Movie review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018)

The documentary Won’t you Be My Neighbor? covers the TV career of Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers devoted himself to the early education and development of children. He was a staple in the lives of young children for several decades.

The documentary starts with Fred Rogers dipping into the new medium of television with The Children’s Corner, a program run out of Pittsburgh. Rogers was dismayed at what TV offered children—slap stick comedy and pies in faces. Instead, he wanted to explore how television could be used to enrich children’s lives. During these early days, he developed the various puppets and their personas that would live on in the future children programming that he did.

On the side, Rogers attended seminary but sought the world of children as his mission area. After several years, he started the program he is best known for and that informs the title of the documentary: Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The neighborhood was depicted as a safe place and Mr. Rogers as a welcoming adult. (The title of the documentary comes from a line in the opening song to the show.)

In the era in which the show aired, children were still to be seen and not heard. They were treated as non-entities, non-beings with no feelings or thoughts of their own. Rogers rejected that view. He treated each child as important. He talked to them directly and he listened. Mr. Rogers was everything that adults weren’t. He was patient. He spoke slowly. He explained things. He waited for children to ask all sorts of questions. And then he answered them.

He realized that children take in everything around them. When the world ignored children in times of tragedy, he reached out to them. He knew they were affected by events and needed to be talked to, listened to, and reassured.

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood started around the time that Robert Kennedy was assassinated. It was understandably a time that rocked the nation, but children were left out, trying to make sense of what happened on their own. Instead, Mr. Rogers, through the use of his puppet Daniel Striped Tiger asked drew them into the conversation. Daniel asked about the meaning of assassination. An actor on the show took his question and feelings seriously. Daniel was allowed to talk about the feelings he had—and told that he could talk or ask questions at any time. This was kind, caring reassurance for kids who felt that something terrible had happened but they didn’t understand or knew how to process it.

In 1969, Mr. Rogers ended up in a Senate hearing concerning funding for PBS. PBS was about to get its funding slashed and no one who had appeared in front of the Senate was able to convince the panel to do otherwise. The documentary shows Mr. Rogers patiently talking to the Senator in charge of the funding who listened and credited Mr. Rogers with earning PBS $20 million that day. The funding for PBS was saved, thanks to Mr. Rogers patient explanations and listening.

The neighborhood was a safe place for children and in some ways a progressive place. During times of segregation, the neighborhood had a black police officer who would stop to visit with Mr. Rogers. On one occasion, they cooled off their feet in a children’s swimming pool, sharing a towel to dry them with Mr. Rogers helping dry the policeman’s feet—a nod to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. This scene was a direct response to the attempts and pushbacks to integrate swimming pools.

All was not completely rosy. Mr. Rogers was not always as progressive as I would have liked. The documentary recounts how he warned this same actor, who was seen at a gay bar, that he could never go to a gay bar again and continue to work on the show. The reason: sponsors would pull out. In the late sixties/seventies, the US was not prepared for openly gay actors—and neither sadly was Mr. Rogers.

Mr. Rogers tried to take his philosophy of building relationships through communication and listening to an adult audience. He took a hiatus from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to record 20 episodes of Old Friends…New Friends. But the show did not take off. I never heard of this program and would love to see it.

It is sad to think that Mr. Rogers’ approach with children that met universal needs of acceptance was not something that adults responded to. Perhaps adults are too used to a hectic fast-paced world to be able to slow down to Mr. Rogers’ speed. Mr. Rogers did not talk or move at a mile a minute. He realized the power of slowness and even silence, how it allows for listening, understanding, and mindfulness of life.

He returned to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with themed episodes. He was distraught by the way children were tricked by advertising and marketing—child died trying to fly like Superman does. Mr. Rogers started by discussing superheroes and then make believe, conflict, death, divorce—any issue that affects children where they need to be heard and need to understand what is happening.

