A documentary film is often part stunt, part lab experiment, and the way a documentary filmmaker pursues his or her story will always involve a bit of amateur sleuthing, as well as improv. That such scriptless adventures have attracted a great director like Werner Herzog is curious but not alarming. Good documentary films can be made cheaply and we seem to be living in an abundantly golden—or at least copper (penny-wise)—era of them. Herzogʼs latest film, Into the Abyss, much like his 2005 documentary, Grizzly Man, uses the camera as a geiger counter to locate some of the more toxic elements of the American cultural psyche as seen through the questing mind of a pseudo-squeamish European: here the setting is small town Texas’s well-traveled road to death row.
Ukraine has long been a borderland between greater powers. What is different about the present moment is that it is now an independent state, and that it has become a borderland between two authentically different approaches to foreign relations. The European Union has no interest in admitting Ukraine as it is today, but might be interested in admitting the orderly, lawful eastern neighbor it might one day become. Russia has no interest in the rule of law in Ukraine, but is happy to exert influence upon its territory as part of its efforts to control the distribution of natural resources and reassert its power in the post-Soviet space.
China’s activist lawyers and non-professional advocates have long been under a widespread, systematic official assault, which intensified earlier this year and silenced many formerly outspoken voices. A large number of lawyers have been attacked for representing not only those clients who oppose government suppression of religion, speech and association but also those who seek to challenge arbitrary residential evictions, environmental pollution, food and drug contamination, official corruption, discrimination against the sick or disabled or, as in Chen Guangcheng’s last efforts, forced abortion and sterilization.
Witnessing the endless daylight of Scandinavian Midsummer this past summer in Vardø, a picturesque Barents Sea island village built around the northernmost fortress on earth, I was led to wonder what life must be like there during the opposite extreme of the winter solstice. As it happens, this year’s Midsummer celebration gave some idea of that very different experience, or at least of the possible dire effects of prolonged climatic stress on the collective psyche. On June 23, Queen Sonja of Norway came to open the Steilneset Memorial to the Victims of the Witch Trials in Vardø, a new monument by the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor and the French-American artist Louise Bourgeois that eerily evokes the dark night of the soul that it also attempts to expiate.
“Nothing ever changes” may be one of the truest things ever said. Certainly, life was different when our grandparents were young, in many ways far worse and in other ways far better—as they never failed to inform us every time some new, faddish invention came along. But despite all the predictions of social reformers and utopian thinkers, human behavior seems to have remained pretty much the same throughout recorded history. The four-thousand-year old admonition in the Code of Hammurabi that the strong be prevented from oppressing the weak, or Thomas Moore’s observation in the sixteenth century that society was a conspiracy of the rich to defraud the poor, are not only perfectly understandable today, but are aimed at the same problem that has brought demonstrators to the streets from Wall Street to Oakland.
In Mexico, the dearly beloved who are no longer in this world receive special dispensation to return to us once a year. To celebrate this miracle, we bring flowers to an elaborate, colorful altar, make a path with marigold petals to show them the way, sing to them, pamper them with offerings of their favorite foods, and generally laugh with them at death and other things. In certain parts of the country, the Day of the Dead, and the altar-building events that lead up to it, are a bigger deal than Christmas.
This November 2nd has turned out slightly different from the preceding ones, however: as the number of fatalities in the current wave of narcowar violence approaches 40,000, a growing number of people have decided that these dead, too, should be remembered, although their killing is hardly a cause for celebration.
Following the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad in 2009, the world looked on as tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets in protest, only to be repressed by force, arrested, or worse. Though there is far less coverage of Iran now—few foreign correspondents are allowed into the country—repression has continued and even intensified since these events, with widespread arrests, purges of university faculty, closure of publications, and a clampdown on political activity. Still, supporters of the Green Movement have not been entirely silenced, as Zahra’s Paradise, a powerful new graphic novel set in contemporary Iran, makes clear.
After decades of destruction, Daoist temples are being rebuilt with government support. And shortly after the Communist Party’s annual plenum this month, authorities were convening an International Daoism Forum. The meeting was held near Mt. Heng in Hunan Province, one of Daoism’s five holy mountains, and was attended by 500 participants. It received extensive play in the Chinese media, with a noted British Daoist scholar, Martin Palmer, getting airtime on Chinese television. This is a sharp change for a religion that that was persecuted under Mao and long regarded as suspect. What, exactly, is gong on here?
Lincoln, Lawrence, and Norman are among America’s most attractive cities, where the opportunity for social advancement provided by big state universities are sources of local pride. Like most of the big college towns in the middle of the country, they have the art shops, the bookstores, and the cafés that coastal people say they miss in American life. What they do not have is presence. If you watch the national news on television, you see two kinds of American places: the kind where things are happening, and the kind where things have already happened. CNN and Fox speculate about the present in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles (and during campaign season, in “battleground” or swing states like Iowa and Ohio). Everywhere else in the country, things do happen, but always without warning—and rarely with anyone to witness them.
The financial crisis is the next great test: it will mark the success of one of the great political and social experiments of our time if the Europeans come together to remedy it; it will be tragic for Europe and for the world if they do not.