2008: A Halloween Year – Prepare to get really scared…

Be scared...very scared!

Be scared...very scared!

Today, October 31, Halloween would be observed in several countries of the western world.

One Halloween custom is Trick-or-treating where children move from house to house in costumes, asking for treats such as sweets with the question: “Trick or treat?” The “trick” part of “trick or treat” is an idle threat to play a trick on the homeowners or their property if no treat is given.

2008 has been a highly turbulent year for most parts of the world. Oil and food prices went through the roof (and while oil has come down in recent weeks, food scarcities still loom large). Then came the global economic crisis, triggered by greedy bankers lending recklessly.

In such a year, what would it take to scare people on Halloween night? Or would Halloween be mild compared to the shocks and jolts we’ve been living through for much of the year?

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. My favourite cartoon character Calvin had it figured out years ago:

Aren't you scared yet?

Aren't you scared yet?

According to some analysts, the global economic crisis that we are living through at the moment just a harbinger of a much more dramatic global ecological collapse to come.

One of them is Patrik Etschmayer, who recently wrote an essay in Nachrichten, Switzerland, titled:
The Wall Street Crisis and the Coming Ecological Disaster”. His main point: the same people that got the world into the present crisis are driving the world over an ecological cliff.

Here’s an extract in translation: “What if this crisis was just a prelude – a precursor to a much greater threat – one that could possibly cost millions of lives? The current economic crises was based on the idea that we can live and consume based on credit – and the belief that we can continue to do so unabated as long as we steadfastly ignore the facts and spread the risks widely enough. That idea didn’t fly. Yet its seems that humanity still seems to believe that the things that have failed in the monetary economy, will, in the long run, still apply to the material reality of our world. Quite simply, because nature will not present us with a bill for the resources upon which we depend for our very survival.”

British journalist George Monbiot made the same point in his weekly environmental column. Writing in The Guardian on 14 Oct 2008, he said:

“As we goggle at the fluttering financial figures, a different set of numbers passes us by. On Friday, Pavan Sukhdev, the Deutsche Bank economist leading a European study on ecosystems, reported that we are losing natural capital worth between $2 trillion and $5 trillion every year, as a result of deforestation alone. The losses incurred so far by the financial sector amount to between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion. Sukhdev arrived at his figure by estimating the value of the services – such as locking up carbon and providing freshwater – that forests perform, and calculating the cost of either replacing them or living without them. The credit crunch is petty when compared to the nature crunch.

“The two crises have the same cause. In both cases, those who exploit the resource have demanded impossible rates of return and invoked debts that can never be repaid. In both cases we denied the likely consequences. I used to believe that collective denial was peculiar to climate change. Now I know that it’s the first response to every impending dislocation.”

So the Halloween scares could be pretty mild compared to the scares of the real world. As the Hollywood copy writers used to say, we might as well: Get ready to be scared…really scared.

©limate ©hange or climate change? Copyrights on a warming planet

This is the real question!

This is the real question!

OK, this is hot off my imaginative mind. I was writing an op ed essay today and turning phrases over in my mind when I came up with this…which neatly sums up what I’ve been saying for a while: confronted with the climate crisis, broadcasters and film-makers need to adopt a more liberal approach to copyrights on their creations.

For discussions on this, see my earlier blog posts:

15 Oct 2008: Standing on Al Gore’s Shoulders: Moving images in the climate debate

13 Oct 2008: ‘Climate Challenge’ marks turning point in Vietnam’s climate concerns

12 Oct 2008: India’s climate change NIMBYsm and middle class apathy

12 Oct 2008: Climate in Crisis and planet in peril – but we’re squabbling over copyrights!

See also these news items appearing on TVE Asia Pacific website:

6 Oct 2008:
Make climate change a ‘copyright free zone’: Asia Pacific TV and film professionals call

4 Oct 2008:
Climate coverage in media needs rational and emotional approaches

Thai audiences in the dark about ‘Children of the Dark’

Yami no kodomotachi (Children of the Dark) movie poster

Yami no kodomotachi (Children of the Dark) movie poster

Human trafficking – peddling and trading of human beings for slavery, sexual exploitation and servitude – has grown to alarming proportions in recent years. It’s among the top five illicit trades in the world, whose net annual worth is believed to be between 9 billion and 42 billion US dollars. The truth is, nobody knows exactly how big it is, but human rights activists and development agencies agree the problem is pervasive.

