It's a constant conundrum. Many people who undertake a formal education graduate with shit for brains. Some spend the bulk of their college years getting drunk, laid, and stoned. Others do the bare minimum necessary to please their parents and then, upon graduating, forget anything they learned and go into the family business. Or get married.
There are others, however, for whom real education happens outside of the classroom.
- Some are driven by natural talent.
- Some are propelled forward by their intuition.
- Some act like sponges, absorbing wisdom from anyone they can.
- Some move from job to job, finding unexpected ways to learn and thrive.
- Some seek out information which has been denied to them by their parents.
- Some triumph over poverty or adversity by managing to educate themselves in unexpected ways.
Three films recently demonstrated how using one's street smarts to find happiness and fulfillment can sometimes be more rewarding than merely accepting the status quo. In each film, the protagonists were willing to ask hard questions and seek out difficult answers in order to satisfy their curiosity.
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Written by Shuchi Kothari and Dianne Taylor, Apron Strings is a melodrama from New Zealand whose main characters either own or frequent the ethnic food shops along a busy commercial strip in a suburb of Auckland.
- Lorna (Jennifer Ludlam) owns a bakeshop that specializes in customized wedding cakes. At 62, she has become the caretaker for her elderly mother (Kate Harcourt) and is constantly being asked for money by her good-for-nothing son, who is a compulsive gambler. Lorna loathes foreigners, particularly the ethnic types whose smelly foods have been stinking up the neighborhood.
- Barry (Scott Wills) has more than a gambling habit. He owes nearly $7,000 to his Vietnamese friend Minh and is always coming up with one investment "opportunity" after another that, in a perfect world, would give him partial ownership of a business without requiring him to do any work. Barry hates his mother's traditional meat-and-potatoes cooking and prefers to eat dinner at the local curry shop.
- Virginia (Jodie Rimmer) is Lorna's very pregnant single daughter who, to her mother's abject horror, gives birth to a black baby.
- Minh (Gary Young) has hopes of buying Lorna's business so he can expand his own bakery. He has even offered to forgive Barry's debt if the deal goes through.
- Tara (Leela Patel) owns a small Indian bakery and curry shop. She worships at a nearby Sikh temple and often gives Barry a free dinner of his favorite Indian foods. Tara, however, has never forgiven Anita, her younger -- and much prettier -- sister for bringing so much shame on their family that she could never find a husband of her own.
- Anita (Laila Rouass) married a white man and was thereafter shunned by her devoutly religious family. After becoming a top chef in London and Paris restaurants, she has become the star of a New Zealand cooking show that can frequently be seen on the television in Tara's restaurant. To say that Anita has turned into an ambitious, temperamental diva would be an understatement. She's a complete narcissist and a total bitch at work.
- Michael (Nathan Whitaker) is Anita's openly gay son. Because his father died when he was very young, Michael has always felt cheated out of having a real family.
- David (Peter Elliott) is Anita's live-in boyfriend. Although he is resigned to her tantrums, he pities Michael for having had to cope with Anita's unending "drama" throughout his life.
Meanwhile, Michael has visited his aunt Tara's curry shop on the pretense of researching a school paper about people who have started their own ethnic restaurants. Without disclosing the fact that he is actually Tara's nephew, he applies for the job opening posted in her shop's window. When Anita discovers what he has done (and what Michael is hearing about the family's past from Tara), she pays a long overdue visit to her estranged sister.
When Tara asks if Michael might be interested in her daughter Preet (Vandana Minhas), she is shocked when Michael explains that he has no interest in women because he is gay. As old sibling rivalries boil to the surface, Anita must help her sister understand that -- contrary to what Tara has been taught by her religion -- it's all right for Michael to be gay and that he is actually quite happy with his sexual identity.
As directed by Sima Urale, Apron Strings (which was recently screened at the 2009 Mill Valley Film Festival) is a decent, well-crafted movie about mothers from different cultures whose sons force them to make hard choices. I particularly liked Nathan Whitaker's portrayal of Michael and Kate Harcourt's acting as Barry's grandmother. The movie benefits from local color with an Indian anniversary celebration in Tara's restaurant and a visit to the Sikh temple where she worships. Here's the trailer.
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Over at the Roxie (which is hosting the Eighth San Francisco Documentary Festival) two films are noteworthy for showing the kind of surprising results that can ensue when people take educational and artistic matters into their own hands. Peppered with proverbs like "A conversation with a wise person is better than 10 years of study," The Philosopher Kings doesn't seek out the usual suspects. Instead, it seeks its wisdom from people who have spent many years working as custodians and janitors at some of the nation's top universities.
