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Tomorrow… Tomorrow…

17 Nov

One of the great cinematic surprises of the AFI Film Festival was this amazing movie by Romanian filmmaker Marian Crisan, Morgen.

Kali in Pink

11 Nov

My interview for AFI FEST Now with filmmaker Kim Longinotto about her movie Pink Saris. A must see!

LiTTLEROCK Interview

8 Nov

The AFI Film Festival began this week. Have been writing up reviews to several of the movies. The first piece, an interview with LiTTLEROCK Director Mike Ott can be found here.

Race to Nowhere

10 Sep

Alex, my daughter, is 2 ½ years old. Even though she is just a tot learning to talk, stack Legos® together and figure out which shoe goes on the left and right foot, her future education is never really far from the backs of our minds. My husband and I already have had far too many conversations that focus on the topics of soccer, homework, standardized tests (like the California Writing Standards test in 4th grade). Our talks may seem premature, but we are in a very real position of not knowing what to do, since we can’t afford private schools that focus on the actual process of learning and fear that the overcrowded and underfunded public schools will stifle Alex’s creativity.

We are often alone among the other parents in our area who send their pre-school age kids to prep schools or off to the library for long sessions wrangling with grade 2-level math problems before they’ve even set foot in Kindergarten.

Race to Nowhere is a documentary that fluently articulates this fear. The parents in the documentary wish, as we do, to give the best to their kids. But many of them have already paid an awesome price in terms of the health, emotional, and psychological wellbeing of their children. This is a film that powerfully addresses the issue of education in the States, of the labels we ascribe to ‘success’ and how we, as parents, etch those labels into our children’s psyche early on. The problem is not just with our children, it’s more complex than that. It’s with the lofty aspirations we have for them in a system that is broken and dysfunctional.

Ironically, it is this competitive push that enabled the filmmaker, Vicki Abeles, to achieve personal success. As a child, Abeles was brought up by a single-mom. Working hard, aiming high was how one ‘made it’ – the very definition of accomplishment. It was only when she noticed that her middle child, Jamey, was showing signs of depression and had to be rushed to the hospital for stress-induced stomach ulcers that she took a step back and noticed that the problems her child was experiencing were ubiquitous and was also able to redefine her own view of success. Abeles and her co-director, Jessica Congdon, created this film as a call to arms, a way for parents to see the global ramifications of an educational model based on achievement testing.

The film begins with a title sequence of clips of kids at school in various situations looking haggard, worn-down. Interspersed with the tales of the kids are interviews with authors, educators, physicians and teachers, many of whom grapple with the same issues they are railing against. Perhaps the most compelling interviews are those with an inner city school teacher who is resigning because of a state-imposed standards-based curriculum and the mother of thirteen-year-old girl, Devon, who, after receiving a low grade on a math test, killed herself.

The main culprit in all of this is, on the surface, simple — the amount of homework the students have in school. Teachers have to sacrifice their precious classroom time in order to meet state-mandated standards. As a result, a large amount of content gets assigned as homework. Added to that is the push to be involved in sports, clubs, and other after-school activities. From this very basic problem then, stems other more serious ones ranging from cheating to eating disorders, drug abuse and, finally, teen suicide.

Race to Nowhere is not the sort of exposé that will entertain you like popular documentarians Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock. Rather this film’s power lies in the stories of the kids and educators themselves. The pieces of the puzzle are deftly interwoven together beginning with Abele’s own story about homework in her house; following through to the larger impact this has on society as a whole; and finally coming back to rest, quietly, respectfully and emotionally on Devon’s family, whose lives have been forever altered by their loss. It is a series of stories and data that tug at the very essence of the labels we as a society use to define ourselves. And, while these problems are really nothing new, in our effort to succeed, we are pushing our children harder and farther than in previous generations and in the process, losing them.

Ultimately this film is about how we as a society are robbing our kids of something precious that can never be regained — their childhoods. It challenges us to take a step back and determine what is really important for ourselves and our children.

