Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tough Choices

Written in 1743, Carlo Goldoni's popular Commedia dell'arte farce, The Servant of Two Masters, focuses on the lengths to which the wily Truffaldino will go to get more food in his belly. Cursed with an insatiable hunger, Truffaldino sees the opportunity to serve a second master as a chance to get more food -- no matter the trials and tribulations he might encounter on his way to achieving satisfaction.

Whether a person thirsts for knowledge, status, wealth, or power, the merest hint of another challenge may whet his appetite for more of the same. Oftentimes hunger, yearning, greed, lust, and desire come from deep-rooted emotional needs that can never be fully satisfied.

Stephen Sondheim's 1987 musical, Into The Woods, focused on the characters from a group of beloved fairy tales who all wished for something that would change their lives. As the audience soon learned, the fulfillment of those wishes was often accompanied by hidden costs that compromised each character's integrity. The double-edged sword of wish fulfillment can be seen in each of the following truisms:
  • The meek shall inherit the earth.
  • I am your biggest fear and your best fantasy.
  • Good things come to those who wait.
  • Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man how to fish and he will never go hungry.
  • The devil you know is better than the one you don't.
  • Beware your fantasy, it might just come true.
If knowledge brings power, knowledge can also bring the pain of greater awareness.  Things that once seemed black and white (and relatively easy to understand) move into greyer territories of comprehension that may contain treacherous pools of confusion, resentment, deception, and disillusionment. Without a diagnosis of schizophrenia, can one really have the best of all possible worlds?

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Coming up at the 13th San Francisco Independent Film Festival is a curious documentary named Toumast: Between Guitars and Kalishnikovs. Beautifully filmed by Dominique Margot, it offers breathtaking Saharan landscapes while telling the story of a man torn between two identities.

Born as a Tuareg, Moussa Ag Keina grew up among the nomads who roam the Sahara. Over the years, political differences between countries like Mali and Niger have taken their toll on the Tuareg population and its rapidly disappearing culture. 

Like many young Tuaregs, Moussa sought employment in Muammar al Gaddafi's armed forces in Libya in the 1980s. Wounded during his time spent with the Tuareg Liberation Front, he received medical treatment in France.

Disillusioned by the random bloodshed he witnessed in the Sahara (which is shown in the documentary) as well as the assassinations of 12 of his colleagues, Moussa has evolved from a rebel fighter into a rebel musician. As a Paris-based singer/guitarist (and leader of the musical ensemble named Toumast), he tries to make people more aware of the plight of  Africa's Tuaregs through his concert appearances and recordings.

Aminatou Goumar and Moussa Ag Keina

As Margot follows her subject across the Sahara, she witnesses the emotional loyalties that tug at his heart. On one hand, Moussa identifies strongly as a Tuareg, misses the nomadic cuisine he enjoyed as a child, and anguishes over the indignities his people have suffered as a result of drought and politics. On the other hand, the temptation to return to a lifestyle which depends on Kalishnikov assault rifles is less appealing than the freedom he enjoys creating music.

Moussa's travels take him to Saharan oases (where a guest is always greeted with free water) and to Kidal, a city in Mali where he encounters a women's music ensemble named Tilwat. (In Taureg society, women are equal to men -- as a member of Toumast explains, Tuareg music cannot be created or performed without women). 

Aminatou Goumar and Moussa Ag Keina

Toumast is quite different from most documentaries about contemporary musicians. Filmed against a background of political isolation and cultural alienation, it is filled with exotic images -- ranging from camel racing to desert sunsets. Although obviously now a French resident, more than ever before Moussa feels like a man without a country. Here's the trailer:

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If one were to examine trends in disposable income over the past four decades, two might stand out above others: conspicuous consumption and ethical consumerism. Whereas the first clings to the philosophy that "he who has the most toys when he dies wins," the second urges consumers to use their buying power to bring about social change.

Starting in the 1970s, deregulation gave rise to frequent flyer miles reward programs. Subsequently, companies like Working Assets and Whole Foods Market tried to attract consumers with their corporate philosophies. Marketing professionals developed new ways to convince shoppers that they deserved "the best that money can buy" and that "membership has its privileges." Robin Leach (the former host of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous) became famous for instilling the desire for "champagne wishes and caviar dreams" in the minds of his audience.

But consumers can be fickle. Back in the 1970s, when Anita Bryant was on a holy rampage against the LGBT community, I doubt she ever expected homosexuals to mobilize behind a boycott of Florida orange juice products.  Subsequent efforts to get Coors beer out of gay bars (due to the blatant homophobia of the conservative Coors family) had a similar corporate consciousness raising effect.

As part of the international protest against South Africa's policy of apartheid, many people "disinvested" themselves of stocks issued by South African companies. Although President Ronald Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, the Republican controlled Senate managed to override his veto, thus banning new investment by the United States in South Africa, prohibiting sales to the South African military, and restricting imports of South African goods. Following an amendment to the Budget Reconciliation Act of 1987, American  corporations doing business in South Africa were subject to double taxation.

