Thursday, July 15, 2010

Weighing One's Return on Investment

In both our personal and professional lives we often face moments when critical decisions must be made. Have we reached the point where enough is finally enough? Is it time to cut our losses?

The decision to abandon long-held goals, unrealistic desires, and/or irrational fantasies is often more painful than anticipated. Why? Largely because of all the excuses we've kept feeding ourselves to sustain our hope that things could, would, and should work out. Consider the following all-too-familiar situations:
  • After realizing that the crush you had on someone can only lead to a hopeless case of unrequited love, you decide to move on with your life.
  • After trying everything within your power to avoid a separation or divorce, you realize that your spouse will never change or become the partner you had hoped for.
  • After doing everything possible to get promoted by your employer, you realize that office politics and a failing economy are conspiring against you.
  • After trying to be sympathetic to a friend or loved one with a substance abuse problem, you reach the point where you realize that you can't afford to be part of a double drowning.
  • After years of companionship from your dog or cat, you're faced with the need to bring your best friend in to the veterinarian and have your pet put to sleep.
As painful as it is, sometimes a person has to assess the kind of emotional, professional, and/or financial return he is receiving on a major investment. When reality bites hard, the question is whether someone has the inner strength to approach the situation objectively, do the math, and detach himself from a hopeless situation.

* * * * * * *
In a 22-minute short that will be screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the audience meets three young Israelis on a camping trip. Written and directed by Nimrod Shapira, Tom (which is based on a camping trip Shapira took when he was 23 years old) depicts how a friend's tiny acts of selfishness finally bring the title character to the point of no return.
  • Daniel (Shlomi Bertonov) has the kind of good looks and charisma that draw people to him like moths to a flame. He's also the kind of straight asshole who is good at stringing people along. Daniel is constantly putting down his girlfriend (Michal) and tossing meaningless emotional crumbs to his close friend, Tom. Although quick to tell Tom that he loves him and wishes Michal could be more like Tom, that's about as far as Daniel is willing to go in the direction of brotherly love. It soon becomes obvious that Daniel is used to having his co-dependent friends clean up the physical and emotional wreckage he routinely leaves in his wake.
  • Michal (Gaia Shalita-Katz) is an attractive, intelligent young woman who has had just about all of Tom's selfishness that she can take. She's starting to understand that she deserves better.
  • Tom (Ariel Wolf) is a young gay man with a big crush on Daniel. Even though it hurts, he's willing to sit by the campfire and watch Daniel make out with Michal just so he can be close to the object of his desire.
Daniel (Shlomi Bertonov) and Tom (Ariel Wolf)

As Shapira explains in his director's notes:
"I tried to pass on to the viewer the distress and frustration experienced by a young man who is already aware of his out-of-the-norm sexual identity while keeping it a secret (meaning that he's still in the closet). Another secret making it harder for the young person is a strong and impossible love towards a friend. In addition to the love being a secret and unrequited, I wanted to burden yet another difficulty on my protagonist, Tom. Consequently, his love interest is a person who takes him for granted and uses the fact he would follow him, come hell or high water.

Tom has always done everything to please his love interest; however it will never result in what he truly wants. I made the film to give Tom an alternative. I wanted him to wake up from the state of stagnation he is in and to rebel, however minute his rebellion is.

I directed the film so it is not mediated through Tom, but accompanies him. The viewer constructs Tom's world as the movie progresses. Silences are very present in the movie and a lot of things are kept unexpressed. Using minimal communication between the characters (and almost no eye-contact), I tried to walk the viewer with Tom through the process of disillusionment."
Ariel Wolf as Tom

After Tom goes to sleep, Daniel forgets to turn off the car's headlights (which have been lighting their campsite). The next morning, the car's battery has died, Daniel is still acting like a selfish asshole, and Michal and Tom separately come to the conclusion that Daniel is not worth their anguish. As they wait by the roadside, hoping to hitch a ride back home, a car finally stops to pick them up. When the driver asks if he should wait for Daniel (who can be seen in the car's rear view mirror), Tom tells him to just keep driving.

Shapira's short may be beautifully filmed, but it's very frustrating to watch. While it's easy to sympathize with the extended silences and fomenting frustration endured by Michal and Tom, 22-minutes of unrequited love quickly becomes tedious.