Before it is too late.

We’re lucky that we have a few years yet before we have to really face these issues. The question remains whether or not things will change for the better. Films like Race to Nowhere are an integral part of that process, enjoining us to take action, to be in charge of our children’s education, for that is where our future lies.

Race to Nowhere opens today in New York and Los Angeles and nationwide beginning September 30, 2010.

The war poster…

14 Apr

Liberty & Justice, 9-11 Mural on Wilshire Avenue

The skyscrapers of the Wilshire corridor cast eerie shadows on the war protestors.  The parade of meager peaceniks winds its way down the avenue. Helicopters buzz above.  Gradually she appears.  Not a goddess peddling perfumes, alcohol or a TV series, but a sister selling more sinister merchandise – war.

Amidst a backdrop of hot orange flames there she stands – powerful, potent.  Lust for revenge tints her eyes.  She possesses the look of a mother protecting her young or a sister holding the mad pillaging masses at bay.  A woman avenging her charges – her whole being consumed by her perception of all that should be just in an unjust world.

Clad in military gear she stands 10 stories tall.  Not a white man in a uniform but a woman embodying toughness and sensuality.  Her full lips beckoning to the masses, “Here I stand sick of this shit.  Join me in my fight.  Relish my revenge, my cry to arms!”  To her, war is no longer the domain of men.  War is creation.  War is longing.

In her hands she holds an M-16 – barrel upright and straight ready to release its explosive power onto another.  One hand grasps the muzzle, the other the trigger.  She is poised, ready to squeeze it at the first sign of the enemy.   She has shed her womanhood for that which traditionally defines a man.  To her right stand two towers – parallel to her weapon.  Three sets of dots.  One set of dots a metaphor for a nation’s grief, the others a symbol of annihilation.

An eagle bursts through the flaming inferno, a predator lurking among the ruins for prey claws extended and ready to pierce the enemy with its razor sharp talons.  He is a symbol of power and might – masculine, hard.  A creature which consumes the flesh of its prey and leaves nothing behind to hint at the life that it has taken, save for a few scattered bones.  The predatory eagle is a fitting companion for the she-soldier.

She has nothing tangible to stand on.  Instead she relies on two words to hold her upright.  The first word – liberty– is written in smaller print while the second – justice – in bold block letters.   It is almost as if liberty is an afterthought – a collocation.  Liberty alone cannot support her. Instead she needs a subjective construct to bear the full weight of her actions.  What is justice, after all?  How many before her have used this relative term to back their own ideas about the world?  In her case the word only gains strength when she hides behind letters printed in bold.

In the corner lie two small words almost undetectable to an outsider’s eye – 9/11.  Somehow she knows that using the grief and suffering of others as a trigger for her own itching fingers is wrong.  She embraces these numbers in embarrassment knowing that the ideals validating her future actions are tainted.  The truth does not lie in grief.  She realizes that the cries of the very people she is trying to protect in the name of justice have in fact subsided.

As the protesters slowly proceed north she begins to disappear.  Her picture is a memory floating among the banners and flags calling for hope – her mere presence a reason to speak out.

Copyright K. Datko 2002

The Legend of the Cash Cow

12 Jan

(I wrote this many years ago for a professional newsletter as a protest to the way adjunct instructors were treated, but I think its relevance speaks volumes these days. In many ways, those of us who are left standing in our jobs are definitely cash cows, if anything, the situation is perhaps more widespread and prevalent today….)

Once upon a time there was a young boy who had a cow.  The boy was poor and decided to take his cow to the market to sell it.  At the market he met a man who dealt in dairy cows and asked the man how much he could get for his cow.  The man looked at the boy, and went about his business of inspecting the cow.  The cow was a beautiful and gentle creature that had soft and kind eyes which gleamed when the man approached her.  Her black and white coat was silky and smooth.  The man reached down and tugged on a teat to taste her milk.  It was rich and creamy.

