Sing or sign?

At the UN I was asked ‘could I film the deaf Finnish rapper for two days and do a longer piece on him?’ I’d missed him when he’d passed through the UN in New York. The assignment was to go out to the University of Minnesota to catch the last two days of his US tour. I was keen. Not only could I (in my fevered imagination) become an MTV-style videographer for a couple of days – hanging out “back-stage” and all that (aargh – shades of This is Spinal Tap and setting the volume to 11 and all that, but still irresistible) – I also wanted to try out my new Canon 5D rig for the first time..

The rapper, called Signmark, talking to a deaf audience about his life and career – he’s the first deaf rapper to be signed by a major record label. He has a following around the world.

Signmark performs “bilingually” on stage. This means he uses sign-language for the hearing audience, while his collaborator, Brandon, an American-Finnish rapper, sings for the hearing audience. So it’s just a case of rearranging the “g’s” – signing and singing. The bilingualism is an important theme for Signmark. His argument is that being deaf is not a disability, but like being part of a linguistic minority. After all, he pointed out to me, if I knew sign-language he wouldn’t need an interpreter to communicate with me.

Here’s an extract from the 12 minute film I shot:

I was impressed by the strong support given to the deaf community at the University – a lot of interpreters are assigned to work with deaf and hard-of-hearing students. I wished I knew some sign-language myself. I think I half knew this, but I heard that most countries have their own sign-language – ie British, American, Chinese and so on – mostly completely different from each other. There is an official universal sign-language but it’s mainly used in Europe, and American Sign Language is often used as a lingua franca. Signmark himself knows five sign-languages, and can speak and lip-read in Finnish. While signing in American Sign Language he forms quite a few of the words in a whisper – so he’s a fluent linguist.

He told me he studied for a Master’s in Education and described a dialogue with an anthropologist when he was a student – the anthropologist had defined an ethnic group as having a culture, a language and so on – and Signmark, real name Marko Vuoriheimo, felt that most of the categories applied to deaf people.

Signmark’s current album (“Breaking the Rules”) is full of references to the people who wrongly thought he couldn’t make it in music -the tone is confident, sometimes mischievous. But his first album (“Signmark”) was darker. While making it he discovered that deaf couples in his home country had been legally barred from marrying between 1929 and 1969 – and that quite a few deaf women (no one knows how many) were sterilised – in the name of eugenics policies that held that the Finnish race would degenerate if deaf people were allowed to procreate.

Members of a club for the deaf in Finland in the 1930s.

I filmed a concert at the university, all the time getting into the music itself. The UN angle is that Signmark is on the working group on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. (Yes, a mouthful, and hard to get out in the narration.) I was also moved by what I learned about deaf people and the commitment of many hearing people to work with them.

Overall, I had a ball – and had a lot of fun filming and cutting the piece.

Here’s the full-length film – with subtitles for the deaf audience.

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murderous traffic, Lyme Disease and following the blind – it’s Moscow

So I arrived in Moscow – miles of crumbling tower blocks before you get to the centre, horrible traffic (murderous if you want to cross as a pedestrian), huge electric cables stretching between the top of one tower block to another, huge new towers being built, shopping malls, money. It was one of the few places I actually started to worry about getting enough to eat. In the hotel the meals were ferociously expensive and microscopic – and since, unbeknownst to me, I had Lyme Disease I didn’t have a lot of energy to walk around and find things – and my hotel was a bit isolated.

Somehow, had the impression that the guts have been ripped out of this town – some older sections still survive – great art galleries – the two Tretiakof galleries are cool, onion domed churches, a park with busts of Lenin and Stalin staring at you, slightly annoyed at being stuck in this garden, undignified.

And then the filming itself – with Anatoliy Popko – a young blind man, funny, intelligent, resourceful. I follow him through the metro system – beautiful but unforgiving – it’s very rare for a blind or disabled person to be seen on the metro or out in the streets. He moves quickly from pillar to pillar. He walks with his stick tracing the very edge of the platform. The one thing you don’t want, he points out, is to not know where the edge of the platform is.

The blind factory worker – the woman assembling light bulbs all day – her face makes me want to cry. I feel guilty gliding in and filming and gliding out – but I go on with the shoot.

Later, at work, he shows me the cool software that means you can e-mail him and he’ll write back. There’s a continuous burbling, robotic voice. As his cursor runs over a sentence or as he writes, the software reads it out, so he knows at every instant what’s on the page.

