Tag Archives: movies

Late night thoughts on Birdman and mental illness

After watching Birdman, I have come to the conclusion that my mental illness is not Hollywood material. My depression, my anxiety and my panic attacks are not caused by any kind of artistic existential crisis. Rather, my mental illness simply exists and it does not need a reason to be.

Unlike the Hollywoodian type of mental illness, my inner voice makes me lethargic and uninspired. I do not ponder about my reason of being nor do I feel the need to prove myself to the world. In fact, I think about not being at all, ceasing to exist in the most discrete and painless way possible.

It is scary to think that numbness can strike out of nowhere, for no particular reason. In movies, there are always actions and reactions: character A is depressed because of X. That’s the easiest way to understand another human being suffering from mental illness. But what if there is no particular reason for mental illness? What if something starts to go bad inside you and you cannot point to a cause?

Before committing suicide, Robin Williams gave an interview to The Guardian where he talked about him mental state. I always think back on this interview because I resent the ‘tortured artist’ trope: Robin Williams did not kill himself because he was a disturbed artist with too many ideas. Robin Williams killed himself because he was sick and he was in pain, and thousands of people across the world who are not artists or actors go through that every day.

What stood out for me was the following, when he is asked if his alcoholism and drug dependence are about his friend Christopher Reeves’s death.

“No,” he says quietly, “it’s more selfish than that. It’s just literally being afraid. And you think, oh, this will ease the fear. And it doesn’t.” What was he afraid of? “Everything. It’s just a general all-round arggghhh. It’s fearfulness and anxiety.”

Of course the interviewer had to ask what he is afraid of, but this kind of fear is not palpable or definable. I do not know what I am afraid of or why my chest hurts or why I want to sit at home by myself for a few days when I am depressed. It has never been as simple as a career crossroads like Birdman’s Riggan.

Obviously, when someone kills themselves you want to ask: Why? – the possibility of someone taking their own life because of an illness is way beyond our grasp. Why? Was he disappointed with his career? Was he disturbed by one of his parts in his recent movie? Why? How could he? He was so talented! The idea that the crushing pain of mental illness comes without reason is disturbing. The idea that this pain can override everything we have achieved in our lives, everything that we are, is scary. I get that.

I enjoyed watching Birdman: it was interestingly done, the acting was incredible and I wasn’t bored. But as a sufferer of mental illness who has lived with a separate voice from my own in my head, I resent that Riggan’s issues were glamourized in the usual ‘tortured artist’ format. It felt like the subject of mental illness was avoided when it was in plain sight and isn’t that how we already treat it in everyday life?

I would like society to reach a place where depression is understood as an illness, not as a kind of crisis that can be fixed with picking the right path or impressing the right people. It is uncomfortable to stop searching for a reason why our idols or friends or family harm themselves in such a way but I am sick of the tortured artist trope. It’s repetitive and I doubt it has done much to help people who suffer from these illnesses. It means we are constantly searching for what is making us hurt, as opposed to getting treatment for something that is completely curable or in the least manageable.

Django Unchained awakens debate on slavery and racism

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Squirm in your seat, try to hide behind your hands all you want, closing your eyes might stop you from watching the graphic cruelty on screen – but the reality is there and never has it been captured like this in fiction. Though Tarantino’s Django Unchained has been branded as anti-white propaganda, as a vehicle that tarnishes black history, as too racist for its overuse of the N word, as an extreme of blaxploitation, it has brought forward a discussion about racism and slavery that was very much dormant in the mainstream media.

Though we may celebrate Barack Obama being the first African American man to be re-elected as President in the Unites States, it is easy to forget why we celebrate it and how painful this history can be. Django wasn’t a real person, neither was his blood-soaked journey, but his struggle is true to the reality of slavery that lasted for centuries, and despite the deep fictional roots of Unchained, there is much that Tarantino concealed with creativity and blood.

To clarify, it must be stressed that the centre of the movie was based on an imaginary kind of cruelty: there is little next to no historical evidence that mandingo fighting actually existed, and Tarantino borrowed this idea from one of his favourite movies Mandingo, released in 1975. It has been used as a plot device in movies for years, and though for Tarantino fans it might be evident, many have asked – if it was not a real historical fact, why use it in Django Unchained at all?