Looking at the boy, he said, “You really should keep this cow because you’ll make more money milking her and selling the milk than you would selling her right off the bat.”  “Really?”, responded the boy.  “Oh yes, said the man, she’s what we call a ‘cash cow’, gentle yet strong, rich milk, good disposition.  If you keep her and take good care of her, she’ll bring in a lot of money.” “Wow!”, exclaimed the boy.  “That’s great!”  The boy took the rope tied around the cow’s neck in his hand and started to lead her away.

The man reached out to the boy and firmly laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder, “I must warn you, though, that when you have a ‘cash cow’ you need to take care of her.  Make certain that she has enough to eat, is properly sheltered and that her health is good.  Give her a nice pasture to exercise in.  Don’t over milk her, as, if you do, eventually the milk will become rancid and those who drink it may become sick.  If you don’t take care of her, you’ll suffer dire consequences.”  The boy’s eyes rested on the cow, only partially catching what the man was saying.  In his mind he pictured the look of the jealous villagers as he walked down the street with gold coins jingling in his pocket.  He thought about the things that he could buy for his family and the envy of his neighbors.  The words of warning from the man in the market were quickly forgotten.

When the boy returned to his village he told his family what the man in the market had said about cash cows.  His family was impressed that they had a cash cow in their midst.  They settled the cow back into the old dilapidated cow shed and drew up plans of what they would do once the money came in.

Many months and years passed.  The family was soon the richest in the village and the milk of the cow was touted as being the richest and most nutritious in the land.  Some people even said that the milk had magic properties.  One legend was that if a person were to drink the milk long enough, they’d be able to speak in another tongue and communicate with people from other villages.  Another story was that the cow’s milk enlarged the brain and people who drank it were able to learn better and do better in school.   Many had seen this happen with their own eyes, and soon people were coming from beyond the kingdom to partake of the cow’s milk.

While the family was reaping the wealth of their cash cow sitting comfortably in their warm large house working now only as needed, the cow was kept out in an unheated shed in the back.  The family had employed a boy from the village to milk the cow as much as 30 times a week to keep up with demand.  They also realized that if they bought the lowest grade feed for the cow, they could turn a nice neat profit.  Keeping the cow in the shed was also profitable and skimping on the heating (especially during the long cold winters) really kept the family in the black.  They cut corners wherever they could in terms of the care of the cow, so that they could get more and more gold coins.

After a while (and especially during the winter), the cow started continuously mooing.  At first it was a low-pitched moan, but after a while it became much louder.  The family heard the moos, but were too involved in spending their new found guineas.  The mooing grew progressively loud enough so that the neighbors could hear.  They mentioned this to the family, but to no avail.  The family ignored the cow thinking that she was one of god’s lower creatures, and continued to count their coins. The cow grew weaker.  The sheen of her once lustrous coat was no more.  Her  udder hardened from being over milked.  By  the end of each day she could barely gather enough strength to stand.  After a while, the milk she had produced was sour and bitter.  The customers who came to the family from far and wide, upon tasting the rancid milk, grew unhealthy and became sick.

The family paid little attention to the physical decline of their cash cow.  They were still getting a steady flow of gold streaming into the family coffers, and they didn’t even think to realize that the amount of gold they took in was in any way related to the health of their cash cow.

Eventually people stopped buying the family’s milk.  Their gold quickly ran out because they were still spending lavishly on almost everything but the care of their cow.  Their neighbors and former customers were upset because they had paid high prices for the legendary milk but found out that they were only buying spoilt milk.  Many of them demanded their money back from the family, and soon the family fell deeply into debt, selling off their prized possessions just to make ends meet.  Once more the family was poor.

The dairy salesman, who had previously warned the boy about what would happen if the cow weren’t properly taken care of, happened to be passing by the village and had heard about what had happened to the family.  He went round to the shed where the once beautiful cow was kept.  Lying on her side shallowly breathing, she silently let out a last moan and laid her head down to die.  The salesman took her head in his hands and shook his head from side to side thinking that it was truly a pity the family didn’t take his advice, and had exploited the cow for their own gain.  Now the family’s life was in tatters…and their cow was dead.

