Monday, April 29, 2013

Romeo Dallaire fights to end use of child soldiers in new documentary

Romeo Dallaire
Canadian general Romeo Dallaire witnessed the slaughter of 800,000 people in 100 days when he was the United Nations force commander in Rwanda in 1994. Something like that stays with you, and he's now embarked on a global mission to eradicate the use of child soldiers -- who played such a big role in that genocide.

Dallaire's return to the war-torn region of Africa is chronicled in a book and new documentary that was shot last spring and is making its Canadian premiere this week: Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children.

There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers fighting in 30 conflicts around the world, and Dallaire says: "If we can make them cry as a child again, I would think that they'd want to get rid of the weapon and not want to play real life soldier anymore."

Children who are kidnapped and used as soldiers, slaves and bush wives are all too common in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Uganda and Sudan. And while the Joseph Kony-led Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) is the most notable exploiter, there are many other militias using similarly despicable tactics since child soldiers are relatively easy to corral and they offer an upper hand to those who use them.

Dallaire visited several camps and talked to UN representatives, rebel commanders and, most importantly, former child soldiers and bush wives who were taken against their will but lucky enough to eventually escape. Shocking, however, is the estimated 25-per cent recidivism rate since many of these kids often have no better alternative awaiting them in their home villages since they're often mistrusted and viewed as bandits.

Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children shows what's being done to try and stop kids from being used as tools of war, and features some poignant stories from people who've been on the front lines in one way or another. It also illustrates how some community groups are arming themselves and being trained to defend against rebel attacks, and we're introduced to a father and the two children he rescued from the LRA after they were kidnapped.

Dallaire admits that it will take years to achieve his goal, if it's ever to be attained, but one of the best sequences in the film is when two teens who fought each other in the bush for opposing sides become friends once they get out of it and are taken by helicopter to an ex-combatants' camp in DRC before they're reunited with their families.

Scenes like this leave some room for optimism, as did a conversation I had last year with a lovely young woman named Grace Acan who was kidnapped by the LRA and spent eight years in virtual enslavement as the bush wife a despotic commander before escaping. She's now getting a university education and using her horrifying experiences to try and promote the rights of children.

Dallaire has a fairly high profile through his past experiences and a previous Emmy Award-winning documentary he made with Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children director Patrick Reed: Shake Hands With The Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire.

The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative is a global partnership committed to ending the use and recruitment of child soldiers worldwide by researching practical solutions, advocating for policy change and conducting comprehensive, prevention-oriented training. It works with military, police and peacekeeping forces and equips first responders and humanitarian agencies with the necessary tools and training to demobilize child soldiers and protect children at risk of recruitment. It aims to end this crime against humanity community-by-community and country-by-country once and for all.

Hopefully this film can mobilize more support for the initiative and others working toward similar goals.

Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children will be screened in Toronto as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival at 2 p.m. on April 29 at Hart House and at 5:30 p.m. on May 5 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. It will play more widely in major cities across Canada starting on various dates next month.

You can watch a trailer of the film here.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Terrorism victims get their turn to talk in Wrong Time Wrong Place

While North America's attention has been focused on the Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt for the Tsarnaev brothers who are allegedly responsible for them over the past two weeks, a Dutch documentary titled Wrong Time Wrong Place examines victims of the much more deadly domestic terrorism attacks launched by Anders Breivik in Norway on July 22, 2011.

Breivik, a far right extremist, killed 77 people when he set off a bomb in the centre of Oslo and then went on a shooting spree on the island of Utoya. The 80-minute Wrong Time Wrong Place features interviews with survivors and loved ones of those who weren't so lucky to escape his wrath, and all of their tales are poignant.

Harald, who had recently lost a son to a base-jumping accident, describes what he went through during and after the bomb blast that rocked his office building. It left him almost blind, but he says he would have been beside Breivik's car bomb when it exploded and would have been killed if he'd gone to his office five minutes earlier.

A young, pregnant Ugandan woman named Ritah who now lives at a Dutch refugee camp describes her excitement about visiting a Labour Party youth camp at Utoya and the fun she had there before escaping death by hiding from Breivik in a bathroom stall. She still dreams of the faces of girls killed on the island and questions why she survived while others didn't. She named her son Michael after an angel who she believes helped save her.

The parents of a young woman named Tamta from the country of Georgia blame themselves for letting her go to Norway, and her mother talks of a prophecy which foretold her daughter's death. They talk of how she always refused to take swimming lessons, and believe she might have survived like some others who dove into the water to get away if she only knew how to swim. She was Breivik's final victim before his arrest and was shot twice from behind by the water's edge.

Tamta's friend Natia invited her to Utoya with her, and they saw it as a chance to go abroad and take on a challenge. She questions why she survived and Tamta didn't as she revisits the massacre scene and concludes that it was "by pure chance."

A young Norwegian man named Hakon was waiting for the ferry to Utoya when he saw a van pull up and a man in a police uniform with guns (which turned out to be Breivik in disguise) get out to board the ferry. He admits that he joked about checking his police ID, and says he was only on the island for a few minutes before the shooting began. He invited Ritah and another young woman named Hajon to hide with him in the toilet stall.

