Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Racing Against The Clock

Control freaks hate natural disasters. Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, and erupting volcanoes are extremely messy. The clean-up that follows is simply exhausting. It's a good thing such people weren't around some 65.5 million years ago when that pesky meteor caused a mass extinction!

And yet, something about human nature finds immense satisfaction in destroying things. Long before video games and action adventure films trained young minds to celebrate explosions and random shootings, religious wars were hell-bent on forcing their opponents into submission. Raping and pillaging were great sport.  To the victor went the spoils.

In April 2003, when the United States invaded Baghdad, the looting of the National Museum of Iraq and University of Baghdad followed by the destruction of the Iraq National Library and National Archive resulted in a horrible loss of historic relics from one of the world's oldest civilizations. These acts of destroying a people's culture followed in the sorry path of Nazi book burnings and the March 2001 dynamiting of the massive Buddhas of Bamiyan (statues that had been created in central Afghanistan during the Sixth Century).

Some Christians use Dominionism as an excuse for raping the environment.  Quoting from the Book of Genesis, they interpret text from the King James Version of the Bible -- "And God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" -- as justification for rampant deforestation and overfishing to the point where the extinction of species is seen as collateral damage to proving man's superiority over lesser creatures.

How does the burden of honoring one's promise complement efforts to adapt sustainable approaches to farming and fishing? Underlying each concept is the desire to preserve and protect something that should be treasured rather than destroyed, a culture (be it human or marine-based) that needs to be nurtured rather than decimated.

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BESA: The Promise, which received its world premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, tells an amazing story of how religious integrity mixed with the milk of human kindness.  There aren't too many stories about Muslims who helped Jews during the Holocaust.  However, in 1939, King Zog announced that all Jews residing in Albania could obtain citizenship. After fascist troops invaded his nation and sent him into exile, many Albanian Muslims gave a sacred oath (the ancient besa) to help protect the Jewish refugees.

In 2002, when Norman Gershman traveled to Albania to photograph some of the remaining Albanians who had helped to protect Jews, he met Rexhep Hoxha, the son of a pastry chef who had hidden a family of Bulgarian Jews in his home. When the Abadjens left their beloved prayer books with Hoxha's father, Rifat (who had given them shelter for 14 months during World War II), he promised to return the sacred Hebrew texts to Abadjens when the war finally ended.

Poster art for BESA: The Promise

In her poignant documentary, Rachel Goslins accompanies Gershman as he helps the 66-year-old Albanian Muslim travel to Israel to return the prayer books to their rightful owners. Considering that the oldest surviving member of the Abadjen family has absolutely no interest in discussing what happened to his family during the war, their journey is fraught with uncertainty. In her director’s statement, Goslins writes:
"Working on this film for the past five years has been a journey that has affirmed my faith in human decency and courage, albeit one with some unexpected turns in the road and a nerve-wracking home stretch. With the magnetic Norman Gershman as our guide and our muse, we started out making a film about a forgotten history of interfaith friendship and bravery, interviewing World War II survivors from Albania about their past. Along the way we stumbled across Rexhep Hoxha and were pulled decisively into the present by his modern-day quest. Going from a historical story to a vérité one is not without its dangers. We followed our hearts  (and Rexhep) without really knowing whether there would be an ending to our film. By the final days of shooting, as Rexhep moved towards the unknowable culmination of his decades-long search, we were as nervous and invested as he was.
The film became almost incidental to the larger responsibility of bearing witness to the sacrifice and dedication of Rexhep, his family, and all of the people who trusted us with their stories along the way. What happened next left all of us breathless. I could not have scripted anything remotely this moving and profound. The fact that Rexhep’s story not only really happened, but that we had the privilege to discover and document it is one of those rare gifts from the documentary gods for which I will be forever grateful."
Photographer Norman Gershman with his portrait of Rexhep Hoxha

BESA: The Promise gets off to a slow start, which might easily mislead audiences into expecting little if any emotional payoff. However, the film's tense climax and spiritually-uplifting resolution will leave even the most cynical viewer with a new respect for the inherent decency of men. With a score by Philip Glass, BESA: The Promise has a story like no other. Here's the trailer:

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While the narrowing window of opportunity to Rexhep Hoxha to return the prayer books to their rightful owners provides a thrilling story of suspense, intrigue, devotion, and fate, Sushi: The Global Catch has a much more profoundly alarming tale to tell.  It's no secret that the world's oceans are currently being overfished, with some species being forced to the brink of extinction. But a peculiar piece of aviation history created a crisis for one particular fish stock: the blue fin tuna.

For centuries, Japanese fisherman have looked to the ocean for their sustenance. Whereas sushi and sashimi have traditionally been viewed as a delicacy by the Japanese,their recent growth as an international fast food has been cause for deep concern. From Texas to Poland, from San Francisco to Brazil, sushi has reached increasing heights of popularity for its visual appeal as well as its taste.

A dangerously popular serving of maguro

Mark Hall's sobering documentary explains how sushi gained such international popularity and where the growing hunger for this form of Japanese cuisine is headed (with astonishing insights into supply, demand, and the invisible hand of the free market). The catalyst which changed everything? Jet travel.

Fans of maritime history recall the impact of commercial jet travel on the North Atlantic passenger trade of the mid 20th century. Suddenly, a week's leisurely voyage aboard an ocean liner could be accomplished in one day. Business and leisure travelers quickly took to the skies, leaving many ships with empty staterooms.

In order to remain in business, many steamship companies reconditioned their fleets for cruising, which has since evolved into a $30 billion segment of the international tourism industry. Back in the 1970s, however, the Boeing 747s flown by Japan Airlines were leaving Tokyo filled with merchandise for overseas clients were returning home with empty cargo holds.

JAL's air cargo executive Akira Okazaki (consider to be the father of “global” sushi) helped to design and develop freezer containers that could contain large fish carcasses. He first shipped tuna from New York to Tokyo in 1973. Sushi: The Global Catch contains the only known archival footage showing the breakthrough that now allows fish to be shipped from Tokyo to sushi restaurants around the world on a daily basis.

Frozen tuna being processed

Hall's film crew takes viewers inside Tokyo's monstrous Tsukiji fish market to witness daily tuna auctions and interview people who sell fish to international restaurant clients. But with blue-fin becoming harder to find, the task of meeting the growing worldwide consumer demand for sushi faces some unique challenges.
  • Greenpeace anticipates that Mediterranean blue-fin tuna will become extinct in 3-5 years.
  • China is expected will add 50 million sushi enthusiasts in the very near future.
  • Fisheries expert Boris Worm warns that the ocean's fish will be commercially extinct by 2043.
  • A veteran Japanese sushi chef is convinced that the world will run out of tuna long before it runs out of oil.
Poster art for Sushi: The Global Catch

Others interviewed for the film include:
Whether you are a devoted sushi fan, someone who admires the art of sushi, or simply concerned about the future of the ocean's fish stocks, you'll find Sushi: The Global Catch to be a fascinating and highly educational documentary. Here's the trailer:

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