* * * * * * * *
The phrase "No good deed goes unpunished" takes on added meaning in Agnès Jaoui's new comedy, Let It Rain. In addition to writing and directing the film, Jaoui stars as Agathe Villanova, a feminist writer and hard-working politician who returns to her childhood home in the south of France during a political campaign to help sort out her deceased mother's estate. No sooner has she arrived than everyone wants her time and undivided attention:
  • Florence (Pascale Arbillot) is Agathe's emotionally needy sister who has been planning to leave her husband, Stéfane, for another man. Florence has always insisted that Agathe was their mother's favorite and that, as a result, she suffered from an inequity of maternal love.
  • Stéphane (Guillaume de Tonquedec) is Florence's extremely passive husband. Not particularly concerned about their financial problems, he is more at ease playing with their children. He seems to be a devoted, loving, and very laid-back father.
  • Antoine (Frédéric Pierrot) is Agathe's boyfriend, who has accompanied her on her trip. Antoine finally decides that he's had enough of Agathe's constant crises, breaks up with her, and returns to Paris.
  • Mimouna (Mimouna Hadji) has been the family maid for many years. Although Mimouna helped raise both Agathe and Florence, she is acutely aware that there is no more money to pay her wages. She has started to look for another job. In a moment together, Mimouna tells Agathe that she will never be happy until she knows Agathe is married and has children.
  • Karim (Jamel Debouzze) is Mimouna's intense-looking son, who works as a desk clerk in a hotel. A handsome and talented young man, Karim is not just a perfectionist, he is also an aspiring filmmaker. His traditional values make it difficult for him to have an affair with a very willing woman he knows.
  • Michel Ronsard (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is a friend of Karim's who has delusions of being a reporter (he's also been carrying on a torrid affair with Agathe's sister, Florence). His biggest talent, however, is for fucking things up.
Agathe (Agnès Jaoui), Karim (Jamel Debouzze)
and Michel Ronsard (Jean-Pierre Bacri)

As the film begins, Michel has persuaded Karim to ask Agathe to participate in a documentary they hope to make about successful women. No sooner has Agathe agreed to give them her time than Michel starts to ruin one thing after another. His overweaning ego and total lack of professionalism quickly start to ruin Karim's attempts to record Agathe's interview. Perhaps the funniest moment in the film occurs when Agathe starts to answer a complex question but is drowned out by a herd of sheep.

Michel Ronsard (Jean-Pierre Bacri) and Agathe (Agnès Jaoui)

One disaster follows another as Michel's car flips over into a ditch, the heavens open up, and Agathe, Karim, and Michel end up stranded in a country farmhouse. Although I enjoyed the film's mischievous score, at 100 minutes in length Let It Rain has trouble sustaining any momentum. There are some sweet laughs and poignant moments, but viewers will probably find their patience wearing thin early into the film. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * *
While the previous two films deal with diminishing returns on investment, every so often one comes across a story that leans in the opposite direction. In recent years, microloan programs such as Kiva and Lend For Peace have shown remarkably strong returns on microcredit investments in Third World countries. Rarely, however, does one see what effect tiny loans and donations have had on individuals over a protracted period of time.

Jennifer Arnold's provocative new documentary, A Small Act, shows how even a tiny donation from someone halfway around the world can have a ripple effect within a small African village. Many years ago, when a Swedish schoolteacher named Hilde Back started making monthly donations of $15 to sponsor the higher education of a young student in rural Kenya, she never imagined that:
  • Chris Mburu would graduate from Harvard University and become a human rights lawyer for the United Nations.
  • She would actually meet Chris.
  • Chris would bring her to Kenya so she could see the impact her donations had had on his small village.
  • She would be made an honorary member of his village.
  • Chris and his cousin (Jane Wanjiru Muijai) would start their own scholarship program and name it the Hilde Back Education Fund.
  • The documentary's screening at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival would generate a wave of donations to the Hilde Back Education Fund. According to the filmmaker, "It started with one person standing up and offering to give $5,000 and someone else saying they’d match that. Over the course of 10 days at Sundance, the audience members donated $90,000. Since that time, someone who saw the movie (who’s a philanthropist and has another foundation that does work in Africa) has decided to give $250,000 to the fund. They’re expanding from a village-wide program to a nationwide program. Instead of 10 kids, they’re taking 100 kids and that number will get bigger."
Hilde Back

As Arnold explains in her director’s statement:
"When we think of Africa, many of us imagine slums, genocide, refugees, or victims of HIV. There are, of course, major crises on the continent and many important films about the area’s troubles. But, in reality, there is also huge potential, which is not represented in the media. There is a tendency for filmmakers to focus on the disenfranchised. From a Kenyan viewpoint, this at least creates sympathy, but ultimately undermines progress -- it fosters the impression that Africans aren’t equipped to tackle their nations’ issues.