Finally, a Norwegian man named Halvor went base-jumping on that fateful day instead of going to work, avoiding the misfortune of his two colleagues who were killed in the bombing.

Ritah speaks accented English, while the other interview subjects communicate in their native tongues, so you have to pay close attention to the subtitles to appreciate the sad and moving tales they tell. While so much attention is deservedly focused on the perpetrators of horrific acts, it's also enlightening to hear from those who were impacted by them and how their lives will be affected until they draw their last breath.

If circumstances and coincidences were just slightly different for most of these people, that last breath would have already been taken.

The soundtrack to Mexico's drug wars

I had a great time travelling throughout southern Mexico for two weeks late last year, but you wouldn't catch me dead in the United States border city of Juarez. And that's because too many people are already turning up dead there.

Police in this city of 1.5 million people across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas processed an already high 320 murders in 2007. Then the Mexican government launched a drug war against the cartels and those numbers increased to 1,623 homicides in 2008, 2,754 in 2009 and 3,622 in 2010, compared to just five in El Paso.

The violence involved in these killings -- including torture, disfigurement and beheadings -- makes the law-abiding people of Juarez fearful and the economic health of the already poor city has declined significantly. Narco Cultura looks at the harsh realities of Juarez through the eyes of a crime scene investigator named Richi.

While that in itself would make a compelling documentary, director Shaul Schwarz also profiles Los Angeles singer Edgar Quintero and his band, BuKnas de Culiacan. Quintero sings narco corridos -- songs that glorify the gangsters and their drug-dealing, mass-killing ways -- which have become very popular in the U.S. and several Spanish-speaking countries as well as Mexico.

Much of the music, based on Mexico's accordion-driven norteno mixed with other popular genres, is often catchy and danceable. But the lyrics, often about real people and events, are repulsive. Here's a typical example from BuKnas de Culiacan, which performs with a group member carrying a bazooka, while audience members happily sing along:

"With an AK-47 and a bazooka on my shoulder/Cross my path and I'll chop your head off/We're bloodthirsty, crazy, and we like to kill/We are the best at kidnapping/Our gang always travels in a caravan/With bulletproof vests, ready to execute/I'm number one, code name 'M1'/I'm backed up by El Chapo/My name is Manuel Torres Felix sending greetings from Culiacan."

The top-selling narco singer, El Komander, makes $45,000 per show playing in large venues and is sought for steady bookings across Mexico and the U.S. Mexican action movies based on narco corridos, with singers as their stars, are available in major American chain stores. These guys are, to borrow a cliche, "living like rock stars."

This film deserves kudos for effectively juxtaposing the adulation received by narco singers against the lack of recognition given to investigators who risk their lives daily while trying to solve and stop drug murders. 

But where the movie suffers somewhat is in ignoring how narco singers and musicians have also become victims as well as chroniclers in the wars between the vicious cartels. Dozens have been executed. If you're singing the praises of one gang, that makes you the enemy of another. And these grudges are deadly.

That topic could make an interesting documentary on its own. But Narco Cultura opens eyes in depicting ways of life that, thankfully, are virtually unknown in Canada.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Manor opens Hot Docs Festival

The Manor seems like a bit of an odd choice to open the 20th edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

Sure, it's Canadian and a world premiere, but I would have expected the curators to come up with something with a bigger impact to commemorate this milestone year. The Manor touches on several societal issues, but it leaves little lasting impression at the end of its 78 minutes.

The film is based around the dysfunctional Cohen family and its business, a Guelph, Ont. strip joint and low-budget, 32-room hotel that in better days was the home of early 20th century beer barons of the Sleeman family. Thirty-something director Shawney Cohen says (though far from boastfully) at the beginning of the film that his father bought him a lap dance for his 13th birthday and he's been on the fence about the place ever since he was a kid -- even though he's worked as a manager there for years.

The father, Roger, is a cigar-smoking, 400-pound Israeli immigrant who realizes his weight his negatively affecting his health. But instead of dieting or trying to exercise, he opts for stomach reduction surgery (shown briefly in graphic detail) which eventually gets him down to a far from svelte 300 pounds.

But it's hard to lose weight when your wife is constantly pushing large trays of food your way, even though Brenda weighs a mere 85 pounds and finally admits that she has an eating disorder toward the end of the film after her frail body can't withstand a fall and she breaks a hip.

Shawney's younger brother Sammy started working at The Manor right out of high school. He seems to enjoy the lifestyle and invites a stripper to move in with him in his parents' basement -- breaking two of his father's rules: you're not supposed to date staff or non-Jews. Sammy breaks up with her, even though she seems to be the most well-adjusted person on the screen, before the film is over.

Two other non-family members also play supporting roles, and they have their own problems.

Bobby is Roger's assistant and has been in and out of prison all his life. He admits to his boss that he's selling drugs and then he's jailed for assaulting his ex-wife. We learn at the end that the charges were dropped and he was released after a year, but he no longer works at The Manor.