Anatoliy invites me back to his parents’ home – a pokey apartment on the outskirts of Moscow. Most people seem to live in fairly pokey apartments by Western standards. They serve home-made wine which tastes as if it’s about 50% alcohol. His mother gives an emotional interview about the day she knew Anatoliy would never see again – at the age of twelve – and how he lay down for a year doing nothing, before springing back via dishwashing, to excelling at Moscow State University.

Anatoliy with his ten-month-old daughter Polina – very touching, seeing him soothe her through touch and sound.

I’ll remember this trip. Was diagnosed with Lyme Disease shortly after I got back – now better.

You can see the complete 14 minute film here.

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Nicholas Kristof – compassion and “the law of ones”

Commentary on “Rokia” social psychology experiment:

The participants who read exclusively about Rokia gave an average of $2.38, whereas those who read only the statistics about mass starvation gave remarkably less, averaging $1.14. Those who read about the statistics and Rokia gave only $1.43. Obviously the unadorned appeal for a single individual carried the most persuasive power. Researchers call this the “Mother Teresa effect,” a form of psychic numbing, a reflexive, avoidant warding off of the otherwise staggering effects of statistics, or else the expression of an “identifiable victim effect.”

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has certainly influenced me. In early 2004 his reports on Darfur – a place I’d never heard of – fired me up and I went to my boss at UNICEF and said we had to do some filming on what was going on there. It wasn’t long after that that Darfur became a huge world story. Major mobilization and political action emerged in the West. It certainly didn’t solve all the problems – clearly not – but a huge humanitarian response was mobilized, much political pressure was placed on the Sudanese government and a UN peacekeeping mission was established there.

Kristof’s approach is surely worth examining closely. When I work for the UN, making films, the key question is: how to evoke a response, an active interest in the story – that might just mean mobilization of attention and resources, around some forgotten, or unknown conflict or under-reported issue – ie violent attacks on civilians in Guatemala, refugees stranded in Bhutan for 20 years, drought and the struggle of nomads in northern Kenya.

This article describes how Kristof was influenced by specific scientific research which came up with eye-opening conclusions. The researchers investigated people’s responses when asked to give to a charitable cause. To sum up crudely, if people were given a description of one person in need, they gave the most money. If they were just given statistics on the problem they gave less money. If they were given statistics and a description of a person, they gave less money. If they were given a description of two people, (rather than one person) they gave less money (!). The “Rokia” study, in short seemed to point to a law of ones: people respond more strongly to a depiction of a single individual rather than any other variant. Continue reading

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Bosnia: a courageous whistleblower sacked, but tells her story

Just read “The Whistleblower” by Kathy Bolkovac – a tough and highly principled American police officer, hired by a private company DynCorp – which was in turn contracted by the UN in Bosnia – to work as part of the International Police Task Force there from 1991 to 2001. She proved effective at handling domestic abuse and gender violence cases – and was promoted to the UN’s human rights desk on these issues. She describes the poor/non-existent training given by DynCorp, and how she later discovered that several senior officials working in Bosnia had faced sexual harassment charges back in the US. Even more seriously, she discovered that quite a few IPTF and UN personnel were visiting brothels populated by kids trafficked in from places like the Ukraine. Some even “bought” girls as domestic or sexual servants, and apparently thought nothing of it. She filed reports, but was met with resistance from officials and was eventually sacked by DynCorp. She subsequently won her case against DynCorp for wrongful dismissal.

It’s painful reading for anyone who works for the UN – only relieved to some extent by the strong and determined individuals she came across who did help her and supported her cause. I am a believer in UN peacekeeping and political missions – and independent research on them by groups like the Rand Organization has shown they have a high rate of successfully reducing violence at relatively low cost. But the problem of private, poorly-trained contractors – with, crucially, no legal accountability, is an incredibly serious problem both for organizations like the UN and the US military. Continue reading

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The human race has found ways to reduce violence – drastically

That’s the message of “The Better Angels of our Nature. Why Violence has Declined”, by Steven Pinker, the Harvard-based psychologist. The trends in all kinds of violence – and Pinker’s book has enormous quantities of data to back it – including wars, genocide, murder, domestic violence, and violent crime generally – have all trended down significantly, whether you look at it over thousands of years, hundreds of years, or recent decades. This is an astounding finding, and flies in the teeth of much conventional wisdom – which is partly, I believe, driven by very extensive media coverage of outbreaks of violence around the world. If he’s correct – and I believe he has made a very strong, rigorous case – then this book couldn’t be much more important. What’s behind the fall in violence? Continue reading

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The “Greater Good” is actually not good

A new documentary, “The Greater Good,” has just been released. I don’t think it contributes to a rational debate about vaccines.