Once it became evident that diamonds from African mines were being sold in world markets to help finance insurgencies, a campaign against the importation of "blood diamonds" became an international cause célèbre. On January 18, 2001,  in accordance with several United Nations resolutions, outgoing President Bill Clinton issued an executive order prohibiting the importation of rough diamonds from Sierra Leone.  In May of 2001, President George W. Bush issued an executive order banning important of diamonds from Liberia.

The ever-brilliant Mike Daisey is currently thrilling audiences at the Berkeley Rep with two new monologues. Five days prior to the West Coast premiere of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Daisey posted the following message on his blog:
"This is a very special show for us -- I don't think Jean-Michele and I have ever worked as hard as we have bringing this piece to light, or have poured as much of ourselves into the work as we have into this story. This monologue is the apotheosis of years of journalism, travel, research, investigation, sweat, and tears...and I believe it tells an untold and deeply necessary story for our time. 
On the one hand is the story of Steve Jobs -- his genius, his egotism, and his vision, a real life Willy Wonka whose obsessions have shaped our daily world. It explores the mysteries of the cult of Apple, the dream of a laptop so thin you can cut a sandwich with it, and the idea that if you control the metaphor through which we see the world, then in our age now, you can control the world itself."
Mike Daisey (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

"This story of technology and its pleasures is told against the landscape of southern China, where I witnessed firsthand the true human cost of creating all of our marvelous tools. This behind-the-scenes journey into the heart of the forges where iPods, iPhones, laptops, and all our technology spills forth illuminates a place where workers throw themselves to their deaths from high-rises in modern-day workhouses, where workers die on the production line of overwork, where they sleep in cement cells with dozens of women and men crammed in rooms like labor camps -- a landscape of our own making.
Today Steve Jobs announced he is stepping down from Apple for health reasons. It is almost impossible to imagine Apple without him, and there's a palpable sense of loss and change as the tech industry struggles to know what this will mean for its future. 
We stand at a crossroads, and it is my sincere belief that this story, capturing both his genius and his stubbornness, his brilliance and his ridiculousness, can help turn our attention to how the tech industry can grow up and begin to take responsibility for its decisions. Now is the best moment for us to look deeply and actually begin to see there's something more significant than the next iPhone's release, the next keynote presentation. Now is the moment to start waking up."
Mike Daisey poses in front of a monument to Deng Xiopheng
while visiting Shenzhen, China (Photo by:  Ursa Waz)

Daisey is far from alone in describing The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as the best work he and his wife have ever created. The show begins with Daisey mocking himself as a short, fat white man in a Hawaiian shirt navigating his way through the more remote recesses of the Chungking Mansions shopping complex in Kowloon as he searches for a specific type of hacker.

If artists like Daisey often seem subversive, it is because they tend to pay exquisite attention to detail while researching a role or project. Often, an artist's mental acuity will allow him to "connect the dots" in ways that elude most mainstream journalists and publicity flacks.

The audience listens in awe as Daisey describes the shrewd yet common sense methodology he used to seduce his guide into helping him pull off a preposterous business hoax. There are knowing howls of laughter as Daisey performs a withering takedown of the idiotic behavior inspired by Microsoft PowerPoint during business presentations.

Watching Daisey in performance, it becomes obvious that -- as much as he loves technology and worships Apple's products -- his recently acquired knowledge of how Apple products are assembled cause him genuine emotional pain. During his presentation Daisey is quick to point out that while so many Americans now express a desire for products that are "hand made," they have no knowledge that China's techniques of mass production (especially and most ironically in regard to electronics) rely on the cheapest form of  labor in which everything is hand made.

Caught in a tug of war between wanting the latest technology and agonizing over the human toll market demand exerts on Chinese assembly workers, Daisey aims to infect his audience with a virus of awareness, hoping that they might act to exert their power as consumers. He carefully points out how -- following a series of suicides at the manufacturing facilities of Foxconn -- the announcement that Foxconn had increased its labor costs by 30% overnight failed to make the mainstream media question what kind of conditions could allow any manufacturer to swallow a similar rise in labor costs.

Mike Daisey (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Unlike most of his performances (in which Daisey sits behind an old-fashioned wooden desk), he uses a sleek glass and metal desk for The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. This is a lecture of cutting-edge brilliance, tremendous pathos, and deep intellectual insight carefully calculated to shock audiences that demand the latest technology at the lowest prices.

With surgical precision, Daisey explains the appalling human cost of satisfying our trendy, market-driven desires and dares audiences to act like the conscientious consumers they'd like to believe they really are. Daisey's ultimate challenge to the audience is far less fearsome than what readers face at the end of Frank R. Stockton's celebrated short story, The Lady, or the Tiger? Nevertheless, he aims to provoke a crisis of conscience.

As the applause dies down and people leave the theatre, tiny tendrils of guilt begin to spread along their neural networks. Is Daisey's virus spreading? Only time will tell.

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