This is not a sequel to 1997's fictional Good Will Hunting (in which Matt Damon played a genius from a poor family in South Boston who found employment as a janitor on the Harvard campus). The real-life janitors featured in this film include:
- Josue Lajeunesse (Princeton University). After he finishes his custodial duties, Josue drives a taxi until the wee hours of the morning in his effort to support 15 family members back in Haiti (including his late brother's six children). When he travels to Haiti to visit his family, the poverty is ghastly; his sense of responsibility overwhelming.
- Corby Baker (Cornish College of the Arts). A young man who likes to soak up the creative energy on this Seattle campus, Corby is convinced that while he could live without love, he could not survive without art in his daily life. In his spare time, he works on his own art project: a dinosaur skeleton that can be transported to locations around town to protest America's dependence on fossil fuels.
- Oscar Dantzler (Duke University). An older janitor who has spent many years mentoring his "babies" while taking care of Duke University's chapel, Oscar is getting ready to retire and spend his free time fishing.
- Jim Evener (Cornell University). Drafted during the Vietnam War, Jim was shot in the back and spent three days dragging himself across the jungle floor. He finally regained consciousness in a hospital in Japan where doctors told him that he might never walk again.
- Melinda Augustus (University of Florida). When Melinda was just nine years old, her mother went into the hospital to deliver her fifteenth child, accidentally received a double dose of anesthesia. and came home in a coma from which she would never awaken. As a janitor at the Florida Museum of Natural History, Melinda has learned a great deal from the exhibits she cleans, ranging from dioramas to a butterfly habitat while working in an atmosphere of peace and quiet.
- Luis Cardenas (California Institute of Technology). Ten months after his car was hit by a drunk driver (leaving Luis in a coma for two weeks with brain trauma), he returned to his job as a custodian -- minus his right arm.
- Gary Napieracz (Cornell University). A custodian at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Gary never expected to end up working at a university after he was sent to Vietnam as a young man.
- Michael Seals (University of California, Berkeley). Although he is quick to acknowledge the many mistakes he made in his personal life, Michael feels that the greatest moment of his life occurred when his estranged son said "I'm glad you are my father."
Most of these janitors are the innocuous broom-pushers that so many people never even deign to acknowledge. But, in his director's statement, Patrick Shen notes that:
"Throughout the ages, great thinkers have attempted to examine the world and the relationships between all that exists within it, hoping to ultimately achieve some clarity on what is at the core of all our inquiries: 'How then should we live?' To shed some light on this matter, I wanted to talk to the 'non-experts,' the people who see it all and have been through it all: janitors.
It's commonly believed that a person should not be measured by his intellect, his economic status, or his possessions, yet we all perpetuate a value system that does little to honor people for who they are. Just because someone is famous, pretty, or educated doesn't mean their opinions matter more than the person who is none of those things.
At its core, The Philosopher Kings is about the value of the perspectives of people who are often marginalized and overlooked in our societies and what lessons about life, and how best to live it, that we might learn from them. There's value in connecting with people who share different backgrounds and experiences than us. It widens our scope of understanding of the world, ourselves, and our place in the world. We're capable of empathy, and ultimately respect for people who are different from us only when we truly see others as whole individuals.
My hope is that The Philosopher Kings will inspire audiences to value the experience and wisdom of people we might encounter in our everyday lives over the sensationalized messages our world offers us in the media and in the types of people we often find ourselves championing. Most of us know what it feels like to have something to say and no opportunity to share it.
The Philosopher Kings reveals what happens when seemingly 'ordinary' people who have never had an opportunity to speak, share openly about their experiences and the things they care most deeply about."
When I first moved to San Francisco, I took a swing shift job at an airfreight company. I soon learned that the swing and graveyard shifts attract very different personalities from the day shift. This lesson was repeated time and again when I worked in hospitals -- where the people with Type A personalities could be seen driving their colleagues crazy all day long (until the mellower night crew came on board).
