It’s a not-uncommon cross-cultural story: A child flies away from his home country and is adopted into a whole new world. He grows up trying to be like the people around him, but he’s different. Maybe he should deny his past and just fit in. But denying who he is comes with a price. Embracing his true identity and exploring his heritage comes with a price, too. It’s an epic struggle, and the non-stop battles threaten to become his identity.
It’s the story of Superman.*
This past week, my wife and I watched last year’s Man of Steel on DVD. Following a trend in super-hero cinema, it tells the gritty, complex, discordant story of a superhero. And, of course, there’s action—so much thunderous, building smashing, ground shaking, tank-fisted action. In fact, right before the umpteenth fight between equally matched super people, my wife said, “Oh, not again.” The movie is entertaining, but it’s nearly 2 1/2 hours long, and with battle after battle, with the ultimate outcome never in doubt, all the excitement became . . . uh . . . boring.
A few days later, we watched another film about people landing in a new cultural landscape, leaving friends and family to try to make a difference in their own lives and those around them. This one is a POV documentary from 2011 called The Learning. It’s about four women from the Philippines, some of the 600 Filipino teachers, recruited by the school district, who teach in inner-city Baltimore.
“I only see America in television movies, in pictures of books, or in magazines,” says Dorotea, one of the four. “I haven’t had a picture of what America really looks like. . . . So this is it. This is America, where the dollars are found.”
Yes, these teachers can earn up to 25 times their salaries back home. That means they can send money back to the spouses, children, and parents whom they’ve left behind.
When she returns to her family after the end of the school year, Angel takes her five brothers and sisters, mom, and dad on their first-ever shopping spree. The money doesn’t seem enough to buy all that they want.
Grace, who has stayed in touch with her infant son by video chat during her time in the States, returns to the Philippines to find a boy who looks away and doesn’t want her to hold him.
“I know in the long run I will be in a better position,” she says. “I really have to suffer the consequences of what I did and what I’m doing.”
Rhea, who shares victories with the students in her special-education classroom, faces setbacks in her family life. While she’s away, her husband is arrested for selling drugs and faces the possibility of life in prison.
“I had this dream, you know, of going into a far place, bringing him wherever I go, and we will start something new—just us, no parents, no friends,” says Rhea. But her world has changed. “This is defeat for me. It’s like I’ve been fighting for so long for nothing.”
With tears, Dorotea says that this, her 24th year of teaching, is “full of adjustments, full of disappointments, full of hurts, full of . . . full of ill feelings.”
One of her high-school students tells her, “I wouldn’t leave my family if I was you. I’d stay over there. . . . You like it in the Philippines?”
Dorotea nods her head.
“You like it over here better?”
Smiling, Dorotea says, “It’s a very tough question.”
The four ladies of The Learning are real-life superwomen, which means they’re strong, but they’re not made of steel. It means they’re not actually superwomen. They’re conflicted, vulnerable, less-than-perfect. They fight battles, in the classroom and in their thoughts. One battle comes after another. But the ultimate outcome is certainly in doubt . . . and it’s anything but boring.
Directed by Ramona S. Diaz, The Learning originally aired three years ago. It is currently making an encore appearance online and is available for viewing through May 12.
True/False. There’s a big film event this weekend.
The correct response, of course, is True/False.
The event I’m talking about isn’t the Oscars. It’s the 11th annual True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri, running today through Sunday.
Each February/March, thousands of movie lovers converge on theaters in Columbia to watch the best documentaries of the year.
The nearly fifty films being screened in this weekend’s festival naturally include some that deal with people and places outside the US. Here, for your enjoyment, are a sampling:
Undocumented Iranians in Athens, left on their own by their smuggler, fear the police and long for a new life in Europe. . . and wait.
Manakamana In these real-time clips, the camera follows the people in eleven cable cars as they travel up a mountain in Nepal to visit the Manakamana temple. It’s like riding in a car with strangers, and staring at them the whole time.
Cairo Drive What’s it like driving in Cairo? This film shows you the triumphs and trials of making your way around Egypt’s largest city. And as if the traffic weren’t chaotic enough, much of Cairo Drive takes place during the tumultuous happenings of the Arab Spring.
Forest of the Dancing Spirits
Director Linda Västrik lived with the Congo’s Aka pygmies for seven years. The result is this glimpse into the lives of an isolated tribe, as it holds on to its culture in the face of encroachment by the “modern” world.
On May 22, 2011, the southwest Missouri city of Joplin made news reports around the globe when it was hit by an F5 tornado. Before moving to Taiwan, Joplin was our home for 5 years, and it became our home again when we moved back to the States one month after the storm.
On that day a coworker told us we should go to the Weather Channel’s Internet site, and we got our first look at the devastation from a distraught Mike Bettes, a Weather Channel storm chaser who arrived 10 minutes after the tornado had cut a 13-mile long, up to 3/4-mile-wide path through the city. Then we scanned CNN and several other national online news outlets. It was difficult to make sense of all the reports, largely because we were trying to convince ourselves that it couldn’t have been as bad as they reporters were saying. But while there were some inaccuracies in the initial reporting—due to the chaos and difficulties in communication—in the end, most of it was just as bad, or worse, than what we had heard. In a city of 50,000, 161 people had died, and 7,500 homes had been destroyed or damaged.
Our oldest son was back in Joplin, attending college, and we were able to get ahold of him fairly quickly by phone. At one point I might have said he was unaffected by the tornado, but we soon learned that everyone in Joplin, and in nearby communities, was affected somehow.
After we returned, we saw the immensity of the damage, but we know that that did not compare to living through it. We heard so many stories of loss, of hurt, of survival, of fear, of hope, of comfort. So many stories.
Documentary Wins Award on Other Side of the World
One of the groups telling the stories was The Joplin Globe, the city’s newspaper. Even though The Globe lost one of its staff and the homes of 25% of their employees were destroyed, they kept reporting. Their story is told in a documentary, Deadline in Disaster, produced by Orr Street Productions.
The film aired on Missouri PBS stations last year and won a 2013 Emmy in the Cultural Documentary Feature category, presented by the Mid–America Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
But that’s not the only academy that’s taken notice. Last month, the third China Academy Awards of Documentary Film (CAADF) honored Deadline in Disaster as its choice for best foreign language film. The award ceremony, held on December 29, was organized by the China Documentary Research Center and hosted by the Communication University of China.
Beth Pike and Stephen Hudnell, directed and edited the film. Pike told The Globe that she decided to contact CAADF after the documentary was praised by two employees of China Radio International. The two, Danna Ao, a visiting scholar at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s School of Journalism, and Yinan Yan, saw it when it was screened at a Missouri Press Association conference they attended.
“They were very moved by the resiliency of the Globe staff and the people of Joplin,” Pike told the newspaper. “They could relate since China has had its share of earthquakes, with many deaths and injuries.”
Facts about the 5/22/11 Joplin tornado
161 people killed
4,000 residential dwellings destroyed
3,500 residential dwellings damaged
9,200 people displaced (estimated)
almost 3 million cubic yards of residential debris generated
553 businesses destroyed or severely damaged
$2,017,564,600 in losses incurred (as of October 31, 2012)
176,869 volunteers registered (as of April 30, 2013)