Friday, March 26, 2010

No More Business As Usual

Every so often I receive an email that references the good old days and asks people if they can still remember when we depended on some now obsolete items. I can still remember when:
  • Back before the invention of the ATM, a person often had to spend half his lunch hour waiting on line to have a bank teller cash a check.
  • In order to open certain tin cans, a person had to peel a key away from the can and then use it to slowly unwind a strip of tinplate.
  • A Saturday afternoon spent in the grandeur of a local movie palace offered two full-length features for 25 cents.
  • In order to dial a long distance phone number, you had to call the operator to ask for her help.
  • The second most important key in a child's life was the skate key that tightened the foot clamps on his roller skates.
  • Once upon a time, long before Sesame Street, a children's book could open up a child's imagination to a world of wonder and awe.
Three and a half years old and already precocious

Those days are long gone, as are so many devices we once thought we couldn't live without. Steve Almond notes that, in an age of digital technology and easy accessibility, The Trouble With Easy Listening may well be that the mere act of listening to music is no longer a sacred experience. Film critic Roger Ebert is in the process of launching a blog that will not just review films, but examine how changes in distribution channels are reshaping the film industry.

Three short films that were recently screened at the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival were unusually successful in lending a personal touch to business practices. Two marked the demise of a beloved tradition. The third marked the start of something new.

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Mr. Shanbag's Shop, a 15-minute video from India that received its world premiere at the festival, took a look at the plight of the independent bookstore. However, rather than facing competition from major retail outlets, the store depicted in Asha Ghosh's poignant short captured the essence of clutter, the joys of finding unexpected treasure, and the end of an era in used book sales.

After 35 years collecting all kinds of bizarre titles, Mr. Shanbag closed his beloved shop in Bangalore. What I loved about this film was how it captured the role a used bookstore plays in a community as well as the kinds of people who thrive on its existence. Watch the trailer to get one last glimpse of what glorious clutter looked like before the advent of ordering books online.

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What happens when a profession becomes obsolete? Or when no one wishes to carry on a tradition? Just as farm families have watched their children abandon the homestead for life in the city, a tiny community of skin divers in the Korean Strait constitutes the last generation that will earn its living underwater.

The Haenyo statue on Jeju Island

In an enchanting 19-minute short from South Korea, filmmaker Liz Chae documents the lifestyle of the Haenyos of Jeju Island. For nearly 2000 years, a tradition of diving for shellfish helped the Haenyos fend off starvation and survive wars which took away their men. Generation upon generation of mothers taught their daughters how to dive for oysters, abalone, and other food sources found on the coastal ocean floor.

Although Korea has traditionally been a male-dominated society, the location of Jeju in the Strait of Korea meant that many of its men were either killed during wars or taken captive. The Last Mermaids documents the history of the Haenyos (including one very spry 85 year old), who routinely hold their breath for three minutes as they dive to a depth of 45 feet.

Rather than use scuba gear which could increase their productivity, the women interviewed in the film would prefer that their daughters (who now have access to higher education) not spend the rest of their lives in the water.

The Last Mermaids won the gold medal at the Student Academy Awards. Because the filmmaker and her mother were constantly bickering while on Jeju Island, The Last Mermaids ran into some curious production problems (read the fascinating back story about how the Haenyos finally doused the flames of a family feud). To get a sample of Dae In Kim's beautiful underwater cinematography and Joel Douek's magical score, click here to watch the film's trailer.

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Although I'm not quite sure how a film about brewing beer in Palestine made it into the San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival, Buthina Canaan Khoury's short tells the story of how her family's business was born and how her family has tried to serve their limited market while championing its cultural appeal for Palestinians. Thanks to local politics and religious taboos, the distribution challenges faced by the Khoury family may be unique.

More than a simple industrial film about the Taybeh Brewery (the only beer brewed in Palestine), Taste The Revolution shows how a beer business can blossom in a politically-scarred landscape. You can watch Khoury's film in its entirety in the following clip. Believe me when I tell you that the Walker family (from ABC's soap opera, Brothers and Sisters) never had to deal with distribution problems like these!

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