He came back again after 9/11, unsure what message to bring, but if the nation needed words from anyone, it was Mr. Rogers. He was the one who listened and reassured us when we were kids. Now we are adults but our world was rocked in ways we hadn’t experienced before.

The documentary stresses how Mr. Rogers was the same on screen or off. He was the real McCoy—a genuine caring individual who took the time to listen to everyone he met. By example, he showed us all how to interact with each other and how to act in what may be uncomfortable situations. He touched so many lives. The documentary includes interviews of his two sons and his wife. As one son mentioned, it was hard having the second Christ as a father.

The little things made me smile. I loved Mr. Rogers using his puppets to interact with groups of kids. Daniel Striped Tiger in particular was his alter ego and allowed him to reach out further to kids than he could as himself. Daniel gave the kids love and acceptance and they gave him love back. (It would have been awesome to hug Daniel Striped Tiger!)

I also loved learning about the significance of 143. Mr. Rogers was an avid swimmer and would weigh himself after each swim, smiling when he saw 143 on the scale (his consistent weight for most of his life). Why would 143 cause delight? As Daniel Striped Tiger explained, 1 is the number of letters in I, 4 the number of letters in the word love, and 3 the number of letters in you: I love you. His weight was God’s or the universe’s way of saying I love you to Mr. Rogers.

I hated hearing about how he came under attack in later years. His message that all have value, all are special, was perverted. Critics blamed him for creating generations of adults that feel entitled. But his message wasn’t that people were special and therefore entitled. His message was that everyone had inherent value just because they are themselves, a very Christian message.

I hated too his feeling of being overwhelmed by 9/11 and not knowing how to calm the world. It was painful to see him film his last episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (good thing I was long past childhood when that happened in 2000). And of course, it was hard dealing with his death in 2003.

Thank God for Mr. Rogers and the gifts he shared with the world. He knew that everyone longs to be loved. And he set out to teach children to love themselves and their community. We are richer for Mr. Rogers. We could use him right about now.

Movie review: Going Clear: Scientology & the Prison of Belief (2015)

Going Clear is a pretty disturbing documentary. Maybe I found it disturbing thanks to the age we live in—in an age of collective lies, misrepresentation, and alternative realities. Or maybe I would have found it disturbing even if we weren’t living in our current political and social reality in the US.

The documentary is interspersed with interviews of former members high up in the echelons of Scientology. As the narrative that the documentary recounts unfolds, one by one these people leave the organization.

“Leaving the organization” sounds so benign. In fact, leaving is not an easy thing to do. Often it sounds like the tactic an abused woman must take to leave an abusive man. By leaving they lose their social network, which is made up exclusively of other church members, and family members, who are told to sever all ties with them.

The documentary starts by focusing on the founder of Scientology, his background, and his motivations. L. Ron Hubbard comes across as an authoritarian, ego-driven blowhard who was motivated by the almighty dollar. It is not a flattering portrayal, though I have no reason to think it is unrealistic or exaggerated. His background was science fiction writing. With a need to make money, he parlayed his stories into a religion that he sold to millions.

The documentary also recounts the history of Scientology, its power, and the abuse it inflicted on adherents. The organization fought the IRS to recognize it as a religion so that it could avoid paying taxes. (L. Ron Hubbard lived out the later decades of his life avoiding the IRS.) The fact that the organization beat the IRS says something to its power and reach.

What could only be called human trafficking, kidnapping, and slave labor went on behind its cloak of secrecy. Those in power sought to destroy anyone who escaped and spoke out. Unimaginable amounts of money were at stake. Scientology was founded on a desire to make money and through the decades morphed into a monster fed by gluttony.

The experiences of the people who escaped are heart-breaking. They were all lured into the lie that they were working towards something bigger—Scientology claims to channel people to work for making things better in the world. In fact, these people lost decades of their lives and family members to this cult. It is a scary reminder that dreams and hopes can be manipulated, and people subjected to trauma all for power and money.