Then there's Susan, the hotel manager who also lives there, who's rushed to hospital after what we're told is either a suicide attempt or drug overdose. Roger clears all of her stuff from her room the next day, but she's allowed to move back in a few weeks later after she recovers.

Roger is very anti-drug and converts the hotel to a halfway house for addicts and homeless people called Sue's Inn Support Centre. Meanwhile, he's shown insulting an overweight peeler that he's watching on a security camera at the club.

Business isn't as good as it used to be, which further stresses Roger and -- although the family seems to live comfortably in a large rural home with a gated driveway and backyard pond -- he refuses to pay for Brenda's counselling once she finally admits she needs help.

Brenda attends one session, but doesn't return for more, citing a lack of funds. Roger admits that he's grown apart from his wife because of The Manor, and Sammy says he resents his old man for treating her "like a piece of shit."

While The Manor is still going, Roger shows Shawney his plans to redevelop it into a condominium complex as the movie nears completion.

The film was shot over two years and, while real life seldom ties plot lines together neatly, The Manor leaves the viewer hanging in too many places without a resolution to any of them. That's the documentary's downfall. It leaves you wanting to know more, but not enough to warrant a sequel.

I wish the Cohens, Bobby and Susan well. They need all the support they can get.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A tribute to the legendary Stompin' Tom Connors

Dave Bidini and Chris Parson
I was honoured to be one of the volunteers who helped coordinate the April 10 tribute to Stompin' Tom Connors spearheaded by the multi-talented Dave Bidini, and it seems that pretty much everyone who filled the Horseshoe Tavern for it was as thrilled as I was with how things turned out.

Chris Parson was an adept organizer, Daniel Bradshaw made sure that things ran smoothly as artists rotated on and off the stage to honour Tom by interpreting his songs, and many other people made valuable contributions both before and during the concert that kept folks entertained and raised more than $6,000 for Street Soccer Canada and the Toronto Homeless Soccer League via ticket and poster sales, a silent auction and a draw.

Jokers Hockey Club

Tom Connors Jr.'s hockey team started the proceedings at 9:30 p.m. in typical patriotic fashion by singing "O Canada," something much more commonly heard before hockey games than concerts. But the sporting world was well-represented, with former NHL player Boyd Devereaux (who I interviewed six years ago about his love of music) and sports broadcasters Stephen Brunt, Sid Sixeiro and Dave Hodge all appearing on stage over the course of the three-and-a-half-hour show at the club where Tom played so often during his career.

The grand-daughter of "Wop" May, "the top Canadian pilot of the day" who Tom wrote a song about, was in the house along with a musical member of parliament, Charlie Angus. They were just two people from a large cross-section of friends and fans of the man who passed away after a very full life at age 77 on March 6.

And of course there were the musicians, all of whom shared respect and appreciation for what Tom did in his career and how his maverick approach to the music industry indirectly opened doors for them. They freely gave their time to sing his songs and further strengthen that bond, even though the man in the black has has left us -- in body, but certainly not in spirit.

I shirked a bit on my normal note-taking since I was busy co-ordinating interviews and performance shots for CityNews, giving away ball caps from sponsor Labatt 50 and selling five-dollar souvenir posters, so this set list may not be quite complete, but it should give you a good idea of who performed and what they played:

Dave Robinson
Rheodinis: "Bridge Came Tumbling Down," "Gumboot Cloggeroo," "Wop May," "The Ketchup Song" and "To It And At It"
Kurt Swinghammer: "Snowmobile Song"
Shawn Creamer (The Beauties): "Ben in the Pen"
Peter Elkas: "Bud the Spud"
Steve Stanley (The Lowest of the Low): "TTC Skidaddler"
Dave Robinson: "Algoma Central #69"
Tom Wilson: "Old Atlantic Shore"
Charlie Angus: "Fire in the Mine" and "Reesor Crossing Tragedy"

Charlie Angus
Whiskey Jack: "Gumboot Cloggeroo," "Bud the Spud" and "The Hockey Song"
Mikey Chuck Rivers: "Peterborough Tuesday Night: A Stompin' Tome to Tom Connors"
Shiloh Harrison and Andrew DeVillers: "Red River Jane"
Elliott Brood:
Jose Contreras and Lily Frost: "Sudbury Saturday Night"
Paul Kolinski: "I Am The Wind"
Stephen O'Grady: "Streets of Toronto"
Matt James and Boyd Devereaux: "Tillsonburg"
Jen Cutts: "Muckin' Slushers"
B.A. Johnston: "Rubberhead"
Jerry Leger: "Don Valley Jail"
Doug Feaver: "Bud the Spud"
All performers: "The Hockey Song"

Thanks to everyone who came out and helped make the night so much fun. If you didn't make it out, there seems to be a groundswell of support for making the tribute an annual event, so you might still have a chance. 

Jeff MacNeil and Stephen O'Grady

Playing Tom's songs late into the night. I think he would have appreciated it -- and tried to keep it going until sunrise.

I raise a toast to you, my friend. I'll be keeping an eye out for small pieces of falling plywood just in case you find a stompin' board in the sky.

If you're interested, you can read some of my interviews with Tom here and here and here.