“We all intellectually ‘know’ the brutality and inhumanity of slavery, but after you do the research it’s no longer intellectual any more, no longer just historical record – you feel it in your bones. It makes you angry, and want to do something,” he recently declared in an interview, explaining the gore and violence in the movie. “I’m here to tell you, that however bad things get in the movie, a lot worse shit actually happened. When slave narratives are done on film, they tend to be historical with a capital H, with an arms-length quality to them.

“I wanted to break that history-under-glass aspect, I wanted to throw a rock through that glass and shatter it for all times, and take you into it.”

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In his fictional Django world, Tarantino believes to only have shown a fraction of how cruel the human race has been to themselves. As my friend Tom Wardak has noted in his enthralling review of the movie, it is important that the relationship between characters is intra-racial, not inter-racial. There is the sadistic white man (Leonardo DiCaprio), the evil black man that defends not his race (Samuel L Jackson), the good German who tends to murder white men and despises slavery (Christoph Waltz) and the black man who enjoys killing white men for revenge (Jamie Foxx).

Though Django is oppressed, he also kills many, many people (some with remorse, others with much gusto)– yet, somehow we find ourselves rooting for him. Even in the subject of slavery where it seems that wrong and right are simple, Tarantino mixes up good and bad in a huge stew and serves it to us – we might be swallowing it with a bitter taste in our mouths, but the truth is that even heroes can be murderers, and even slaves can torture slaves. Though race and slavery is the centre of the plot, Tarantino has risked speculating how it affects different people, not just the evil white man and the submissive black man. It is complex, and perhaps frightening, but it’s an amazing point to be debated.

This is nothing new. Alice Walker has conveyed this complexity before in The Colour Purple. In speaking about identity, race, slavery and segregation, Nettie points out that though African tribes are oppressed by a white colonial force there is still oppression within the tribes. And though the Olinka tribe knows of the suffering of the African American slaves, they are indifferent to the plight of their brothers and sisters. This is essentially Tarantino’s conclusion; a complication of an apparent straightforward definition of oppressed and oppressor.

Astonishing as it might seem, it is true that Tarantino left much of the cruelty from times of slavery out of his movie. He used the shocking images of mandingo fighting as an allegory of the “worse shit” that happened, but he left out many things that are worth remembering if we want to debate the issue of slavery. Sexual abuse and rape – obviously no one was ever held accountable, or ever punished for any raping of slaves as they were considered property. Working conditions, where slaves worked in the cotton fields no matter what the weather and many worked with bleeding hands. The journey to America, where death by “human crush” was common – too many people in one space resulting in suffocation. Many threw themselves off the ship, and others were dragged with dead corpses and thrown off the ship because they were chained together.

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And once in America, they were imprisoned not only by their masters but by law too. They were forbidden to learn how to read. If they were able to buy their freedom, they could be captured by slavers and sold again. Sometimes, slaves didn’t know where they were born, or hold old they were – identity was not needed for property. If you want to read more, click on the sources below.

Let’s not forget segregation continued for decades after the Civil War.

With a symbolic shot of blood splatter onto fully grown pristine cotton plants, Tarantino has awakened a much needed dialogue about the history of slavery and its effects on today’s society. Despite years of progress, Beyoncé is still photoshopped to look paler, Twitter is full of extremely racist remarks, and I have met people who say we should get over slavery because everything is bunnies and rainbows nowadays in terms of racism.

It may just be because Obama is the most powerful man in the USA that this subject has been off the table for so long. He’s the president, he is African American, so Martin Luther King’s dream is done.

Right? I don’t think so.

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Disclaimer: I am not, nor do I claim to be a specialist on the issues mentioned above. Also, I am not a Tarantino aficionado.

All photos from Webmaster’s Toolkit at Django Unchained.

Harry Potter’s responsibility goes beyond saving us from Voldemort

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“‘What are these?’ Harry asked Ron, holding up a pack of Chocolate Frogs. ‘They’re not really frogs, are they?’ He was starting to feel that nothing would surprise him.

‘No,’ said Ron. ‘But see what the card is. I’m missing Agrippa.’