Movie review: Mahabharata (1989)

I was a bit taken aback by this film adaptation of the Mahabharata.

The Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic that talks about ancient views of duty and what is right. The story centers on branches in a family that vie for the throne (Pandava and Kaurava).

Pandu gives up the throne to his blind brother Dhritarashtra and retreats to the forest with his wives. His wives give birth to five sons through the gods. Meanwhile, Dhritarashtra’s wife gives birth to a hundred sons. After Pandu’s death, the cousins end up growing up together. An intense rivalry develops that results in a game of dice, banishment, and ultimately war. The god Krishna—the human form of the god Vishnu—appears as a go-between and a counselor to Arjuna, one of the five Pandava brothers.

I expected an Indian cast but discovered that Peter Brook had directed a multicultural cast. Caucasian, East Asian, African, Indian—the members of the families came from all races and cultures. The Mahabharata is the poetical history of mankind through the lens of ancient Indian culture. Brook strove to make the Indian history of mankind universal through the cast of actors he used in his movie.

Originally, Brook and writer Jean-Claude Carrière wrote a theatre production and then adapted the nine-hour (!) production to a six-hour and then three-hour film production. This three-hour rendition of the Mahabharata has been whittled down to three parts: The Game of Dice, the Exile in the Forest, and the War.

The Game of Dice sets the stage for the story, culminating in the fateful gambling that leads to the Pandava brothers, along with their wife (yes, wife not wives), being exiled for 12 years and incognito for another year. Arjuna, the ultimate warrior, wins Draupadi in a contest involving skill with a bow and arrow. Upon telling his mother of his success, she tells him to share whatever he won with his brothers.

Whenever the sacred law of the universe (dharma), which maintains the order of the world is threatened by chaos, then the god Krishna appears to bring order. The rivalry between the Pandava and Kaurava grows, leading to the appearance of the god Krishna.

Yudhishthira, the eldest of the Pandava brothers and a lover of gambling, agrees to gamble with the Kauravas. The stakes are high. One by one, Yudishthira loses everything he owns, even his brothers, himself, and Draupadi. In one final vain play, he agrees that if he loses, the Pandavas and Draupadi will go into exile for 12 years and then disappear for an additional year. If they fail at this, then war will ensue. Of course, Yudhishthira loses and the Pandavas go into exile.

The Exile in the Forest section covers this time in exile during which the Pandavas face challenges. Bhima encounters rakshasa, fierce-looking, man-eating creatures in ancient Indian mythology. One shape-shifts into a woman and has a child with Bhima before disappearing from whence she came (along with the child). Before departing, the child tells Bhima that if he ever needs him, call him and he will save Bhima. (This child makes a later appearance during the war.)

During this time, Arjuna, the ultimate warrior born of the god Indra, encounters the god Shiva while on a hunt. After battling with Shiva, the god of destruction, Shiva grants him the ultimate weapon (pashupatastra), which can destroy all creation.

Both the Pandavas and Kauravas approach Krishna for his blessing in the impending war. Krishna ends up seeing Arjuna before Duryodhana. Ultimately, he promises to be neutral in the war, but take the role of Arjuna’s chariot driver and counselor.

The battle is set. Both sides align. Arjuna rides out to start the war but hesitates. He looks out and sees his relatives. Killing his family is madness. He lays down his bow. Krishna counsels him in the dharma, duty, and morality—in what is the famous Bhagavada-gita, which often stands as a work separate from the larger context of the Mahabharata.

Krishna explains to Arjuna that defeat and victory is the same. He must act but seek detachment from acting. Krishna instructs Arjuna on illusion. “He who thinks he can kill and he who thinks he can be killed are both mistaken.” Krishna advises what may seem contradictory. But what is right is dependent on the person, the time, and the place. Following one’s dharma or duty is the utmost. Preserving dharma preserves the universe. Not preserving dharma leads to chaos and the destruction of the universe.