Of the estimated 2.5 million persons trafficked worldwide, more than half are in the Asia Pacific. At the UN General Assembly for Children in August 2007, it was reported that about 1.8 million children became victims of commercial sex trade in 2000. About one million children in Southeast Asia are said to be involved – Thailand is one centre of this shady trade, drawing on misery in its rural hinterlands as well as poorer neighbouring countries like Burma, Cambodia and Laos.

So what happens when someone goes to the trouble of studying the issue in depth, and then pools talent and resources to make a feature film that exposes international connections that sustain the child sex industry in Thailand? Instead of being welcomed as part of the effort to counter this scourge, the film gets banned.

Yami no kodomotachi (Children of the Dark, 138 mins, original Japanese) is a Japanese-Thai film made in 2008 about child sex slavery. It has been banned in Thailand on the grounds that it was ‘inappropriate’ and touched on a ‘sensitive’ issue.

Watch the official trailer of the film (Japanese soundtrack, Thai captions):

I haven’t seen the film, but according to one reviewer who did, Junji Sakamoto‘s film is based on a novel by Yan Sogil and scripted by Sakamoto himself, shows, with a documentary-like directness, how children caught in the web of a Thai prostitution ring are exploited, abused and, in some cases, murdered when they are no longer sexually salable.

Mark Schilling, writing in The Japan Times in August 2008, noted: “…In being so visually graphic — particularly in the sex scenes in the Thai brothel — Sakamoto treads a dangerous line between hard-hitting social drama and stomach-turning exploitation. He takes care never to show his young actors (whose average age looks to be about 10) and their adult ‘clients’ in the same explicit shot, but he films them engaged in sexual acts or their aftermath. Sakamoto may defend these scenes in the name of realism, but could he have filmed similar ones in Japan, using Japanese children? The short answer is “no.”

The Thai ban prevented ‘Children of the Dark’ from being screened at the Bangkok International Film Festival, held in the Thai capital from 23 – 30 September 2008.

“The ban puts under the spotlight the country’s – or at least its higher-ups’ – seeming unwillingness to let go of the Film Act of 1930, when Thailand was still under absolute monarchy. That law gave a Board of Censors the power to impose cuts or to ban a film it deems inappropriate,” writes my friend and colleague Lynette Lee Corporal in an article just published on Asia Media Forum.

Thailand in denial about its Children of the Dark

Thailand in denial about its Children of the Dark

She quotes my Thai colleague and documentary filmmaker Pipope Panitchpakdi as saying: “Authorities always think that viewers need to be protected and shielded from real issues. They still have that kind of sentiment that the media should function as a gatekeeper. That is, let the good stories in and the bad ones out. It’s okay in certain circumstances but not when talking about real, serious issues.”

Pipope adds: “This country has no problem with hypocrisy; we don’t see anything wrong with double standards. We have sex workers in corners of the city, but we can’t watch people kissing.”

A Bangkok-based journalist who calls himself Wise Kwai, writing in his blog, asks: “When will they (Thai authorities) learn that when they ban or censor a film, the ensuing stink that’s raised causes more problems than if the film had been allowed to quietly unspool? Perhaps if people had seen it, they might criticise it, but they’d also talk about the problems in society that allow children to be exploited.”

Read the full article: Film Censorship Leaves Viewers in the Dark by Lynette Lee Corporal

My Sep 2007 post: MTV Exit: Entertainment TV takes on human trafficking

‘War for the Whitehouse’: Obama, McCain and The Onion

Onion News Network - for news you can't afford to miss

Onion News Network - for news you can't afford to miss

The American presidential election race is entering its last lap. And the world watches the campaign trail with baited breath.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama enjoys more international support than his Republican rival John McCain, as most people outside the US prefer the Democrat leader to become next US president, according to a BBC poll in September 2008. Most of the people questioned in the global poll conducted by international polling institute GlobeScan believe that US relations with the rest of the world would improve under the presidentship of Obama.

While so much of American and international news media time is being spent on covering the campaign and various opinion polls, some comic relief comes from The Onion – that wickedly funny and innovative website which now produces a steady stream of videos spoofing the news media’s worse excesses.

The Onion calls it the ‘War for the White House’ and has set up its ‘election analysis bunker’ from where its intrepid reporters are bringing us news that you – and major news organisations – have somehow managed to miss. They call is Onion News Network, ONN for short.

They’ve been doing it for the better part of a year, and here are some of my favourites from The Onion YouTube channel:

Caution: There’s a slight bias towards Senator Obama in some of these news reports, but then, he’s been the liberal media’s darling for much of this campaign year.

October 2008: McCain Left On Campaign Bus Overnight
Campaign officials downplayed the incident, saying the senator was fine as soon as he was fed and taken to the bathroom.

