize that the specific words that people say and gestures that they do don't cause a spiritual experience or personal growth. But like a sugar pill can trigger your body's natural healing processes, a good ritual can trigger your mind to go into "whoa mode."

You should definitely watch this film if you've spent time around new age or alt-religious communities. Even if just casually, like living in Boulder. Easily-offended religious people may get upset, but they should watch it too, because being frequently upset is the main pastime of easily-offended religious people. There's a trailer and other info on the Kūmāré movie site.
flwyd: (Trevor baby stare)
Got some time to kill? Been through all Vi Hart's videos on YouTube? The next best thing there is almost assuredly Don't Eat the Pictures, a Sesame Street movie from 1983 full of dark myths and deep characters. I saw this on TV when I was 4. Years later, I remembered parts of it vividly, but nobody my age had any idea what I was talking about. Did I really have an imagination rich enough to come up with this? A couple folks have confirmed my memories that this producted. And now, thanks to [livejournal.com profile] scott_lynch, I know what it's called and where to find it.

Originally posted by [livejournal.com profile] scott_lynch at Against Big Bird, The Gods Themselves Contend In Vain
I was a hard-core Sesame Street viewer from about 1979 to 1984, and my memories of the show are the sort of deep nostalgic tangle you'd expect, with a great deal of idiosyncratic noise blended into the signal. So, for many years, I carried around a vague but emotionally vivid recollection of a Sesame Street episode in which Big Bird and Snuffleupagus had witnessed the the passage of a soul to the ancient Egyptian afterlife, complete with the weighing of the human heart against a feather. I shit you not.

For all those years, I just assumed that I was nuts, or that I was conflating a memory of a childhood dream with a childhood television experience. Not long ago, I was trading Sesame Street memories with that girl I like, and I determined to Google-fu my way to the truth.

In the 1983 special Don't Eat the Pictures, assorted humans and Muppets are stuck overnight in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While Oscar, Bob, Cookie Monster, Olivia, and some small children are having the sort of mild and educational adventures you'd expect, Big Bird and Snuffy meet Sahu, a 4,000-year-old Egyptian prince (!) condemned to wander eternally in spirit form (!!) unless he can answer a riddle posed by a demon (!!!) that appears to him each night at midnight. I am not fucking with you. This really happened.

There's Sahu!

ACTUAL DIALOGUE from Big Bird: "Oh no! The demon's gonna be here any second now!" And here's the appearance of that demon, played by James motherfucking Mason.

You know you want to keep going past the cut. )
flwyd: (intense aztec drummer DNC 2008)
Movie recommendation: The Interrupters. I just saw it at IFS. It's playing short engagements around the country and in the U.K. The credits include Frontline, so I assume it's either been on PBS or will be soon. It's intense–I was crying a lot more than I was laughing. It's also important–it's a documentary about people taking action and getting results on a major social problem: inner-city violence, especially the cycle of revenge killings.

The Interrupters is a documentary about the organization CeaseFire in Chicago. Their goal is to stop the spread of violence by interrupting situations that could escalate into somebody getting killed. To do this effectively, the interrupters have to be people that the potentially violent folks can relate to–former gangbangers, hustlers, and convicts. Just as only a recovering alcoholic can effectively lead an AA meeting, these are guys (and a couple women) who participated in the cycle of violence, paid the consequences, and realized they need to help their community understand that those consequences aren't worth whatever benefits folks see in the moment.

This movie goes deep with a handful of interrupters, catching amazingly candid discussions. They start by diffusing an immediate situation, from two groups about to clash in the street to folks who call up feeling they've been wronged and want to kill the punks who messed things up. And while the immediate interventions are a great way to reduce murders one at a time, the real strength of the program is how the interrupters stay involved with the people they've intervened with. The documentary follows several of these long-term relationships, where the goal is to defuse not just a situation, but someone's attitude and outlook on life. And it works: 41-73% reductions in killings in neighborhoods where CeaseFire was working with a 16-35% drop directly attributable to CeaseFire. That speaks to what they call "a public health model to stop shootings and killings." They're working to build up herd immunity to violence in the neighborhood, but instead of vaccinations and doctors they use conversations and role models.