In the end, Arjuna takes up his bow and an 18-day war follows. As with his pre-war counsel, Krishna’s advice during battle goes against normal feelings of right and wrong. Krishna tells Arjuna to shoot his bow into an undefended Kaurava. Krishna tells Bhima to hit his opponent in one-on-one combat on the thigh. Both pieces of advice break the normal rules involving combat.

The Mahabharata instructs on how to live in the world. Some instruction is easy to see and accept. Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, is consumed by hatred, a weakness that has haunted him all his life. (Do not be consumed by hatred seems like good advice to follow.) But Krishna counseling the following of duty, even if it means killing extended family members, is a hard one to grasp.

Some of the themes are timeless, appearing in later Indian traditions. The stress on action, illusion, and detachment appear in various Indian religious and philosophical strains, though interpreted slightly differently.

Like other ancient works, the Mahabharata contains words of wisdom. Kunti, the mother of the five Pandava brothers states, “If you live with the fear of death, why were you given life?” Krishna notices before the war, “Death is already here observing us.” And later, he speaks to a Kaurava, “No good man is entirely good. No bad man entirely bad.”

At just under three hours, this film version of the Mahabharata is a manageable watch. I found the use of a multicultural cast initially an odd choice, but it grew on me as I watched the film. Peter Brook’s film helps bring the Mahabharata to audiences outside of India, where the epic is a part of national consciousness and informs everyday life. The Mahabharata itself is a huge work; a more manageable entrance into the epic may be the Bhagavada-gita, an excerpt of the war from the larger Mahabharata, which covers Krishna’s discussion with Arjuna about duty.

Movie review: The Rendezvous (2016)

Hmmm. Shot in Jordan? A scene in Petra? Sounds like a movie I need to see.

The Rendezvous is not the typical movie I see at the Heartland Film Festival. I usually go for documentaries or historical accounts. But this adventure action movie was quite enjoyable. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the film was set (and shot) in a country that I have traveled to.

The story starts in the US but quickly moves to Jordan. Rachel, a Jewish-American doctor, is visited by a State Department official who tells her about the recent death of her brother in Jordan. Her brother, whom she hasn’t seen for three years but has a close relationship with, was an archaeologist living and working in Jordan. Jake, the State Department official, accompanies Rachel to Jordan to identify her brother before bringing the body back to the US.

Only his body is not being released to her. Instead she is interrogated about his gruesome murder. He had been left out in the desert to die but before dying he carved an image into his arm. What does the image mean? He was apparently involved in smuggling Dead Sea scrolls out of Jordan. Where are the missing scrolls?

Of course Rachel has no clue. But she is intent on finding out the circumstances of her brother’s death. The US government is interested in using her as bait to flush out the murderers, the smugglers, and a cult called the Armageddonites. (The Armageddonites believe that the missing Dead Sea scrolls that Rachel’s brother found will hasten the end of days, which is what they want.)

The movie shows scenes from Jordan. The shots of city streets with mosques reminded me of the morning call for prayer that I heard float over the city at dawn. At one point, Rachel and Jake set out to meet someone at the church by the King Abdullah Mosque. (I gasped. I have been to that mosque. Though it was not in a crowded part of the city with a church nearby as in the movie—I remember a lot of open green space around it.) Elsewhere in the movie someone mentioned Jerash, a city in Jordan with Roman ruins. (I gasped again. I wandered through those Roman ruins.)

The pièce de résistance was when they mentioned and then went to Petra, a collection of building carved into sandstone during the 4th century BCE. (You may remember Petra as the backdrop in an Indiana Jones movie.) I visited Petra as part of a TechWomen trip in February 2013. (President Obama then visited it a month later.)

