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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Put Down That Classic Novel, and Watch a Classic Movie!

To whom it may concern...

This blog post will not convey any of the details of our Peace Corps
service. It is a submission I recently made to the Peace Corps
Botswana newsletter in the hopes that i could share my passion for
movies with other volunteers.

During a week of shadowing back in October 2011, Hayley and I stayed
with a currently serving volunteer in order to learn more about the
life of a volunteer first hard. Our host was great, and one of the
most important things that i learned during the time was: be ready for
everything, and ready for nothing...

Our host gave us this piece of advice in order to help us understand
that at times Peace Corps service will be EXTREMELY hectic! And this
has come true on many occasions in which we spend a lot of time
pushing to get projects accomplished but keep running into local
resistance, but eventually things come around and then all the
projects you had been working on come to fruition all at the same
time! Again, "be ready for everything..."

But, you must also be ready for nothing meaning sometime you will have
ample time with which to entertain yourself and this can be a
challenge for volunteers from American in that we are from a
consumer-entertainment culture and many of the avenues for
entertainment are not available to us anymore.

So, with a focus on the challenge of entertaining yourself, I put
together a list of short movie reviews of classic movies in order to
give my fellow volunteers some recommendations of great movies they
should check out in between stints of reading classic books!

Here is my article:

Many volunteers take on the challenge of reading 100 books while in
the Peace Corps, or at least getting through all those long classics
they have been avoiding since high school. However, watching movies is
another great way to entertain yourself and experience the classics of
cinema during your service.

Below is a short list of a variety of films that are readily available
among the media collections of Peace Corps Botswana volunteers. At
times, selecting movies from another volunteer's collection can be
tricky but after looking through this list you might find a few films
you won't want to miss!

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Three main story arcs make up this movie's narrative (primitive
humankind, modern humankind, and future humankind), but the primary,
character-driven story deals with a sentient computer system named
HAL. Even though the movie was made in the 60's, HAL continues to
serve as a poignant representation of the risks involved in handing
over our everyday responsibilities to technological innovations. This
film is famous for its mostly successful attempt to capture the broad
expanse of humankind's evolution from prehistoric days into the
distant future. The scope of this film is unchallenged by any other
film, and it is the director's intention that it should be viewed as
an audio/visual symphony rather than just a science-fiction film.

Rear Window (1954)
Mystery, Thriller
Hitchcock was a master of intrigue, mystery, suspense, and all other
nail-biting genres. This film is set within an apartment complex and
has a lot to say about voyeurism. In an attempt to ease his cabin
fever, a man stuck at home with a broken leg starts to observe the
goings-on of his apartment block. One day he thinks he witnesses a
murder, and from there the plot thickens! Very few modern films
involving stakeouts and voyeurism (e.g., The Burbs (1989) and
Disturbia (2007)) have failed to pay homage to Rear Window in one way
or another. Above all else, this film highlights the "life in a
fishbowl" that every volunteer can appreciate!

Amélie (2001)
Quirky Romance
This is a movie full of happiness! It tells the story of a young girl
who, deprived of love and affection from her father, has grown into a
woman that finds joy in anonymously bringing happiness to others in
need. The film tells its story in the fashion of a lighthearted
fantasy where we get to share in the main characters wonder at the
world around her. Along with the inimitable joy found within this
movie, its place among the classics of cinema is founded upon the
creative ways in which the director fuses the camerawork, color, and
sound into such creative presentations that viewers cannot but help to
feel some of the bliss and wonder contained within the film.

Before Sunrise (1995)
Romance, Travel
A young American man travelling abroad meets a French woman on a train
to Vienna. The two hit it off and have a single day to spend together.
They fill their time with intimate discussions about worldviews, love,
and existence as they explore the city. The discussions and
experiences that these characters have are so naturally written that
most everyone that watches the movie finds at least one sympathetic
connection with the film's two main characters. Unlike most films that
revel in the grandness of cinema, this film finds a magical and
engaging way to show two ordinary people, have ordinary conversations,
during an ordinary chance meeting.

Nosferatu (1922)
Silent, Horror, Romance
For many, the recent culmination of Stephanie Meyers's vampire
quadrilogy exhausted the vampire mythos and essentially was the final
nail in the vampire-genre's coffin… but give the genre one more chance
with the original vampire flick! The film is loosely based on Bram
Stoker's novel Dracula, it is the only silent film on this list. It is
a historically important film in that it was the first to shoot on
location and utilize a new camera filter technology to film scenes in
both day and night settings. Further, the silence of the characters
adds a brooding atmosphere to the viewing experience. Consider the way
in which the actors of the silent era practiced a craft wholly
different from the craft we see actors practicing today (i.e., tell a
story without the emotive power of their voices), yet its influence on
contemporary cinema is incalculable.

Singin' In the Rain (1952)
Musical, Comedy
This film is the perfect follow up to the silent film Nosferatu in
that Singin' in the Rain is the story of Hollywood's reluctant and
rocky transition from silent movies to 'talkies'. The film's fame is
founded upon its quick witted comedic dialog as well as its intricate
song and dance numbers. I cannot explain the greatness of this film
any more succinctly than one reviewer (Bryant Frazer, already has, "… Singin' in the Rain is a genuine
national treasure—a single text proving for posterity what a wondrous
thing the Hollywood studio system could be when it was firing on all
cylinders. It's the quintessential studio picture and smart as hell
about its own nature. Unpretentious and unabashedly entertaining, it's
a simultaneously self-reflexive product of the same filmmaking process
it simultaneously documents and lampoons."

Casablanca (1942)
Drama, Romance, War
Casablanca is the story of a cynical American expat., living in the
Moroccan city of Casablanca and operating a night club during the
early years of World War I. The plot focuses on the appearance of a
set of traveling-documents that will allow the possessor to freely
leave the city without being arrested by the city's German occupiers.
The main character must decide whether to help his former love and her
resistance leader husband leave the city or to attempt to continue
re-kindling his relationship with her. The fame of the movie comes
from its solid screenplay which establishes both characters we all can
empathize with, and a story deep with wartime romance, intrigue, and
suspense. It does all of this through the execution of some of the
most iconic scenes in movie history.

Say Anything (1989)
Comedy, Drama
Set firmly in the 80's, teen-centered films, this is a classic story
of a boy and girl from opposite sides of the track. The film is iconic
for a scene in which on of the main characters holds a boom-box over
his head, but the social commentaries are another timeless aspect of
this film. This is a film about teenage romance, and the challenges
that we all face in life after graduation (whether that be from high
school or college). One of the main characters famously states: "I
don't want to buy anything, sell anything, or process anything as a
career," this form of idealism perfectly captures anyone of a
generation that has already, or is coming into, a time in life when
the go-to question of "what's your major" transitions into "what do
you do". Say Anything has become a classic in virtue of its humanity
and honesty; where romantic comedies of the 80, 90's and 2000's
consistently tell the story of generalized archetypal characters
(i.e., the jock, the nerd, the pretty girl, etc), Say Anything tells a
story about two ordinary teens and their experiences in fostering a
relationship and trying to figure out whether or not their lives are
on the same path or not and, more importantly, if that question really
demands an answer where matters of the heart are concerned.

Dogville (2003)
Drama, Experimental
The gritty tale of an outsider exploring the social and moral
ecosystems of a small town. The movie was filmed entirely on an open
soundstage with only chalk outlines to designate the various locales
of the town (and even the town dog!). Through all of this, the actors
play their scenes as if they cannot see into the rooms and houses next
to them (yet another commentary on "living in a fishbowl"). This film
is contemporary, cinematic pop art in full form, and as the main
character is slowly subjected to the shadier aspects of the village
the film presents some challenging scenes. The film is morose, but
remains a classic due to its achievements in experimental cinema and
uncompromising investigation of the darker side of the human psyche.

The Lives of Others (2006)
Drama, Suspense
Set in the Orwellian world of Berlin in the 1980's, The Lives of
Others tells the story of a surveillance officer in East Berlin and
his work in monitoring the underground art scene. The film focuses on
the officer rather than the artists, and from this we watch as the
lives of those he is monitoring begin to influence him. Aside from the
unique storyline set in the world of a Berlin divided, the film's use
of color and set design create stark contrasts between the vibrant,
expressive lives of the artists and the grey, dull world of the
surveillance officer. The suspense is top notch, as an artist works to
export his literary work across the wall, and through all of this the
film fosters lingering connections between you the viewer and the
characters that you are observing on screen.

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Comedy, Romance
Woody Allen, the film's director, subscribes to the professional
self-declared policy of quantity over quality. That is, he prefers to
remain a prolific moviemaker in the hopes that at least some of his
works will strike a chord with audiences. And, lucky for us, his
methods have produced a lot of quality films (which made it a
challenge to choose just one…). The Purple Rose of Cairo is a film
about a woman stuck in a bad marriage who finds an escape in going to
the movies. After attending countless showing of a film called The
Purple Rose of Cairo, she notices that the characters on the screen
begin to address her and then the star of the film actually steps off
the screen and into the real world and doesn't want to go back! As
with most of Allen's features, its place among the classics is
established by his unique humor and ability to integrate his
characteristic witty commentary into a heartfelt, real-world romance.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)
While Night of the Living Dead is not the first movie of the zombie
genre, it is the movie credited with the genre's long standing
popularity. Night of the Living Dead tells the story of a small group
of survivors that hole up in an abandoned farm house in the first days
of a zombie apocalypse. The majority of the film takes place in the
house and, like all good zombie flicks, has little to do with the
zombies and more to do with the band of survivors trying to understand
each other and establish a plan for survival. This film's importance
in movie history lies in its use of the zombie apocalypse as a
metaphor for longstanding social issues such as the civil rights and
distrust of the government. What's more, the movie stands as an
archetype on which countless contemporary social issues can be

The Seven Samurai (1954)
Epic, Adventure, Drama
The Seven Samurai created its own genre and defines the word epic. Set
in Japan, 1587, the film depicts a rag-tag band of wandering samurai
that come together to defend a small village from raiders. In a now
common trope recently made in vogue by films such as Ocean's Trilogy
(2001-2007) and Inglorious Basterds (2009), you get to know each
member of the group of samurai as they are recruited for their unique
skill sets. The structure of the film finds time to both allow the
viewer to come to care about the future of the villagers and to
appreciate the samurais' own personal issues (they live as social
pariahs in a world that no longer seems to require their services)
while also depicting scenes of supremely choreographed battles.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Return from Lesotho

October 10, 2012

We have just returned from an amazing, yet very short trip to Lesotho. Lesotho is an enclave (a country within the borders of another country) that is located in the eastern region of South Africa and is governed by a monarchy. The country is located in a mountainous region and offers some amazing hiking opportunities. Just as our trip to the Okavango delta reminded us how refreshing it can be to exist in the presence of water, it was a relaxing experience to be in the presence of mountains and trees again too! The region of the Kalahari Desert that we live in has its own forms of beauty to offer, but it has been nice to take breaks from it and experience the lush flood plains and mountains of the surrounding regions of Sub-Saharan Africa.
We traveled to Lesotho with seven other volunteers in a private combi (minivan/bus). It had been assumed that the drivers would be a little more aware of the route we needed to take to get to our destination, so when our group only brought vague directions and no detailed road maps we set ourselves up for plenty of scenic detours! Although the detours could be frustrating at times, they still offered us more time to hang out with our traveling group. Like any road trip, the time in a cramped car eventually gets to you but the destination was definitely worth the trip! We spent two days in Lesotho staying at Malealea Lodge and going on two hiking excursions led by guides. The first hike was 6 hours and took through a gorge to see a waterfall and then led us into the mountains to see some ancient rock paintings! The second excusion took us into another gorge to swim in some rock pools and then took us up the side of small mountain. We were exhausted during from all of the hiking (especially because our desert home does not offer much in the way of high elevation hiking..) but we all had a great time and hope to go back again someday. Pictures will soon be posted on facebook.

Now that we are back in Botswana, we are hosting a Peace Corps  shadowee. After one month in Peace Corps Botswana, trainees are sent out to spend a week living with a current volunteer in order to get a break from training sessions and also to learn firsthand was volunteer life and work is actually like. It is always a fun time, getting to hang out with a new volunteer and introduce them to the aspects of your village life! We spent our first night making pizza and getting to know each other more, and with the remainder of our time we will try to cook more unique meals and give the shadowee plenty of time at the school in order for them to have a better idea of what school work is like because this most recent group of volunteers is comprised of school volunteers. Along with getting experience at the school, we plan to meet up with other volunteers and shadowees in the area for a joint trip to the local Camel Park which is one of the tourism based operations currently available in our region (the Trans-Kalahari Frontier park is nearby, however it is inaccessible without a good 4x4 vehicle).

Again, be on the lookout for pictures from our recent adventures in Sub-Saharan Africa!

-          Michael