Where I'm Coming From

I was interested in this movie in part because it's similar to the work I do as a Black Rock Ranger at Burning Man, though these guys have orders of magnitude more intense situations, more personal connections, and more long-term value on the line. Some similarities:
Mediation, not authority
In both cases, many the folks we're reaching out to don't always have a good relationship with authority figures in general and police in particular. As mediators, we're not telling people what not to do; we're helping them think through why their first instinct may not be a good idea.
Social capital as a tool: community members, not outsiders
People are more likely to listen to folks they can identify with. As ex-gang leaders and hustlers, the people walking the streets for CeaseFire share a common background, skin color, and communication style as the folks they're reaching out to. As Burners who like to spend their vacation helping out, the Rangers share the aesthetics and lingo of the folks we're interacting with. And despite training and experience, both of us would do worse if we switched scenarios. I can create a much better connection with hippies and ravers and drunks and nerds and artists than I can with African Americans from the inner city. And vice versa, I expect.
It's not about you
This is a phrase the Rangers use in training to remind ourselves that the Ranger isn't the important one in an interaction: we leave our ego in camp and focus on the needs of the participants having a challenge. The movie didn't raise this point explicitly, but I noticed that the interrupters they followed were completely focused on the folks they were trying to help. When they talked about themselves, it was to illustrate a point, to let the person know they'd been there and they'd come around. It's not about trying to be a hero, it's about doing what you can to make things better.
Community acknowledgment
Through the social capital they've built through past actions, both groups are recognized as important mediators. While the movie had a scene of a hospital visit to an interrupter who'd been shot, it seemed the communities generally respected them; both sides in a conflict would listen to a guy with a CeaseFire logo. Rangers similarly focus on social capital, and have created a situation where someone in a khaki shirt and a floppy hat will usually be listened to with respect.
Focus on the immediate problem with an eye to education for the long term
One way the Rangers have it a lot easier than CeaseFire is that our solutions only need to work for a week. If two camps are driving each other crazy with their music, we can mediate a solution that will keep everyone from coming to blows until Sunday, when they get to pack up and not be neighbors any more. We try to educate so that participants will be less likely to have the same problem next year, but our main concern is the immediate situation. CeaseFire's first goal is to make sure nobody gets shot right now. They then take it a day and a week at a time, checking in on their new friends and finding ways to show them how to make progress.
I'm not claiming to be in the same league as these guys–my week in the desert contributing to public safety is nothing compared to stepping into potentially lethal situations, year round, day in and day out. But I'm glad to see that we've independently developed a similar approach to community conflict resolution. This style works well in inner city environments with decades of social baggage from unemployment, challenged schools, and cycles of violence. It also works in a radical experimental city with a demographic slanted towards the college-educated, the middle-class, the artistic, and the broadly-traveled. Maybe that's evidence that it can work in communities all over the country and throughout the world.

The Passion

Sunday, November 7th, 2010 09:30 pm
flwyd: (Taoist goddess Doumu)
Following up on the success of "The Passion of the Christ," Mel Gibson announced a new film, "The Compassion of the Buddha" followed by a sequel, "The Dispassion of the Lao Zi."

(Aside: there are lots of figures famous for passion and compassion, but very few individuals are famous for the degree of their dispassion. Politicians are famous, judges generally are not. And judges in religious contexts are generally not especially dispassionate.)

Oscar's Shorts

Sunday, February 21st, 2010 10:37 pm
flwyd: (Trevor cartoon abi-station.com/illustmak)
Tonight I watched the films nominated for Best Animated Short Subject Oscar (plus a couple honorable mentions) at IFS. Here are the ones I'd like to see win:

Animated GIF Trailer )
flwyd: (Trevor baby stare)
It seems like most people thought less of AI: Artificial Intelligence than I did. I wonder if it appeals to me so much because the lead performance feels a lot like a kid with Asperger syndrome and I identify with that sort of kid*. Folks without that identity wouldn't have felt such a strong resonance and their opinions of the film would be less personal. I also wonder how people's opinions would differ if the movie stopped at the first ending point.

* I've never been diagnosed with (nor, to my knowledge, evaluated for) Asperger's or highly-functional autism in general, and I don't think a diagnosis would change anything for me. As a kid I displayed a lot of Asperger traits: language acuity, introversion, empathy challenges, dairy allergy. When I hear descriptions of aspie kids I think "Hey, that sounds like me." Many of the traits are less pronounced for me now than they used to be. Some of that difference may be due to growth and some may be due to practice.

Eat My Shorts

Sunday, February 25th, 2007 07:04 pm
flwyd: (Shakespeare bust oval)
"West Bank Story" just won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short. Several years ago, I came up with the idea of a production of "Romeo and Juliet" set in Jerusalem. While a short musical set between two falafel stands isn't what I had in mind, I'm glad someone else is on the same wavelength. Trailer here.
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