The action of the movie climaxes in Petra. I sat on edge as they raced the narrow path with sheer sandstone walls on either side. The path (Siq, or “the shaft”) leads to the Treasury, the most popular stone cut building in Petra. I remember walking that path with tall sandstone walls all around and then suddenly catching a glimpse of the Treasury through the Siq. I turned to alert my friend with me, pointing out the breathtaking view. As I continued on the path, the sheer sandstone walls fell away and the Treasury came completely into view. The movie showed this exact progression to the Treasury.

The director, Amin Matalqa, and the author of the book on which the movie is based, Sarah Isaias, were in attendance for Q&A after the movie. The movie is dedicated to Claire, Amin’s wife who succumbed to cancer during the making of the movie. Working on the movie was both an escape and healing for him. The actress (Stana Katic) who played Rachel and the actor (Raza Jaffrey) who played Jake were a coup for casting.

The movie only took 30 days to shot, with 5 days spent in hot, arid Petra. (Amin mentioned how just seeing the Petra scene made him feel dehydrated.) How were they able to shoot in Petra? Well, tourism is down these days in Jordan so the government was more willing to encourage shooting there. They only closed off certain areas for shooting but kept Petra open. (In the movie, people were milling about at Petra, but in much thinner numbers than I remember in 2013.)

Although I did not know it at the time, the book that the movie is based on appears to tell a different story. (A Muslim poet and a Jewish physician are in search of a lost poem, which is the key to humanity’s redemption.) The author has an intriguing background that I wish I had known about so I could have questioned her about it during the Q&A. The book originally released as A New Song and was re-released as The Rendezvous. This book is touted as the first in a trilogy. Hmmm. Will The Rendezvous be the first movie in a trilogy?

Book review: The Book of Joy

How to experience joy in the face of adversity? Douglas Abrams follows Desmond Tutu to Dharamsala in a once-in-a-lifetime visit between the Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

The Book of Joy weaves three layers together: teachings on joy, the science on joy and all qualities essential for enduring happiness, and stories of being in Dharamsala with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. The assumption is that the goal of life is happiness or joy. The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu differ on practices and sometimes on views about how to get there, but they agree on a lot of points and on the importance of joy. Many of their points and practices are backed up by scientific research.

For a couple of days, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu discuss the various obstacles to joy. What gets in the way of us experiencing joy? Much of our unhappiness comes from how we react to life. We need to study our minds, proposes the Dalai Lama, to understand our triggers and to develop mental immunity. Their discussion covers a variety of emotions and reactions that get in the way of joy, such as fear, stress, anxiety, anger, and envy. They touch on how to overcome them.

Lest that you fear they get into technical and theological discussions, the conversations are light, even if the subject matter isn’t. The Dalai Lama raises points and Buddhist positions without a lot of Buddhist terminology. The same can be said about Desmond Tutu and Christianity.

For another couple of days, the two spiritual leaders discuss the eight pillars of joy. Now that we know what obstructs joy, what can actively lead to it? They outline and then explain four qualities (perspective, humility, humor, and acceptance) of the mind and four of the heart (forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity).

While some practices described are decidedly Buddhist or Christian, in general the path and the practices described are fairly secular. A reader with a Christian background can see the Christian aspects, a reader with a Buddhist background can see the Buddhist aspects. (I am not really sure how the book would hit a non-Christian or non-Buddhist.)

Sandwiched in between these discussions, we are given glimpses of the relationship between the two men, which show joy and its accompanying qualities in action. We see their joy in seeing each other again and the sadness of their goodbyes, knowing that they may not see each other again. We tag along to the community party for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday.

After the discussions are done and the visit is over, they leave us with ways (Christian and Buddhist) to practice and cultivate joy. Some may speak to you now or at different times in your life. Perhaps gratitude practices work for you today and tonglen practices are appropriate at another time.

For anyone with a Christian or Buddhist background, the practices will be familiar. Probably you already do many of them. The Book of Joy is a compendium of practices as well as a summary of what hinders and what helps joy. It is also a witness to people who suffered greatly in their lives but experience joy nonetheless. They are proof that joy is possible in any circumstance.