Class Matters

3 Jan

The conversation I had with the woman at the local taco stand began innocently enough. The place was full and there was an extra space at the picnic table I was sitting at with my daughter, Alex. The woman was my age, maybe a little older, and immediately after she asked if she could join us said, “So what classes are you taking?”

Now in most situations this would be a normal topic of conversation. Kids nowadays have so many extracurricular classes and activities — especially in my neighborhood where most of the kids from pre-school age on up take a lot of prep courses to get into good schools. I looked over at Alex and then returned my gaze to my newfound mom-companion.

“None right now, she’s not ready.”

The mom was shocked. I could see it all clearly in the expression on her face. It’s almost like I committed a mom-crime or something. I mean how could I not have my child enrolled in several different classes? What kind of mom was I? Maybe I should be written up for child neglect. After all, who in their right mind didn’t have their child going to classes yet?

I reached over to tug at Alex’s foot. “Nope, no classes.” Alex let out a little cry. We were getting close to naptime. I gently rocked the infant seat that she was reclining in, talked a little bit more and then after a few minutes bid the mom goodbye and took my 8 month old back to the car.

Nope, no classes.

For the longest time I was the only mom I knew who didn’t go to classes with my baby. Most of the moms had their kids doing everything from the free parenting classes at our local community college to baby swim lessons. “Music Together”, Mommy and Me, Gymboree, and baby signing classes all were names tossed around when our kids hit the 4 month mark. My fellow mom friends were always talking about trying something new, packing their barely cognizant little ones off to classes that cost more per 20 minute session than the 90 minute yoga classes I used to take at an upscale studio. The small talk at the taco stand wasn’t something out of the ordinary. Everyone, it seems, takes it as normal that kids who can’t even crawl should have something ‘educational’ to occupy their time.

Forget staring at the ceiling fan, playing with stacking blocks, or raiding the Tupperware drawer. The best way to ‘raise’ a kid is to start them off right – by putting them into a structured environment where they can ‘learn’ something. News flash – kids are learning each and every second of the day, and here’s the rub – one of the best ways they can learn is if we get out of their way.

Childhood used to be all about fun. Now it’s about who is doing what where.

Don’t get me wrong. I did eventually sign Alex up for parenting class once she was about a year old when it no longer interfered with her nap schedule. She gets to play with a lot of cool toys – many of which are old standbys that have been around as long as I have – as well as interact with other kids. I get to hang out with other moms, kvetch and eat a donut now and again. There is a schedule but there’s no agenda for the kids. They have song time, story time, and free play. It’s a great deal. Especially since all this is… free.

Free non-structured playtime with toys and a few carbs once or twice a week should be good enough. But, for many of the moms in my class, they still have their kids signed up for even more things to do. Trying to organize playdates with these moms is also always an issue. “We have ‘x’ class that day” being a common refrain. Just recently at a birthday party one of the moms had to rush their kid off to his class, just popping in to say a quick “Hi. Happy Birthday!” Poor kid missed having ice cream cake just so he could go to…school.

I’m all for kids playing together and learning how to be social. Playdates, which I shunned pre-momhood, I have learned to accept as a necessity — getting out of the house a must for my sanity. But I just can’t understand why anyone in their right mind would shell out big bucks to put their kids in classes. My best memories of childhood are of running around, playing in the park, getting dirty, and making up games with other kids. Parents were actually kind of boring. They never could come up with good storylines or understand how a box could become a castle with just a few blankets and a broom.

In many ways I feel like I’m a mom from another planet. I could really care less if my child learns about music theory by the time she’s 2. It seems enough that she sings her ABCs on her own while beating some pots and pans on the floor. She’s experimenting with rhythm and melody in her own unique way. Why would I pay $100 per month to have a ‘childhood development expert’ teach something that my child already is doing intuitively?

So these days when I say I have no class, it takes on a whole new meaning.