October 2008: Gifted Youngster Sells Cookies To Buy Attack Ad
In this installment of Beyond The Facts, a precocious 8-year-old girl participates in grown-up politics by spreading smears and lies.

September 2008: McCains Economic Plan: ‘Everyone Marry A Beer Heiress’
McCain pointed to his personal success in marrying a wealthy beer heiress to prove how the plan could benefit every American.

September 2008: Obama Runs Constructive Criticism Ad On McCain
In response to Republican attacks, Barack Obama unleashed a series of slightly negative ads that gently point out how McCain could be doing a better job.

August 2008: Portrayal Of Obama As Snob Hailed As Step Forward For Blacks
Overjoyed civil rights leaders say that Barack Obama has paved the way for future black politicians to be smeared as country club snobs.

March 2008: Poll: Bullshit Is Most Important Issue For 2008 Voters
For a majority of likely voters, meaningless bullshit will be the most important factor in deciding who they will vote for in 2008.

January 2008: The Onion: More Candidates Court Fat Vote
Presidential candidates are reaching out to fat voters on the campaign trail by eating large amounts of fattening food.

See all election videos of ONN

ONN’s self-introduction says its “style of hard-hitting, on-the-ground coverage of live news events has become a standard in the news industry. The network can be viewed in 92.2 million U.S. households and more than 500,000 American prison cells, making it the most-watched cable network in the world. It can currently be seen in 312 countries, with broadcasts in 52 different languages“.


The Onion - The Nation's finest news source...

The Onion - The Nation's finest news source...

Wash Your Hands – yes, UNICEF, but only if you ask us nicely!

Global Handwashing Day logo

Global Handwashing Day logo

October 15 was marked as the first Global Handwashing Day (GHD). It’s simple yet important mission was to promote the practice of handwashing with soap.

Washing hands can save lives. Washing hands with soap can save more lives. This is the simple message reinforced on this day with public campaigns focusing on schools and school children.

In this UN-declared International Year of Sanitation 2008, the GHD will echo and reinforce its call for improved hygiene practices.

GHD is a Unicef-led initiative involving governments, civil society, volunteers and others around the world.

“Turning handwashing with soap before eating and after using the toilet into an ingrained habit could save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention, cutting deaths from diarrhea by almost half and deaths from acute respiratory infections by one-quarter,” says the GHD official website, explaining the background.

IYS 2008 logo

IYS 2008 logo

Trying saying that aloud in one breath – I can’t. Evidently, the crusty technocrat who wrote that text wanted to pack all the rationale into one long, clumsy sentence.

But this message is too important to be spoilt by an inarticulate official. Washing hands with soap can prevent diahrroeal diseases and pneumonia, which together kill more than 3.5 million children under five every year. That’s 400 needless deaths every hour, round the clock.

Fortunately, the campaigning material that went out using moving images were better produced. Here are two good examples (and a bad one).

The popular Australian children’s musical entertainers, The Wiggles, produced and donated a song to mark the Global Handwashing Day. This simple and catchy tune “seeks to motivate millions of children around the world, to transform the simple act of handwashing with soap from an abstract and seldom practiced behaviour into an automatic and enjoyable habit”.

Meanwhile, in India, cricket star Sachin Tendulkar joined forces with UNICEF to get Indian children to improve their health and hygiene as part of GHD. Tendulkar features in a public service announcement (PSA) being broadcast this month in 14 languages across India. It will target students in more than 6 million schools.

And finally, here’s Unicef’s own news story posted this week on its YouTube channel telling us more on GHD. It’s technically well made, but absolutely lacks passion. The narrator delivers her script in such an indifferent, detached tone, and UNICEF Senior Adviser for Sanitation and Hygiene pontificates also in a tone that will not win her many followers. Scenes of senior UN officials washing their hands in a demonstration are laughable. The only saving grace in this story is when we see Hayley Westenra, the well known singer from New Zealand and youngest UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, visiting water and sanitation projects in Ghana.

If only the rest of GHD promoters had the enthusiasm and passion that Hayley Westenra exudes! Passion used to be the hallmark of UNICEF during the time of its legendary executive director James Grant, who strongly believed in communicating messages of child survival and well-being. He gave UNICEF a head start in working with the media, especially television.

Alas, large UN agencies like UNICEF have little or no institutional memory for more than just a few years. Because if they did, GHD campaigns could have effectively used, at least in South Asia (where nearly half of all people lack access to toilets) an episode of the hugely popular Meena cartoon animation series.