I attended the University of Nairobi in the early nineties and made lifelong friendships with other university students. They’re now middle class Kenyans who are not only interested in taking over the role of development in Africa; they have the funds and expertise to put their plans into action. Much to my surprise, after graduation my friends began making more money per year than I did. I’m an independent filmmaker, so that might not be saying much. But why was I surprised by their success? After all, they have the same degrees as I do. They’re equally intelligent and passionate about their careers. At the time however, my expectation was that challenges in Kenya would hold them back. I was wrong, but my attitude was endemic of a typical worldview.

There is an expectation that development must be brought into African nations from the outside and little recognition of the change already happening from within. This is largely due to the media. The images we produce are far reaching. It is important for film to promote dialogue between different groups. But for real growth to happen, people must view each other as equally capable partners in change. Documentaries need to present a more balanced view of African societies and incorporate pro-active, competent characters.

Chris Mburu is one such person. He is a contemporary Kenyan who bridges his country’s past, present, and future. He may have been born poor, but he’s now a lawyer for the United Nations. He was once sponsored by a Westerner and is now a sponsor himself. Chris and his colleagues know how to transform the world around them. They embody empowerment and self-determination. Their voices are imperative to development, but they are nowhere on screen.

Chris believes the leading issue facing developing nations is not poverty, disease, ethnic, or religious intolerance. He believes it is ignorance and lack of education. Without education, people are less likely to secure well-paying jobs which could lift them out of poverty and enable them to give back to their society. Without education, a person is less likely to use a condom and protect him/herself from disease. And most importantly, a society without access to education is more ignorant, more desperate, and therefore, more susceptible to political manipulation along ethnic and religious lines. This can lead to violence and conflict. Chris believes in the transformative power of education, because this is what changed his life.
The circumstances in Kenya may seem daunting from the outside. The quality of education has gone down. There is enormous disparity of wealth. In 2007, during the Presidential election, politicians used ethnicity in their campaign strategies, which sparked ethnic-based violence and divided the country down tribal lines. These are the exact types of situations Chris is trying to address. His plan is simple: support academically gifted kids from needy families. He considers his project an investment which will grow exponentially. Because he was sponsored, he’s now in the position to sponsor multiple students. He does so with the understanding that they will grow up to sponsor a bigger group. Chris’s background gives him a unique perspective. When he encounters a child who is barefoot and destitute, he doesn’t see a victim, but a solution.

When I heard the story of Chris’s fund, I knew I could create something different. This film is an engaging narrative with huge stakes: the kids who compete for a scholarship are literally fighting for their lives. The relationship between Chris and Hilde is incredible and endearing. The inherent theme built into the story is that individual acts make a collective difference and the main character offers a concrete example of exactly what action we can take. But I’m not drawn to the story for its message. I am making this film because it exposes a part of Kenya which I know well, and should be properly represented. This documentary challenges viewers to examine their previous perceptions about Kenya. It broadens and subverts the typical portrayal of what is happening in Africa today, which will reshape the dialogue between all of us who are interested in change."
Students in Kenya

Jennifer Arnold's documentary examines the political realities of what happens to poor children who can't afford schooling, while stressing the different outcomes for male and female students. A Small Act demonstrates how Hilde Back (a refugee from Nazi Germany who was helped by Swedes) continued the cycle of reaching out to others through her small monthly donations that sponsored Mburu's education. It also shows how each small act of generosity or sponsorship can reap huge dividends -- not just by providing poor students with a higher education -- but by inspiring them to keep "paying it forward."

The scenes in which Hilde meets Chris and learns of the scholarship program he launched in her honor -- as well as his visits to her apartment in Sweden -- are extremely poignant. In the following video clip, Jennifer Arnold documents the first time her film was shown in Mburu's village:

In recent years I've seen numerous documentaries about the importance of education for minority children in America. A Small Act takes its audience in a different direction by having Mburu describe, quite passionately, the urgent role a higher education for poor students can play in transforming Africa and reducing genocidal violence. It's a fascinating film, well worth your time. Here's the trailer: