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A Houston video producer takes on film, television, culture, the church, and his own hubris without even the help of a fact-checker.

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I got two fortunes in a row that said "You have a bright career in medical research!" So, I've got that going for me.

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Life is one long process of getting tired.

~Samuel Butler

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Friday
Jul112014

Rwanda Part Two: A Lingering Dread

It’s late when we get back. The normally crowded streets wrapping about the hotel are now nearly empty. Crosswalk signals blink furiously at no one at all. Most of the team blearily awakens, blinking, as the vehicle lurches over the sidewalk and up the incline into the hotel’s parking lot.

I’m stationed in my usual spot in the jump seat up front, a position I’ll occupy for most of the trip until another team member’s carsickness graduates from “aggravation” to “vomit-spewing,” at which point I gladly surrender the spot. For now, though, I can use the seat to take a million blurry, poorly-framed shots as we bounce along the dirt roads of the Rwandan countryside, in hopes of getting lucky once in a while. It is not a high-percentage strategy, and it leads to hours of glumly poking through photos, trying to talk myself into the idea that my accidentally canted-angle landscapes are “artsy.”

Our headlights illuminate the hotel’s stern-faced guard as he waves us through the gate, the movement revealing the butt of a rifle glinting below his shoulder. I involuntarily shudder, as if I’ve never seen an armed guard before. But it's this country, and the tremors of its recent, violent history. It makes me uneasy. A well-armed guard protecting this tiny hotel is just one more sign of the divide between the haves and the have-nots here. Down the road is a grocery store that has a door flanked by angry stone lions, with two metal detectors at the entrance and three armed guards always on duty. Rwanda might be in a state of peace, but the people who have money are deeply cautious in a way that makes one wonder how firm their footing really is.

We are returning from the Hotel del Milles Colenes, which you might know better as the Hotel Rwanda, the spot where 1300 refugees hid during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. I had expected a solemn memorial, but the hotel shows no signs of being anything other than a four-star hotel in the wealthier end of Kigali. There are no brass plaques or reflective chapels, just sleek modern wallpaper and a large tiki bar overlooking an azure pool. Hotel employees will acknowledge the building’s history, but only when asked. It is the exact opposite of the Western way of thinking, which would extort the tragedy for every cent it could muster. Here, no one mentions it. It’s not polite.

My unsettled feeling has disappeared by morning, as the bright sunshine seems to reveal a different Rwanda than the one I went to sleep to. The dour guard who waved us in the night before is all smiles as I make my way to breakfast, and greets me warmly as I pass by his post.

“Mar-ah MOO-tay!” I say, stopping to shake his hand. Everyone here is trying to teach me the language, which is such an effort in futility that Sisyphus would wag his head sadly at the sight. While English was recently named the national language, residents of Rwanda still speak Kinyarwanda, a Bantu language somewhat similar to Swahili that will not stick in my brain. This is not surprising. When it comes to other languages, my head is no so much a sieve as an actual water hose. I lived in Romania for a summer, working at an orphanage, and when I returned I could still only count to ten and say, “don’t hit,” though frankly, when it comes to orphanage work, that’s really all you need.

“Mwaaramutse,” he says warmly, correcting me without correcting me. “Good morning.” He is friendly to such a degree that I feel guilty for shuddering the night before at the sight of him and his gun. He speaks almost no English, but he is friendly and kind, and he addresses me as if we are old friends, so that I immediately feel like one. His name, it turns out, is Vincent, and by the end of the week we’ll take a picture together with his cell phone so he can remember me.

I wish I was better with the language so that I could talk to him more, but I’ve narrowed my vocabulary down to half-a-dozen phrases in hopes that they’ll finally stick. They don’t, so I give up and start writing them phonetically on my arm. I feel ridiculous, but my futility has unexpected benefits. While taking pictures, I attempt to warm each subject up with a few kind words, but I stumble over each expression so badly that the child usually breaks down laughing. Then I take their picture. It works out nicely for everyone.

“Mwore-a-coze-eh CHAH-nay,” I say to Vincent as I walk on.

“Muracoze cyane,” he replies. “Thank you very much.” He seems to mean it, more than I do. He is honestly grateful for the way I stopped and spoke to him, and for my sad attempts at speaking his language, and I don’t really know why.

I don’t know anything about this country. I don’t know anything at all.

[This post has been edited to note that Kinyarwanda is similar to Swahili, not French.]

Friday
Jul112014

Rwanda Part One: An Introduction

I thought sleeping under a mosquito net would feel different than this.

There’s something… survivalist about a mosquito net. A thin bit of webbing that keeps you from disease and death. In countries like Rwanda, they can be made from anything, from chicken wire to wedding veils, but the one I’m under is a standard-issue bit of gauzy white fabric. It drapes around me on the bed like a poorly assembled canopy, and I feel less like David Livingston and more like I’m sleeping in the bed of a nine-year old girl.

John has taken to calling it my “princess bed.” He cavalierly leaves his net knotted on the ceiling above him and smirks at me from his bunk as we get ready for bed.

I tell John, not for the first time, that I hope he gets malaria.

Perhaps it’s the surroundings. Instead of dirt floors and open windows, we’ve been put up in a gated bungalow with an impeccably manicured lawn. The ceilings are covered with patterns of polished wood that give off a ruddy glow in the dim lamplight. Only the blank white walls hint that we’re not in our home country – an American establishment would never allow a rented establishment to not be decorated with some unmemorable piece of art.

We are at a hotel in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital and the only piece of the country that can really be called a city. I will only later learn how impressive our lodgings are, though the fact that we’re two blocks away from the President’s residence is a decent indicator that we might be near the upper end of the spectrum. 

I have never been to Africa. As a child, growing up in a progression of Baptist schools, traveling to Africa to do mission work was held in almost comical reverence, mostly because it was basically guaranteed you would be killed by tribesmen while you were there. Middle-school-me would have estimated the rate of African missionaries who died the past year in spear-related incidents to be somewhere between 80 and 85 percent.

It would be easier to laugh off my earlier ignorance if it was followed by a point in which the trait disappeared, but that version of me would only be slightly less prepared than the one who is in Rwanda now. My preparation for this trip had consisted of getting immunizations and locating Rwanda on a map, the latter ending up a proposition that took several seconds longer than is really acceptable.

This is driven home by the discovery that my too-quick perusal of the documents Zoe Ministries sent me meant that I missed their packing recommendations, which included the stipulation that team members wear long pants for the duration of the trip. I am confronted by the reality that I will be wearing the jeans I arrived here in for the next eleven days, a matter that creates real concern with the rest of the team, since they’ll be spending almost all of that time crammed into a bus with both me and these pants. By the end of the week, the jeans will covered in so much dirt and mud that they'll more resemble a science experiment on the origin of life on earth than an article of clothing.

But I don’t know that yet. For the moment, after 24 hours of travel, I am only aware that it is three in the morning and I am seven time zones away from home. I collapse into the bed and drape the gossamer fabric all around me for protection. John shuts off the light, and we lay there in the darkness, with only the distant sound of the motorcycle taxis that pepper the city puttering by. 

I listen hopefully for the sound of a mosquito in the silence, but there is nothing. It looks like John’s safe for one night, at least.

Tuesday
Feb262013

A Few More Oscar Night Thoughts


A few random thoughts from today I wanted to add to the Oscar post from below:

1. Most of the articles I've seen (or podcasts/interviews I've heard) about Seth MacFarlane's performance at the Oscars have led with professions of open-mindedness - something along the lines of "I'm not too familiar with MacFarlane's work, so I was fully willing to be impressed." Then they transition into shock and horror at what came next.

I think that if you open any piece defending your open-mindedness with a "it wasn't me - I was willing to give him a fair shake, you know," there's a very good chance that you didn't start from a very open-minded position at all. Alex Pappademas gave offhanded reference today that Seth MacFarlane "hates women," as if this was an inarguable fact, based on hundreds of firsthand accounts, and not based on a dislike for the no-holds-barred style of his television show.

When you expect someone to come out and be racist and misogynist - and he gives winking reference to the fact that this was what you expected of him - it's awfully easily to have reality play into your preconceptions.

2. MacFarlane tweeted today "The Oscars is basically the Kobayashi Maru test" - a reference to the Star Trek challenge involving a no-win situation, where the only thing being rated is how you hold up under pressure, or redefine the situation. It's an apt metaphor, but I think a better one is War Games - "the only way to win, is not to play."

3. There's a real tone to these MacFarlane commentaries that have been bothering me, and I finally put my finger on today.

It's the fact that "Family Guy" is watched by "the wrong sort of people." You know, bros. Unintellectual types. Poor people. Not our tribe. And that makes MacFarlane an outsider - and the wrong sort of outsider. Not an outsider like Letterman or Jon Stewart, who showed up to skewer the puffed-up celebrities. The sort of outsider who'll track mud through the ballroom. That type.

It's classist.

4. I've defended MacFarlane's performance on the Oscars, which might have given the impression that I thought the Oscars were well produced. They were not.

The producers this year, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, decided to do a tribute to movie musicals. Which is... fine, I guess. There was one musical that came out this year, Les Misérables, so there's some connection. The big discussion leading up to the awards was actually "truth and history," but that's kind of a bummer, so... musicals! You've even got a host who loves musicals, so it works out.

But we didn't do a tribute to movie musicals. There was nary a mention of The Music Man, Greast, A Star is Born, Singin' In The Rain, Meet Me In St. Louis, Cabaret, West Side Story, or The Wizard of Oz. The closest they came was MacFarlane doing a gag about The Sound Of Music, where he announced the Von Trapp family but they failed to appear. We did a tribute to movie musicals from the last 10 years - Les Mis, Dreamgirls, Hairspray, and Chicago. In fact, we did Chicago a number of times - Catherine Zeta-Jones sang a song, the cast reappeared to announce a winner, MacFarlane talked about it being the ten-year anniversary of its Best Picture win... why this emphasis on Chicago? Because the producers of Chicago were Craig Zadan and Neil Meron.

So, so classy, guys.

5. And finally, I'd just like to remind everyone again that last year, Bill Crystal did blackface during the Oscars. Unironic blackface. Completely out of context blackface As in, he just had a blackface Sammy Davis, Jr. bit he wanted to shoehorn in, and he did.

I just thought we've all forgotten about that too quickly.

Never forget.

Monday
Feb252013

Oscar Wrap-Up: Not My Usual Thing


I was going to do a bigger piece on the reaction to last night’s Oscars, but the more I worked at it the less I wanted to do it. I read a lot of commentary this morning, and much of it seemed illogical. Most of it is anti-MacFarlane, and while everyone's entitled to their two cents, some of it seems entirely out of left field. The notion that actresses feel the need to starve themselves for weeks and get all dressed up in sequins on the night is MacFarlane's fault seems... spurious at best.*

*Multiple articles I read made this very case. I think there may be some confusion at the amount of power an Oscar host has.

There has been a lot of commentary about the jokes MacFarlane made during the show, none of it good. What struck me is that all the articles seem to contain the line “the joke is that…” followed by an explanation that shows a real misunderstanding of the joke. Whether you liked MacFarlane’s Quvenzhané Wallis joke or not (“at age 9, Quvenzhané Wallis is the youngest Best Actress nominee ever. To give you an idea of just how young she is, it’ll be 16 years before she’s too old for Clooney.”), the joke’s at George Clooney’s expense, not Wallis’. The idea that “the joke is that black women aren’t good for anything other than being sexual objects” is a deliberate misreading, and a damaging one. We train ourselves to view everything as an attack, and then we can’t tell the difference between real prejudice and the echoes of our own voices.

If you feel that it’s wrong to include Wallis in any such joke that speaks about her eventually being a woman who can date people because she’s too young, I think that’s fine. But that’s not what’s being argued.

