Archive for February, 2007

Bamako: The Trial That Wasn’t

Melé sings

Bamako is not what it seems. Abderrahmane Sissako’s lyrical, angry film puts the IMF and World Bank on trial for crimes against Africa, quite literally. And that trail happens in lead character Melé’s back yard in Mali. If that sounds strange, it is. But you’ll forgive it because the testimony is so compelling, and that testimony is often matched with camera moves through a beautifully colorful Malian village with women washing clothes, children crying and laughing, men having afternoon tea. It brought back strong warm memories from my time in Africa.

But the key to Bamako really is in the disconnect between the fully formal court proceedings and a backyard setting that’s anything but. Midway through the film, a wedding winds its way down the court’s middle isle and interrupts the proceedings full-bore. It’s a joyous, singing celebration and the way it’s presented is so rich, but so out of place amidst stilted court formalities that it seems almost like a dream. And that was the hint that finally brought the film into focus.

The reason the trial happens in a place that’s deeply interwoven with all aspects of Malian community is that the trial is the dream, not the wedding, not the washer women, not Melé’s backyard. It’s the collective dream of everyone in the community, from Melé’s sick daughter to the elder griot who chomps at the bit to say his piece — each understanding the dream on a different level and in their own way. A collective wish of a village, a country, a continent.

When I looked at Bamako through that lens, it made sense. The beautiful kind of sense that puts a smile on your face when your mind’s eye presents a dream so fully realized. And the crushing kind of sense that knows it’s a dream that will never come to pass.

Bamako has been held over at Film Forum and it seems to keep selling out. Let’s hope that’s a good sign for wider distribution.

Peking Panda Packs Pistol


Jīngjing likes bringing a gun to a knife fight. Jīngjing likes tossing his buddies into walls. And he doesn’t mind mixing baseball and rhythmic gymnastics, either. But then pandas have never quite had the best attitude, have they?

When we were in China we fell in love with Jīngjing and friends, known collectively as Fuwa — the Beijing 2008 Olympic mascots. All five of them are a great fun, particularly considering how stiff so many of the recent mascots have been (Izzy, anyone?). We brought a plush set stateside and seeing them daily just underscores the amount of thought that went into their design.

The best part, though, is how well they lend themselves to the olympic events…and gangland showdowns. (If only Jīngjing would hold that gun gangsta grip.) By the way, do you think Beijing having five mascots has anything to do with the fact that Nagano had four? I sense a Far East stuffed animal arms race in the making.

Find more on the Beijing’s good luck dolls at Wikipedia and have a look down the wicked strange olympic mascot memory lane. Now let’s hope Fuwa don’t see many more freakish fairy tale outbursts.

Race in Games: The Unanswered Question

Full disclosure. My goal in writing The First 11 Black Videogame Stars was to get people to think, during Black History Month, about the representation of black characters in videogames. Are there enough? Is there enough breadth? Does it matter?

And I love the variety of responses it generated as well as the additional characters folks listed, some of which I totally should have remembered and some of which I’d never known. To paraphrase the lovely LAist, that’s why the web is wonderful.

One thing I heard over and over in the comments is that the ethnicity of the character you play doesn’t matter. (In fact, I don’t remember anyone saying that it did.) I was happy to hear that because it means that there should be no penalty if developers make games with more diverse protagonists. I am convinced that diversity is at the core of the future of gaming because that’s how we reach out beyond the existing audience — diversity of play styles, diversity of subject matter, and diversity of representation. The high definition era becomes the high diversity era.

But a question crept in: If players don’t care what color the protagonist is, then why are such an overwhelming number of game protagonists white?

Have developers simply not caught up with the market’s (lack of) preference? Is market research telling developers that players really do want to play white characters in spite of the responses I’ve seen? Are developers designing characters that look like themselves or their perceived ideals? Or is it something else entirely?

I’ll go out on a ledge and say I think game developers make games with white protagonists because they think their audience relates to them most easily. But I don’t think that belief is entirely unfounded, either. White is safe and relatable. Anything else is risky. And that speaks volumes about our perception of race, even today.

