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By Bryan Newbury
August 29, 2007 

Americans have a natural inclination for collective grief. This predilection, though it surely exists and is widespread, is antithetical to much in the American character. We will attend the funeral, maybe even, when in Rome, dance to the dirge. Joining together to prevent the condition that causes the grief? That’s not exactly our thing.

Two years ago, we engaged in a national handwringing over the near loss of a city that defies definition. New Orleans, possibly more than any other city in North America, was and is an island unto itself. No doubt the national mourning over much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was sincere, but the question lingers now—and likely will for decades to come—couldn’t this have been prevented?

It would be unfair to cast too many aspersions on the national character for avoiding issues as dry as infrastructure and egress until they have passed the crisis point. Aside from the example of The Netherlands, it is human nature. That said, no one could blame the people of New Orleans for expressing an allegiance to their own. “Cash can be sent in lieu of flowers, America.”

We are one nation, but all politics remain local. In the same vein, it could be said that all tragedy is personal.  Read the rest of this entry »


By Umut Newbury
August 24, 2007

Film is still one of the best mediums out there for grassroots action. 

What else could have the power to bring together nonprofit groups from New York, community activists from the Midwest, and students, academics, farmers and foodies to a sleepy little college town in Kansas? 

Before the screening of the “Go Organic!” short film series in Lawrence, Kan., on Aug. 23, one could sign up to rally against the exploitation of farm workers by Burger King; speak out against genetically engineered rice farming experiment in Junction City, Kan.; or learn about a biodiesel bus trip across America.

The Lawrence-based nonprofit Films for Action, Local Burger restaurant and the New York-based nonprofit Sustainable Table were the presenting partners of the screening. Rural Route Films, a New York nonprofit which highlights films that deal with rural places and people, originally put the series together and offered it up for screenings nationwide. (Check the group’s myspace page for upcoming screenings:

Sustainable Table was in town as a part of their “Eat Well Guided Tour of America,” a bus tour which started in California earlier this month and is headed to New York for this year’s Farm Aid concert on Sept. 9. 

The featured speaker of the evening was the new local celebrity Simran Sethi, host/writer of the Sundance Channel’s new program, “The Green,” and a lecturer at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. She quickly set the tone for the evening: “We are what we eat and where we eat. The choices we make for food not only affect our health, but our community and economy.”

Hilary Brown, owner of the Local Burger restaurant in  Lawrence, Kan., provided the free organic fare for the audience before the screening and offered one solid advice: “Educate yourself about genetically engineered food.”

Tim Hjersted of Films for Action explained the beginnings of his nonprofit group in 2006. “We realized that the way the overcome many of the problems we’re facing today is to overcome the media itself.”  The Films for Action group has been showing documentaries locally for a $2 admission and is also planning on a free lending library of all the DVDs in its collection.

The evening started with by now the very-Internet-famous, The Meatrix. The brainchild of the Sustainable Table group, The Meatrix, is not a documentary short, but rather an anime information film about factory farming. It has enjoyed wide popularity for its witty and cute spinoff on the blockbuster movie, The Matrix. In this short, instead of Keanu Reeves, we get Leo the pig who takes the red pill from Moopheus and sees the truth about factory farming. The Meatrix, as Moopheus puts it, is “the lie we tell ourselves about where our food comes from.”

First on the “Go Organic!” series was Frankensteer from Alberta, Canada. Frankensteer examines how the modern agriculture industry took the cow and experimented with it to turn it into the perfect food machine. The film features stunning footage of Alberta’s “Feedlot Alley,” where one million cows are housed and slaughtered each year. From the bird’s eye view shots, all we see are muddy, dirty open-air pens where hundreds of thousands of cows are squeezed in together. Directors Ted Remerowski and Marrin Canell then take us to Bob Kerr’s free-range cattle farm, where cows graze happily on green pasture. Kerr calls it “Heifer Heaven.” The film shows how the life of the cow started to change in the 1960s, when industrial farmers figured out how to fatten it cheap and fast by what they call “grain finishing.” Rick Paskal, a feedlot operator in Alberta, says, “Grain-finished beef produces the marbled meat which the consumer demands.” But farming expert Tim McAllister explains how cows would have never evolved to eating grain naturally because it makes them sick to their stomachs. In 2005, hundreds of cows died in Alberta’s “Feedlot Alley” after eating too much grain, which made them drink too much water and freeze to death.  Read the rest of this entry »


By Bryan Newbury
August 4, 2007

Most of us remember that jarring nature film moment in our formative years. The one where the film crew flexes its objectivity by choosing not to intervene in the preventable demise of some poor beast caught in the mire. There are a few ways to approach that moment. First, one might set aside the emotional element and take the “scientific” view, that Cartesian cruelty that would make him only observer, never participant. Second, there is the prerogative of the filmmaker, whose intervention would taint the work. Third, that of the human being, aghast at such apathy no matter the means.

Eric Steel’s The Bridge dredges up that conflict in the viewer. Though the plaudits of critics seem to validate views one and two, view three never seems to disappear.

The setting of The Bridge is San Francisco’s Golden Gate. An architectural marvel and national treasure, The Golden Gate Bridge draws shutterbugs and newlyweds from around the world. Unfortunately, such majesty also provides arguably the ultimate means with which to do oneself in. Through just over an hour and a half, the viewer observes along with the filmmaker as men and women brace themselves, hurdle the barriers and plunge to their demise.

While there is much to question in the approach and execution of the film, there can be little argument about the quality of the cinematography. There’s a truism in the photography world that one can’t help but to take a good shot in India. The same could be applied to filming in San Francisco. The seemingly constant fog contrasted with the hours of California sun make for fantastic images, as much for an editor as a cameraman. To seasonal affectives, the atmospheric yo-yo is something out of Dante. If you’re shooting a picture, it is a bounty. This is not to say that Steel & Company don’t display an eye. On the contrary, the viewer ends the film feeling that the same crew could produce a work of stunning imagery in a Dallas suburb. As with any gift, this demands the greatest care not to go around the bend. Sadly, that is just what The Bridge does.
Take the star of the film, Gene Sprague, as an example. Some might recoil at such a designation. In the context of the film, that is precisely how the jumper is treated. Read the rest of this entry »