The Onion’s joke is more problematic, but again suffers from a lot of people misunderstanding what the joke is – or rather, what it isn’t. It isn’t a personal attack on Wallis. It isn’t an “indefensible expression of racism” or an “abhorrent verbal attack on a child.” (it’s not even verbal!) If you’ll indulge me as I do the very thing I was complaining about earlier: it’s a joke about how everyone loves Wallis and it’s impossible to find her anything but charming, and so to call her a bad word is patently ridiculous.

You don’t have to like the joke. You can find the joke horrendously offensive. But you shouldn’t make it into something it isn’t for the sake of being offended more.

Since I meant to start this as a defense of MacFarlane, let me loop back around: I thought he did a good job. It was designed to be a little something-for-everyone, and the backdoor way of landing edgier jokes through the guise of James Kirk-from-the-future showing him clips of his critically-panned show was a good idea. The criticism against his show being “utterly free of laughs” seems more a result of people wanting him to be terrible more than it actually being bad  - the Hollywood Reporter had a good piece this morning about this being a no-win situation for MacFarlane, but that he ended up winning anyway.

I was most enthused that he went out of his way to actually host the show – appearing before each presenter to make a crack as they walked out, introducing guests and performances, etc. Most hosts do a big comedy bit in the beginning, then appear only sporadically throughout, and the show suffers from it. Even Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, as great as they were at the Globes, were absent throughout much of the telecast. MacFarlane made sure that the show never felt like it was going off the rails, despite a number of truly abysmal musical performances. 

Anyway, let’s check in on the results and… not bad. I ended up having a pretty good showing: I missed only 7 out of the 24 categories. I actually thought I did better than that, because during the show, I seemed to never be wrong*. But it also became apparent early in the night that the Academy liked all of the films nominated (except Zero Dark Thirty), and wanted to honor as many as possible. Therefore, my gamble on Amour not winning Best Foreign Film proved a bad one, but you’ve got to take a few risks if you’re hoping to stand out. Everyone remembers the time you correctly picked the 16-seed to upset Duke, y’know? That metaphor may not apply here, since no one will ever remember any of these picks I made, including me.

*Though that’s also how I normally feel, so I guess I can’t trust my gut on that one.

Of the ones I missed, I was surprised to see Lincoln get little love: the Oscars gave Best Supporting Actor to Christoph Walz instead of Tommy Lee Jones (a decision I heartily endorse, by the way), and gave Best Screenplay to Argo (a decision I mildly disagree with, but fine). Not to mention that Spielberg was expected to land Best Director, but it went to Ang Lee instead, which I’m ecstatic about.

Okay, fine, not ecstatic. I’m smiling, though. Good for the Academy. It was the best-directed film of the lot, and I know a lot of voters were put off by the film’s religious content. So, to see the movie land the award while espousing a deep belief in God? A nice sight to see.

Sunday
Feb242013

Oscar Night Drinking Game!

Hey, it’s the first ever Ten-Four Films Oscar Night Drinking Game! So, even if you’re enjoying the festivities tonight alone, you can take comfort in the fact that if you follow my rules exactly, by the end of the evening, you will be dead.

So come, my tan-faced children! Follow well in order! Have you your pitchers? Have you your lime-flavored Budweisers? O Pioneers!

 

Red Carpet Section: 

1. If you find yourself watching any part of the red carpet section, finish your drink.

2. Yes, I know we just started. Finish it. Now pour another. Here we go.

3. Every time a camera cuts to a close-up of someone’s shoes/bracelet/necklace/sash/broach, take a drink. Stop only when you feel the tide of death upon you. 

4. If you say aloud, “say, isn’t that guy/girl from that show?” and it turns out not to be, take two drinks.

5. If you say aloud, “oh, I don’t like that at all,” go read YouTube comments for six minutes.

6. If you say aloud, “boy, _____ is really the color this year,” quit drinking and devote yourself to a life of charity.

7. If you say aloud “ooh, I actually pinned that the other day,” drink until you can’t feel your legs. Then, find a sharp object and remove your legs.
 