The First 11 Black Videogame Stars

Jade, Beyond Good & Evil's leading lady

Can you name all the black main must-play characters in gaming? Hint: There are only eleven so far.

When I was younger, I always wondered why there weren’t more black superheroes. And, while you could ask the same question today, it also probably matters less. Today’s kids don’t dream about playing superheroes, they get to be the heroes in videogames all the time. So, that got me thinking: just how many black characters are there heading up games these days. I’m not talking about non-playable characters. And I’m not even talking about playable characters in a roster of characters you can choose between (like Street Fighter). I’m talking about the primo alpha prime you-don’t-get-no-say main playable character of the game. In other words, I wanted to find out how many times game developers have said: “You are Black. Period.” Here they are…

Continue reading ‘The First 11 Black Videogame Stars’

Drugged Up in Tokyo

[Minor spoilers ahead.] Iñárritu’s luminous film Babel should be commended for many things, but one bit seems to have missed mention. Here goes: I commend Babel for being the first movie I can remember that features an insecure, impressionable young someone doing drugs and getting drunk for the first time with a gang of folks she only just met and NOTHING BAD HAPPENS. She goes dancing, she goes home.

Think about it for a second. How many other movies can say that? From Tell Your Children to Traffic, it seems there’s almost always some awful consequence for getting caught up with the wrong crowd or doing drugs. But both together? Man, call the coroner.

We’re so used to movie drug clichés that it’s positively shocking when the carefree first-timer doesn’t end up overdosed, pregnant, or worse. Now, of course you increase the chances of something bad happening by doing stupid things, but come on — films that teach a blatantly valuable lesson do tend to nauseate, don’t they? So, yet another reason why Babel is special. Add it to the pile.

Letters from Iraq, Out of Thin Air

I’m getting email from people I don’t know in Iraq and it’s freaking me out.

Iraq has always seemed far away, probably because I’m not in touch with anyone on deployment there. That all changed a few weeks ago when I was inexplicably added to a mailing list meant for a team of contractors working in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace. (I sent mail asking to be removed but no luck.) Since then, I’ve been on the receiving end of a surreal stream of messages — each mundane mail (time sheets due tuesday!) followed by a completely disturbing one (fill this out if you’re injured, diseased or dead).

This week, the team was traveling to a local police station when they were attacked. It seems a “national” threw an anti-tank grenade at the last SUV in the convoy and it detonated on impact. Luckily (for the contractors, at least) it impacted the ground a few feet shy of them, but it did manage to shell shock several on board. How do I know? Well, I’ve got the injury reports to prove it.

It’s not like we don’t know that terrible things happen in Iraq — the media makes sure we hear all the most salacious bits. But there’s something about hearing day-by-day details, even the most boring ones, that really drives home what life is like there in a way big media just can’t. For these contractors, you see all the mind numbing bureaucracy of a typical megacorp punctuated by bomb blasts and blood. It’d be like a bad sci-fi movie if it wasn’t so undeniably real.

And there are tons of questions: What kind of training were they given? Is this operation really running on such a shoestring that folks are have to use free email services (like mine) to receive confidential information? Can they cash out and head home if the job turns out to be more than the bargained for? What in the world would drive someone to sign up for this? (Did I mention they’re working 90+ hours a week?)

Private military contracting in Iraq is scary. (Not that being a solider isn’t.) As a civilian, you’ve a comparatively soft target; tons of risk with not so much military backup. You’ve clearly waived any guarantees you might’ve had of a safe workplace (so much for employer liability). And, should there be any question about your actions, you no longer have the right to a civilian trial.

All this makes me feel a little dirty for reading through the details of the seriously dangerous work these folks are doing. But since I can’t get off the list, it’s hard to resist the messages as they come. And now that I’ve read enough to feel a connection, I almost look forward to them. It’s like overhearing someone talking on a crisis hotline — you can’t do anything but hope things turn out alright. And there’s no way to know how it turns out unless you keep listening.

For more on contractors in Iraq, see Salon’s Outsourcing the War, NPR’s Iraq Contractors Brave Ongoing Risks and Ellen’s Life in a private army in Iraq.

image grabbed from polaris

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