Meena is the enchanting heroine of an animated film series produced by UNICEF in South Asia. The films are part of a package of communication materials promoting the status of the girl child in this region. UNICEF co-produced the series a decade ago with leading animators in the US and South Asia.

Meena's Three Wishes

Meena's Three Wishes

In Meena’s Three Wishes, Meena dreams of a magic genie that will grant her three wishes so that everyone would be healthy and never again get sick from poor sanitation and unsafe water. When Meena wakes up, she realizes that she must make her dream come true. With the help of her brother Raju, other children in the village, and Mithu, her pet parrot, Meena convinces people to build and use latrines, to use safe water and to wash their hands to stop the spread of germs and disease.

I don’t particularly enjoy it when UN agencies try to play nanny to the whole world, especially if they talk to us in such jargon-ridden, dispassionate terms. Their messages are tremendously important, and deserve wider dissemination — they can literally save lives.

That’s why public campaigns should be left in the hands of communication professionals who know how to reach out beyond the charmed development circle. For the rest of UNICEF, they should perhaps take a lesson or two in passionate communication from Hayley Westenra, The Wiggles – and their own little Meena!

Standing on Al Gore’s Shoulders: Moving images in the climate debate

And the winner is...

And the winner is...

Al Gore used to have a reputation as a very smart man who was very stiff and aloof especially in his public speaking.

I didn’t notice this the only time I listened to him in person, at an environmental journalists conference at MIT in Boston, Massachusetts, in the Fall of 1995. Perhaps because he was speaking to a group of over 200 journalists, Gore was especially charming. He delivered a well prepared speech passionately, and then took a dozen questions.

I still remember one incident during question time. A Bangladeshi participant lined up to ask him something and started addressing him as ‘Mr President’. Gore smilingly interjected: ‘Not yet!’. The journalist, not the least shaken by his slip of the tongue, said: ‘Well, I hope you will be one day!’.

Well, that day came…and it was not to be. Gore won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election but lost the presidency in a bizarre series of events that had the rest of the world gasping.

All that sounds so long ago, now that Gore has emerged as the world’s best known climate crusader. There are many who feel that he is more effective in his current role than as a politician.

His 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, helped move the climate change debate forward in a decisive manner.

Whatever we might think about the film’s artistic and technical merits, I’m glad it has settled one question: can a single film make a difference in tipping public opinion about a matter of global importance?

The answer, where climate change is concerned, is a resounding yes!

For sure, the film arrived at a time when the climate change debate had been going on for nearly two decades. Scientific evidence was mounting for human responsibility for accelerated changes in our climate. Political and business leaders, in denial for years, were finally beginning to take note — perhaps sensing votes or dollars.

Official film poster

Official film poster

Coming in at the time it did — in the Summer of 2006 –- Al Gore’s film tipped the public opinion to agree that climate change was for real and responses were urgently needed.

“It is now clear that we face a deepening global climate crisis that requires us to act boldly, quickly and wisely,” says the former US Vice President introducing his film.

An Inconvenient Truth focuses on Al Gore and his travels in support of his efforts to educate the public about the severity of the climate crisis. Gore says, “I’ve been trying to tell this story for a long time and I feel as if I’ve failed to get the message across.”

The film closely follows a Keynote presentation (dubbed “the slide show”) that Gore presented throughout the world. It intersperses Gore’s exploration of data and predictions regarding climate change and its potential for disaster with Gore’s life story.

An Inconvenient Truth is not a particularly stunning or dramatic documentary. Some have called it a ‘dramatised PowerPoint presentation’ (although Gore actually uses Apple’s Keynote presentation software). There aren’t cuddly animals, deadly chemicals, forest infernos or gory animal hunts that make environmental films appeal to a mass audience.

In fact, it hangs together — and sustains for nearly an hour and a half — due to the sheer star power of Al Gore. And when we take a closer look, we see how hard Gore and his team at Participant Productions have tried to engage audiences.

The film, made on a budget of around US$1 million (modest by Hollywood standards) went on to earn US$49 million at the box office worldwide. As at late 2008, it ranks as the fourth-highest-grossing documentary film in the United States, after Fahrenheit 9/11, March of the Penguins and Sicko.

I first saw An Inconvenient Truth at a cinema in Virginia, USA, while it was still on its initial theatrical release in the Fall of 2006. I reviewed it in early 2007, and recently returned to discussing the film during a presentation I made to our Asia Pacific regional workshop on changing climate and moving images, held in Tokyo in early October 2008.

My thrust was: now that Al Gore and his film have helped turn the climate debate, how can we continue to use moving images in search of solutions? In other words, how do we stand on the shoulders of Al Gore?