Hosting/Presenting

1. Take a drink when Seth MacFarlane makes a joke about how he isn’t famous.

2. Take a drink whenever the camera cuts to an actor or actress not really laughing after MacFarlane’s made a joke at their expense.

3. Take two drinks if that actor or actress has a confused look on their face, as if desperately trying to place the name of the spray-tanned man on the stage mocking them.

4. Whenever Seth MacFarlane does an imitation of someone else, turn to your neighbor and attempt your own imitation of a famous person.

5. Take a drink if that imitation is not of “Cagney” and/or “Lacey.”

6. Keep drinking until your Cagney and Lacey imitations are better.

7. Whichever religion MacFarlane mocks first, join that religion.

8. Every time a presenter mentions Emmanuelle Riva’s age, consider the fragility of human life.

9. Every time a presenter mentions Quvenzhané Wallis’ age, reflect on the innocence of youth.

10. Every time a presenter mentions Quvenzhané Wallis in a way that makes it clear that they’ve practiced the pronunciation of it in their bathroom mirror for several days, make a resolution to learn a new language this year. Forget this resolution by sunrise.

11. Every time a presenter mentions a movie not released in the previous year, fix yourself a drink appropriate to the year of that movie’s release. You may have to stock your liquor cabinet beforehand. I have a moonshine guy if you need one.

12. Induce vomiting if an animated version of “Ted” or a “Family Guy” character appears to announce an award. You’re probably near alcohol poisoning at this point anyway. Let it all out. You’ll feel better in a minute. There you go.

 

Special Performances

1. If someone besides Adele sings a song, take a drink.

2. If someone besides Adele sings a song not from the past year, finish your drink.

3. If someone mentions a “revival” of movie musicals, travel to Los Angeles and kill them.

4. If MacFarlane starts singing at any point, see whether you can hold your breath the entire time.  If you pass out before the song finishes, rewind the ceremony to the beginning and start again.

5. If Adele sings a song, take no drinks. Weep softly, cradling your glass, and think fondly of times that never were.

6. Travel to your nearest grocery store and buy all the Peeps. Consume them before you get back to your car. You don't need a reason. You know you want to.

 

Speeches

1. Take a drink if a speech starts with “wow!”

2. Take a drink if a winner mentions more than 8 people in any speech.

3. Take a drink if someone not nominated has received more than one reaction shot during the ceremony (as a quick cheat sheet, George Clooney is nominated as producer for Argo, while Meryl Streep is not nominated at all). Exception: if the person receiving multiple reaction shots is the spouse of the winner and the winner is telling that person how much he/she loves them and that this is all for them.

4. If a spouse of the winner receives multiple reactions shots while the winner is telling that person how much he/she loves them and that this is all for them, finish your drink. (Thought you were going to get off easy for a minute, didn’t you? Not likely)

5. Every time someone mentions a relative who in not in attendance, trade glasses with your neighbor.

6. Every time someone mentions a relative who in not in attendance because they are dead, trade glasses with your neighbor, then finish their drink.

7. Every time Anne Hathaway mentions someone she admires, take a drink.

8. If Anne Hathaway mentions another other actresses nominated in her category, finish your drink.

9. If Anne Hathaway mentions all of the other actresses in her category, the person in the room who can name the fewest Shakespearian plays must finish all the other drinks in the room.

10. If you didn’t get that joke, you are not allowed to watch the Oscars tonight until you’ve finished reading three books.

11. No, you don’t get to pick the books. I get to pick the books. Also, take another drink.

12. You may come to hate Anne Hathaway by the end of her speech. But, if someone at your party makes a catty statement disparaging Hathaway, slap them forcefully into silence. That young lady is above your disdain.

13. After any shot of Quentin Tarantino laughing, do ten pushups.

 

Show Closing

1. For every second the ceremony runs over, eat that many jelly beans, including black ones.

2. Tally up your Oscar Predictions scorecard, then grab a pair of scissors. Calculate the percentage you got right. That’s the amount of hair you’re allowed to keep.

Hope you all have fun at the ceremony this year! I’ll see you all again next year, or as soon as about 40% of my hair grows back.