Friday, March 20, 2009

Out Of Africa

For many years it was known as The Dark Continent. Perhaps that was because so much of the early history of Africa was centered around the northern, sand-based regions of the Sahara and Egypt. Whether one looked to biblical epics such as The Ten Commandments, ancient dramas such as The Egyptian, desert adventures such as Lawrence of Arabia or comedies such as Ishtar, the action remained in Northern Africa. The same could be said for Hollywood extravaganzas like Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Taylor), Verdi's Aida, and the recent Sahara. 

But so much more has been inspired by the mysteries of Africa. There are screen classics ranging from the silent version of The Sheik (starring Rudolph Valentino), Casablanca, and The African Queen to Death on the Nile.   There are adventure romances  like The Snows of KilimanjaroMogambo, and 1956's Safari (a film starring Victor Mature and Janet Leigh that was marketed with such winning slogans as "Murderous Mau-Mau! Maddened Beasts! Mighty Jungle Love!").

There are "quest for riches" and hunting films like King Solomon's Mines and Hatari. There are movies that deal with genocide and political uprisings, like Hotel RwandaThe Last King of Scotland, and Zulu. There are the animated features like Disney's Tarzan and The Lion King.
Not only are there animal-oriented films like Born Free and Gorillas In The Mist, who could possibly forget the "great ape" spectacles like Mighty Joe Young and King Kong?  What about an entire literature of films about ape-men (nearly 90 movies have been based on the Tarzan character) including Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. A staged version of the Disney animation feature even made it to Broadway and Germany as a musical!

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The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco recently offered two programs which focused on events in modern Africa. Making a quick stop in San Francisco as part of a fundraising/book tour was Asher Naim, a former Israeli Ambassador who is now Chairperson of the Scholarship Fund For Ethiopian Jews.

The author of Saving the Lost Tribe: The Rescue and Redemption of the Ethiopian Jews, Naim was one of the key people working on the airlift of 14,500 Ethiopian Jews during a 36-hour period in May of 1991. The rescue/refugee operation -- code-named Operation Solomon -- went off with only one small hitch. The passenger count upon landing in Israel was larger than when people took off from Addis Ababa due to several births en route.

Before describing some of the intricacies of negotiating with the Ethiopian government, Ambassador Naim showed a short documentary about the airlift. A small portion of the footage can be seen in this clip:

At the time of the airlift, these Ethiopians were living in a hilltop region where the only form of transportation was walking. Among the more amazing facts is that what made the Ethiopians willing to leave their homes in the mountains was an ancient prophecy that eagles would come to fly them on their wings to Jerusalem. Not only was the evacuation a stunning strategic success, many of the Ethiopian youth (who could not read and had little exposure to the modern world) are now graduating from Israeli universities and becoming doctors, nurses, engineers and other professionals.

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The JCC's presentation of Dean Cameron's Nigerian Spam Scam Scam was a much more lighthearted affair. Having received numerous "spam" emails from Nigerians requesting financial assistance, writer/actor Dean Cameron decided there was plenty of comic gold to be mined from the experience. He spent about a year corresponding with one spammer and conducting conference calls with his attorney, "Perry Mason," assisting on the call. As the contacts continued, Cameron decided to throw as much linguistic garbage back at the Nigerians as he was receiving in their emails.

Scamming the scammers proved to be great fun -- and included such pranks as getting them to say hello to his cat, Mr. Snickers, on the phone. Using American slang mixed with utter gibberish, he did his best to confuse the Nigerians. One of the greater ironies of the experience is that, after he posted all of the emails on a website, the spammer found the site, realized he had been punk'd, but continued to try to get money from Cameron.

Directed by Paul Provenza, Cameron and his cohort, Victor Isaac, enact the email exchanges and conference calls in a 90-minute presentation filled with laughs. Although the sound and video in this clip are hardly top quality, anyone who has received one of these emails will recognize the mangled language from the Nigerian scammer and appreciate the gobbledygook thrown right back at him by Mr. Cameron.

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