‘What?’

‘Oh, of course, you wouldn’t know — Chocolate Frogs have cards, inside them, you know, to collect — famous witches and wizards. I’ve got about five hundred, but I haven’t got Agrippa or Ptolemy.’

Harry unwrapped his Chocolate Frog and picked up the card. It showed a man’s face. He wore half-moon glasses, had a long, crooked nose, and flowing silver hair, beard, and mustache. Underneath the picture was the name Albus Dumbledore…”

– Excerpt of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling.

This is how the world was first presented to the wonderful concept of wizard candy. Among other fantastical inventions that came from JK Rowling’s head, this was one children would lust after for years; a Chocolate Frog that hops once, can be eaten and comes with a magical card inside! Real life candy had never seemed so dull.

A few years later, when the Harry Potter franchise was strongly established, I started seeing Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans everywhere in the United States. It would never be the same of course, even though they did have the flavours earwax and grass.

I only saw Chocolate Frogs a few years later, when I went to visit The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter, in the Universal Studios in Orlando. It was extremely expensive to buy, for a little frog made of chocolate, but it came with a card of Helga Hufflepuff so I was happy enough with it. I believe they are also sold in the Warner Brother Studios in London.

Unfortunately for chocolate lovers, the cocoa industry is one of the most corrupt in the world. Ivory Coast provides 40% of the planet’s cocoa, where children are employed to work in the farms. It is estimated that more than 109,000 children work in cocoa farms there, in terrible conditions. Around 10,000 of these children are believed to be victims of human trafficking and enslavement. They work long hours, without any education, with dangerous tools and the possibility of being poisoned by pesticides. Some of them are beaten, many of them are malnourished. As a direct result, half of the population in Ivory Coast is illiterate, permeating child labour and lack of social mobility.

Because of this vicious cycle that affects 40% of the world’s cocoa, it is important to make sure we only eat fair trade chocolate. And that is what the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), a charity set up by the fans of the series, wanted to do; make sure all chocolate sold in Harry Potter’s name was fair trade and free of child labour, kidnapping and enslavement. Though they were assured by Warner Brothers that everything was fine in the Human Rights department, the HPA decided to double check by commissioning a report on the very Chocolate Frogs (and other chocolatey items being sold in Harry’s name) we found so enchanting in the beginning of this post.

The result? Harry Potter chocolate gets an F in Human Rights. 

The brand used for HP chocolate is BEHR and according to the report made by Free2Work, the company does not have a code of conduct at all. A code of conduct should be the company’s rules pertaining to child labour, discrimination, enslavement and workers’ rights (amongst other ethical grounds the company might have to deal with).  I won’t speculate as to what this could mean but you can see the report for yourself here.

Concerned, the HPA emailed Warner Brothers once again with this worrying report. The corporate giant responded saying that they had conducted their own report, dismissing the Free2Work’s findings, and reassured the HPA, once again, that all was according to Human Rights. But here is when the problem developed: Warner Brothers won’t release their own report to the public, we are just going to have to take their word for it that everything is ethical and moral in the Chocolate Frogs department.

Corporate responsibility is an immeasurable issue nowadays. Companies must be transparent so that we can know where our money is going and if it is being used correctly. We must be able to find out if the brands we use are ethical and don’t abuse the weak.

Nestlé, for example, has been aggressively advertising and pushing bottle feeding in third world countries since before 1977, when the boycott against the company started. The problem? In countries with poor sanitation, bottle feeding can cause lethal diarrhoea in babies. As of 2007, this hadn’t changed.

This is just one instance of what big companies can do if the public isn’t keeping an eye on them. And let’s also not forget the suicide epidemic in Apple’s Chinese factories. These places might seem a long way away from us and our shopping habits, but the suffering of others should be close to our hearts.

In an effort to make Warner Brothers be a transparent company, the HPA Alliance has started a petition called Show Us The Report! Despite its origins, this petition isn’t about Harry Potter, or JK Rowling, it’s about the bigger issue of making companies be ethical, correct – and our right to be sure that we are buying ethical products.

If you think this cause is worth your time, click here – it only takes a couple of seconds.

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Photo by happy via / Flickr Creative Commons License.