I recognize it’s a huge decision for any parent as to what medical care to provide or allow for their children – and I’m not a parent and don’t have to make that decision. I also agree that vaccine safety is an important and serious issue – it needs to be monitored on a strictly scientific basis.

Having said that, the film disturbed me. It describes itself as providing an “opportunity to have a rational and scientific discussion” about vaccines. I don’t think it does that. Continue reading


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Not safe in her own home – in Azerbaijan

A brave woman uses a small camera to capture what is happening to her: she discovers she isn’t safe in her own home. 

After a year of rumours Nuriya Khalikova was forced from her home – to make way for a new park in the centre of Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku. Because of her film, activists picked up on her case – and now her plight, along with that of hundreds of others, has come to the attention of the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights. The city authorities in Baku say they offered adequate compensation to evicted residents, but Nuriya disputes this.

I travelled to Baku with cameraman Richard Gibb and we filmed there before the story made international headlines. We found Nuriya to be a strong and articulate woman, a survivor who’s determined to move on with her life.

Nuriya surveys the rubble that used to be her home

Baku itself is booming on the back of Azerbaijan’s plentiful supplies of oil and gas – and the country has seen a huge reduction in poverty over the past decade, as well as a massive increase in construction. We were agog at the chic, very expensive shops in the city centre, and at Baku’s elegant architecture.

Watch out for the full story which will shortly be released on the UN’s 21st Century series. You can also view it here.

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The future will be different – Moscow, fashion and disability

Traditionally, people with disabilities have been all but invisible on Russia’s streets. But that’s beginning to change.

This is a one minute trailer for a forthcoming documentary, made for UN Television.

A beautiful future from on Vimeo.

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will-power, video, oil booms and blind metro rides

It seems to me that each filming trip is essentially an act of will. Where no thing existed before, you will something into existence – in this case short documentaries filmed in Azerbaijan and Moscow. The whole thing requires utter doggedness and persistence, in the full knowledge that unless YOU do this, no one else is going to make it happen. Thus I willed a ten-minute piece about people being brutally evicted from their houses in Baku (the capital of Azerbaijan) shot by shot, interview by interview, day by day. All the time you have to not let go – you are damn well going to get that bit where the woman walks across the rubble of her demolished house, where the anti-corruption campaigner says in her own words that evil had been done, where the camera pans across happy middle-class people enjoying the benefits of the oil boom.

Continue reading

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Banana rats and the man who worked for Bin Laden

Khalid in Guantanamo

Khalid today - giving us an interview

At one time Khalid Al-Jhani made bombs for Osama Bin Laden – but now he’s a free man. How could that be? Al Jhani has led an extraordinary life – he set off as an idealistic young man to protect Muslims, ended up working for Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, met Osama Bin Laden several times, was captured shortly after 9/11 and sent to Guantanamo, then, four years later, passed through an innovative Saudi rehab programme.

Here’s a brief extract from the documentary I made for the UN – here he talks about Bin Laden:

Brief reflections on camera about Al-Jhani’s story and its paradoxes:

The complete film: Second Chance in Saudi Arabia

Reflections on my filming trip to Riyadh – where we profiled Khalid Al-Jhani – now living an almost normal life, after previously working as an explosives trainer for Al Qaeda.

Stuck in the hotel.

I’d almost given up on the filming trip.  We’d been stuck in a dreadful, depressing Holiday Inn in Riyadh for three days and had been able to film almost nothing – just some shots of streets from the car and some people in a square – and all the time our Saudi fixer from the Interior Ministry nervously hovered by us, telling us not to film women. I’d assumed the authorities would be very concerned with us filming anything at all politically sensitive, but strangely, Ali, the fixer, seemed (apart from his worry about shots of females) more interested in questioning our aesthetic choices rather than censoring us.  He felt that we shouldn’t have bothered to take a shot of a building site (which showed ancient houses behind modern construction – so that we could show the contrast). Later he thought we should have taken a shot of Riyadh’s central towers from further back along the road. I guess he was trying to help, but almost invariably, his interventions were a nuisance. Continue reading

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