Another excellent film on climate change

The Great Warming: Another excellent film on climate change

I looked back at Gore’s film and another excellent Canadian film that came out the same year, The Great Warming. Discussing their merits, I noted how both films appeal as much to our emotions as they do to our rational intellect. “Facts, figures and analysis alone cannot engage a diverse, sometimes sceptical or indifferent audience. That’s why they try a different approach: appealing to the emotions.”

Here are some excerpts from my remarks:

We often see environmental documentaries failing to engage audiences because they pack too much information, or worse, preach too heavily and directly. Some film-makers feel strongly that they must ‘inform and educate’ their viewers at all costs.

To engage people, both are needed

To engage people, both are needed

It’s story telling that works best with moving images –- and what better stories to tell than the personalised ones of real people dealing with real world problems and challenges?

With ‘moving images, moving people’ as our slogan, we at TVE Asia Pacific believe in the power of well-made films to reach out to people’s hearts and minds.

Our experience shows that moving images can indeed move people, but only when:
• They are used in the right context;
• They form part of a bigger effort or campaign;
• Audio-visual’s strengths are maximised; and
• Audio-visuals limitations are properly recognised.

It’s the combination of broadcast and narrowcast spheres that has a better chance of changing people’s attitudes and, ultimately, their behaviour.

Read the full presentation here:

Who speaks for most of the world’s poor people…living in Asia?

World map of human poverty...shows Asia harbouring over half

World map of human poverty...shows Asia harbouring over half

Take a close look at this map. What’s happened to our familiar world?

This is the map of human poverty — showing the proportion of poor people living in each country.

The size of each country/territory shows the overall level of poverty, quantified as the population of the territory multiplied by the Human Poverty Index. The index is used by the UNDP to measure the level of poverty in different territories. It attempts to capture all elements of poverty, such as life expectancy and adult literacy.

This map is from the recently released new book, Atlas of the Real World. It uses software to depict the nations of the world, not by their physical size, but by their demographic importance on a range of subjects.

It carries maps constructed to represent data, such as population, migration and economics. But instead of a conventional map being coloured in different shades, for instance, the maps in this Atlas are differently sized. For instance, a country with twice as many people as another is shown twice the size; a country three times as rich as another is three times the size. And so on.

When depicted in this manner, a very different view of our real world emerges. The one on the distribution of poverty, shown above, reminds us something often overlooked: there are more poor people in Asia than anywhere else in the world.

It takes a map like this to drive home such a basic fact. In most discussions on international development or poverty reduction, it is Africa that dominates the agenda. Even those organisations and activists who claim to be evidence-based don’t always realise that when it comes to absolute numbers, and not just percentages, poverty and under-development affects far more Asians than Africans.

Atlas of the Real World, which I haven’t yet seen except through glimpses offered by The Telegraph (UK) and BBC Online, offers many such insights on what our topsy-turvey world is really like.

Their map of human poverty draws on the same data that this standard depiction does, in a map I found on Wikipedia sourcing the UN Human Development Report 2007/2008.


Percentage population living on less than 1 dollar day 2007-2008 (Source: UN)

There are many ways of measuring income poverty, and experts don’t always agree on methods and outcome. But we will leave those technicalities to them. Global Issues is a good website that discusses these issues without too much jargon.

Accurately drawing a two-dimensional map of our spherical world has been a challenge for centuries. Today’s most widely used Mercator projection represents our usual view of the world – with north at the top and Europe at the centre. People in other parts of the world may not always agree with this view.

The Peters Projection World Map is one of the most stimulating, and controversial, images of the world. Introduced in the early 1970s, it was an attempt to correct many imbalances and distortions in the Mercator map.

An example: in the traditional Mercator map, Greenland and China look to be the same size but in reality, China is almost 4 times larger! Peters map shows the two countries in their relative sizes.

Atlas of the Real World also carries one map where the size of each territory represents exactly its land area in proportion to that of the others, giving a strikingly different perspective from the Mercator projection most commonly used. It is very similar to the Peters map of the world.

Our world depicted by each country's land area

Our world depicted by each country's land area

The UNDP has been producing its influential Human Development Report since 1990. As far as I can discern, the HDR always uses conventional (Mercator?) maps, depicting data using the standard colour-coding or gray tones. The one I have reproduced in this post is an example.
Indeed, the UN’s Cartographic Section seems to favour these.

When would the UNDP – and other members of the UN family – start using more innovative ways such as those used in Atlas of the Real World? How much more effective can the UN’s analysis be if they move out of the comfort zone of Mercator?