One of the most remarkable traits of the janitors and custodians who appear in The Philosopher Kings is their lack of an inflated ego. They take pride in their work, are happy to serve, remain thankful for opportunities to learn, and are glad to be able to offer comfort to students and faculty alike. These are not the types of people who would rudely ask "Do you know who I am?" as a means of intimidating someone. That fact alone, makes this documentary a refreshing treat. Here's the trailer:
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Over the years, the Burning Man Festival has become an annual pilgrimage for artists and hipsters seeking enjoyment, enlightenment, reinvigoration, and a sense of community. In Olivier Bonin's new documentary, Dust and Illusions: A History of Burning Man, audiences learn a lot more than the linear history of how Burning Man has evolved during the past three decades.
While the film details some of the massive, wildly inventive art installations that miraculously materialize for a week in August, it also goes to great length to explain how these art projects build and nurture communities of artists throughout the year. Veterans of Burning Man do not mince words about how dangerous a week in the Nevada desert can be for those who come unprepared to deal with the elements.
More important, however, is the film's emphasis on how Burning Man enables artists to shine, people to achieve spiritual growth, and a unique subculture to continue to develop while producing great moments of inspiration. In his director's statement, Olivier Bonin explains that:
"This film has been produced in the Burning Man spirit, if that means anything. And here is why I think so: Burning Man is unique to me in the sense that everything you find at the event is made by the people who come to it and actually pay their own ticket. The organizers make sure to get the permits and set up a minimal infrastructure (supplying bathrooms, security, medical tents), and also bring all sorts of machinery to help people build their art and their gigantic camps.
When I started the documentary, I met many groups of artists building giant sculptures for Burning Man. They would often get together months -- sometimes even a year in advance -- to design, gather the materials, meet to decide, organize fundraisers, and build a piece of art that would most certainly only be seen once at Burning Man. Some groups would build giant sculptures of wood, temples to burn down at the end of the event. The people behind the art would often not be full time artists -- they would have a regular job, and work nights and weekends for a full year with no other goal than to blow the minds of others and certainly their own as well.
All this for free. Nobody gets paid, nobody collects a salary. I was mesmerized by the energy and the will to create art only for the sake of creating art, and often sharing it once for a single week.
After my first year, I decided to make a documentary because the story needed to be told. But Burning Man, beyond the art, is like a free, open-minded community that comes here for a week to let go of many hangups that we all have and that build up throughout time. Coming around with a video camera is not really considered a good thing. People come here to be free of the everyday world and express that freedom in many different ways -- ways that often need the voyeuristic eye of the camera to be away in order for the freedom to be complete.
It became obvious that I had to make my camerawork as integrated as possible in the Burning Man experience in order to avoid interfering with anyone’s experience. I wanted to become one of the builders, one of the artists of that community. And I was going to try to do it with a camera.
A few months into the process, I decided to film a lot more than what I needed to produce the documentary with, to actually follow groups of artists throughout an entire project and then give them all the footage that I had for their own usage. (Do whatever you want with my footage, since it’s about what you have sweated over for the past year. My contribution is small in comparison.)
The funny thing that happened through becoming part of these groups of artists is that I discovered the other side of Burning Man. I discovered what it takes for the artists and organizers to put the event together. I also discovered the politics, the battle for power, and the real relationships that existed between the people who were so deeply involved with the event.
As I was experiencing completely how creating and organizing was really the key to building a true community of people, I was also seeing how that couldn’t happen without some people imposing themselves over others and naturally pushing some away (no matter how creative they could be).
That became the story I wanted to tell -- the story of a community that built itself over 30 years (since its origins in the late 1970s) and how it dealt with its exponential growth. That is Dust & Illusions. The visual illusions that the desert creates through its many weather patterns. The illusions created through the many states of the mind everyone goes into there.
The illusions that what we’re doing in the desert and year round is really different from the way our larger society functions."
As Burning Man approaches its 20th anniversary on the playa in Black Rock Desert, Bonin's film offers much more than armchair adventure for those (like myself) who have never attended. Dust & Illusions offers a great deal of the back story which covers not only the festival's growing pains, but the numerous ways in which Burning Man has helped to increase and stimulate funding for the arts.
At one point, some of the key figures behind Burning Man compare its basic rules ("Leave no trace") to those originally promulgated by the Boy Scouts. There is a ready acknowledgement that, because many of the people who can afford to come to Burning Man make substantial amounts of money during the year, it is the earning power of these people that allows most of them to indulge their artistic fantasies.
No matter how you look at Burning Man -- with its fire sculptures, dust storms, drugs, Airstream trailers, and dancing under the stars -- rest assured that Burning Man is nothing like the summer camp you attended as an adolescent. Here's the trailer: