Taya Diaz: Amiable tour guide to a (biological) Treasure Island

Taya Diaz conducts film making master class during Wildscreen 2011 in Colombo

“Taya Diaz has the shortest name in Sri Lanka but is a big man with a personality to match and a bushy black beard. Apart from being an excellent guide with good knowledge of all aspects of Sri Lankan Wildlife, he’s also a writer and film maker and is excellent company.”

That’s how a bird-watching website once described Taya Diaz, Sri Lankan conservationist turned wildlife film maker.

During the past two decades, Taya has collaborated in making over 20 full-length international wildlife documentaries, all showcasing Sri Lanka’s rich biological diversity and ecosystems. He has been a scientific investigator, presenter, narrator or Sinhalese scriptwriter.

One of his earliest involvements in international film making was with The Temple Troop. Made in 1997, for the BBC and Discovery Channel, it documented a year in the life of a troop of monkeys living in Sri Lanka’s ancient city of Polonnaruwa. These monkeys have been the subject of a long-running study by the Smithsonian Institution’s Primate Biology Program.

Trained as a scientist, Taya has worked in a number of field based conservation projects including the Smithsonian study of monkeys. But it’s as a wildlife and natural history that he now makes a name both in Sri Lanka and overseas.

The Urban Elephant (2000, for PBS/National Geographic), and The Last Tusker (2000, for BBC/Discovery) are two other productions that used Taya’s ground knowledge and scientific expertise. He has provided local liaison for broadcasters such as New Zealand TV, Canal+, Discovery channel, and BBC1.

Taya Diaz: Enough stories to last a lifetime!
For all these reasons, Taya was a natural choice when TVE Asia Pacific was asked to recommend a Sri Lankan film maker to present a master class when the Wildscreen traveling film festival held in Colombo from 17 to 19 February 2011. His master class, titled “Untold Stories of Sri Lanka”, looked at Sri Lanka’s as yet largely untapped potential for authentic, factual stories related to wildlife, natural history and the environment.

He explained the premise for his master class: “Sri Lanka is a pot of plenty in every aspect — the opportunities for a documentary filmmaker are astounding. But sadly, what most audiences see on the airwaves is very standard and boringly similar, touching on the same topics year in and year out.”

Taya feels that documentary films and TV programmes are also essential for educating Sri Lankans about their own natural heritage. Sri Lanka has an impressively high number of plant and animal species for its relatively small land area — which makes it one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world.

“Sri Lankan naturalists, wildlife experts and environmentalists should collaborate more closely with film makers and/or broadcasters to make more local films aimed at local audiences,” he said during a panel discussion I moderated on February 17. “This is essential for raising awareness on environment and sustainable development issues as Sri Lanka pursues rapid economic development after the war.”

Read TVEAP News story on Taya’s master class: Story telling through the local eyes vital, says Taya Diaz

Wiz Quiz 6: Cricket World Cup special – What’s your score?

1,100 million fools following 11 flannelled fools...for six weeks!
“Eleven flannelled fools chasing a red ball, with eleven thousand fools cheering them.”

That’s how Irishman George Barnard Shaw described the very English game of cricket.

A few decades later, he might well have said 1,100 million fools cheering. Probably that many people will watch or otherwise follow the The ICC Cricket World Cup 2011, currently underway in the world’s most ardent cricketing region: South Asia!

In terms of television audiences and media-linked sponsorship money, the ICC Cricket World Cup is the world’s third largest sporting event: only the FIFA Football World Cup and the Summer Olympics are bigger than this event.

Not everyone is equally enthusiastic about cricket. Those in non-playing countries must wonder just what the cricket frenzy is all about. But frenzy time it is, right now, in much of South Asia. The ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 started on 19 February 2011, and will continue until 2 April 2011.

What's your score, mate?
This is the world’s leading men’s one day international (ODI) cricket tournament, organized by the sport’s governing body, the International Cricket Council (ICC). National teams of 14 countries are participating in this tournament, being hosted jointly by Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka.

To mark the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011, Wiz Quiz in Daily News this week was a cricket special, where we probed our readers’ knowledge of World Cup history, as well as the wider subculture of cricket.

I’m not a cricket fan myself, but living in South Asia, it is impossible to avoid catching at least bits and pieces of cricket fever. But cricket is not just a game of players and matches, but a whole cultural and social phenomenon, especially in South Asia. If the English invented cricket, the one-time British colonies have vastly globalised it.

So try your wider cricketing knowledge with this week’s quiz…and see what your score is!

Wiz Quiz 6: Cricket World Cup is here! (scroll down the page to get to the quiz)

Gene Sharp: Every dictator’s worst nightmare?

Gene Sharp - NYT Photo

Is this man, now 82 years old, giving the world’s assorted dictators their worst nightmares?

This is Dr Gene Sharp, a Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in the US, he is widely known for his extensive writings on nonviolent struggle, which have influenced numerous anti-government resistance movements around the world. He is now credited with the strategy behind the recent toppling of the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak.

The New York Times on 17 Feb 2011 profiled him with the title: “Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution”. The article noted: “Few Americans have heard of Mr Sharp. But for decades, his practical writings on nonviolent revolution — most notably “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” a 93-page guide to toppling autocrats, available for download in 24 languages — have inspired dissidents around the world, including in Burma, Bosnia, Estonia and Zimbabwe, and now Tunisia and Egypt.”

“Gene Sharp is the world’s foremost expert on non-violent revolution. His work has been translated into more than 30 languages, his books slipped across borders and hidden from secret policemen all over the world,” says Ruaridh Arrow, Director of the upcoming documentary titled ‘Gene Sharp – How to Start a Revolution’.

In 2009 Arrow, a producer with Sky News in the UK, began filming a documentary following the impact of Sharp’s work from his Boston house, across four continents and eventually to Tahrir square in Cairo, “where I slept alongside protesters who read his work by torchlight in the shadow of tanks”.

Arrow shares the story of the film in the making on BBC Online: Gene Sharp: Author of the nonviolent revolution rulebook

Extract: “Gene Sharp is no Che Guevara but he may have had more influence than any other political theorist of his generation. His central message is that the power of dictatorships comes from the willing obedience of the people they govern – and that if the people can develop techniques of withholding their consent, a regime will crumble.”

The film is due for release in the Spring of 2011. More info on its official website.
Director Ruaridh Arrow
Director of Photography Philip Bloom
Composer Tom Smail

Gene Sharp – How to Start a Revolution Trailer

Here’s another interesting video featuring Gene Sharp:

Gene Sharp: A Primer on YouTube:

Read “From Dicatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation” by Gene Sharp.

Wildlife and Natural History Film making: Are Darwinian Rules at play?

Wildscreen 2011 Colombo Panel: From L to R - Taya Diaz, Amanda Theunissen, Delon Weerasinghe, Anoma Rajakaruna, Dominic Weston and Nalaka Gunawardene

Is there an elite or ‘charmed’ circle of wildlife and natural history film makers in the world? If so, how does a new film maker break into this circle?

This is the question I posed to a group of visiting British film makers and their Sri Lankan counterparts during a panel discussion I moderated at the British Council Colombo on February 17 evening.

The panel, organised around the topic ‘Differences and mutual challenges in Asian, American and European productions/film making’, was part of the Wildscreen traveling film festival held hosted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, from 17 to 19 February 2011.

Amanda Theunissen, who has worked with the BBC Natural History Unit and National Geographic Television, gave a straight answer: yes, there is such a charmed circle.

And although she didn’t say it in so many words, it was clear from our overall discussions that the circle is jealously guarded, and it’s not easy for any newcomer to break into it. And the entry barrier becomes harder if the film maker is from the global South.

I opened the panel recalling the opening sentence of Our Common Future, the 1987 Report by the World Commission on Environment and Development: “The Earth is one but the world is not”. I said: “A similar disparity exists in wildlife and natural history film making. We are all covering the same planet Earth in all its splendour and diversity. But on this planet there are many different worlds of film making.”

I asked my five panelists — Amanda Theunissen and Dominic Weston from the UK, and Delon Weerasinghe, Anoma Rajakaruna, and Taya Diaz from Sri Lanka — to address three key challenges faced by all wildlife and natural history film makers everywhere: the art of effective story telling; fund raising to make films; and ensuring wide distribution of the films made.

The panel discussion was lively, wide-ranging and engaged the audience which comprised mostly aspiring film makers or film students. I didn’t want our discussion to scare any of them away from a career in environment and wildlife film making. But at the same time, we wanted to acknowledge the practical realities — and disparities — that exist within and across countries in this respect.

I’ve now written up a summary of the panel discussion for TVE Asia Pacific news. Its heading comes from a provocative question I asked during the panel: does wildlife film making operate on almost Darwinian rules?

Read the full story: Wildlife and Natural History Film making: Survival of the Fittest?

Wildscreen Colombo Panel: From L to R - Taya Diaz, Amanda Theunissen, Delon Weerasinghe, Anoma Rajakaruna, Dominic Weston, Nalaka Gunawardene

Wiz Quiz 5: Beware, the Fury of a Young Lady!

The current spell of heavy rainfall and resulting floods is being blamed on a phenomenon called La Niña. It involves both the ocean and atmosphere.

La Niña occurs when surface temperatures get cooler than normal (by 3 to 5 degrees Centigrade) in the western Pacific Ocean. During a La Niña, the cold water that pools near the coast of South America surges westwards across the mighty Pacific, the largest ocean in the world. This flow causes a greater build up of warmer water along the eastern coast of Australia and in the South East Asia region. The contrast in sea surface temperatures across the Pacific, as well as the contrast in air pressure, produces more rainfall.

La Niña is the Spanish term for “the girl child”. In that literal sense, the current weather extremes might be called the fury of a very formidable young lady! And it’s not the first time she has unleashed such havoc on us. This week in my quiz column, I started off with some questions on freaky weather, and then moved on to other topics.

Other ladies figure in the quiz: from Nobel Prize winning Marie Curie to Harry Potter creator J K Rowling. And we ask about the lady school teacher who died in the Challenger space shuttle disaster in February 1986.

Read Wiz Quiz 5: Fury of a Young Lady

Popping the ‘Ogden Nash Question’ on turning 45…

Nalaka Gunawardene at 45: Captured on 13 Feb 2011 by Dhara Gunawardene

As I turn 45 today, I can’t do better than to quote one of my favourite poets, Ogden Nash, who wrote these ‘Lines on Facing Forty’:
I have a bone to pick with fate,
Come here and tell me girly:
Do you think my mind is maturing late,
Or simply rotting early?

I first heard these words quoted by the late Tarzie Vittachi, a pioneer in development journalism – and an early influence on my career – at a talk he gave circa 1990. At the time, Tarzie was already in his late 60s, but he hadn’t lost the capacity to poke fun at himself.

More than two decades later, I can better appreciate both Tarzie Vittachi and Ogden Nash. I’m now more convinced than ever that a good sense of humour – whether plain, wry or wicked – is an essential element in our survival kit as we fumble along the path of life. In my case, I’ve pledged never to take myself too seriously; however, I’m passionate and serious about what I do.

I used to give this simple caution to all my newly recruited staff members:
“If you take me too seriously, you will lose your mind.
If you don’t take me seriously enough, you might (possibly) lose your job…”

After a while, I was told that it was prone to be highly misunderstood, partly because not everyone shared my play with words, and partly due to some people lacking any sense of humour. I no longer utter these words; the practical implications remain!

On more cheerful matters, my photographically keen daughter Dhara offered to shoot me as part her birthday present. I’m always happy to face cameras (and just love to make faces), so I readily agreed. Here are some of the better results, carefully chosen by the editor-publisher of this blog:

Nalaka G - with Mouth and Mind wide open...Photo by Dhara Gunawardene
I promise never to act my age!
Posing with the family photographer!

By the way, I’m perfectly happy with my salt-and-pepperish hair, and have resolved never to join the growing number of my friends quietly signing up to the ‘Godrej Brigade’ (I have no objections to others dyeing their hair: each one to her own self…).

In computing terms, I’m a WYSIWYG (pronounced: WIZ-ee-wig): an acronym for ‘what you see is what you get’. The term is used to describe a system in which content displayed during editing (on-screen) appears very similar to the final output.

People Power beyond regime change: Now for the long haul in Egypt…

It's more than just a change at the top...

This is one of the more popular cartoons about People Power revolution in Egypt. The icon of pyramid has been irresistible for many cartoonists, but this one is especially profound: it says so much with so little!

We salute all ordinary Egyptians whose 18 days of resolve and agitation have driven out the dictator Hosni Mubarak. But as I tweeted to my Egyptian friend Nadia El-Awady on the night of 11 February soon after hearing Mubarak’s resignation: “One huge roadblock is now gone; we hope you’ll persist in your long march to democratic freedom.”

Toppling an unpopular, ruthless dictator is never easy, but the immediate aftermath is the most decisive – and dangerous – moment. This is when the ultra-nationalists and fundamentalists will compete with the democrats and liberals to fill the void. In Iran, when the Shah fell in 1979 after prolonged people power, it was a theocracy that replaced the autocracy. So people power requires constant vigilance, especially now.

People Power does not – and should not – stop at elections or revolutions in any country: regime change is only half of the struggle won. Ensuring people have a say in how their governments are run requires constant engagement by their citizens. This is a topic I have long been interested in, and written about. I also helped produce a global TV documentary on the subject in 2004. See these blog posts and web story about that film:

People Power beyond elections and revolutions: New documentary from TVE Asia Pacific profiles social accountability in practice

Blog post in August 2007: People Power: Going beyond elections and revolutions

Blog Post in August 2007: New Face of People Power: Social Accountability in Action

Innaharda ehna kullina Misryeen! Today, we’re all Egyptians!

18 Days that changed Egypt: 25 Jan to 11 Feb 2011
The geeky Davids bring down the mighty Goliath of Mubarak: Bravo!!!
Don't meddle with a proud nation that's 5,000 years old!
Mubarak unplugged Egypt from the Internet; Angry Egyptians unplugged him!

Wiz Quiz 4: Of Oil Prices and Food Crises…

Oil prices going up, up and up...

The international selling price of unrefined petroleum (commonly referred to as the oil price) has once again gone up to US Dollars 100 per barrel, causing concerns worldwide.

The ‘oil barrel’ is an old measure that has survived from the early days of the petroleum industry that originated in the Pennsylvania oil fields.

In the early 1860s, when oil production began, there was no standard container for oil, so whiskey barrels were used. Although actual barrels are no longer used to transport crude oil — and most petroleum is now moved around in pipelines or oil tankers — the measure is still in use. Since it was standardized in 1872, how many US gallons are in one barrel of oil?

This is one of 15 questions I asked in this week’s Wiz Quiz column in the Daily News, titled Of Oil Prices and Food Crises…

Once again, my co-compiler Vindana Ariyawansa and I offer a ‘mixed bag’ of questions, covering subjects ranging from culture and sports to science and business. These take off from some recent news stories and current concerns. For example, we hear about world oil prices rising (again!), and extreme weather causing food shortage in some parts of the world. When news reports mention oil barrels and talk about Malthusian scenarios, do we know what they really mean?

Read this week’s Wiz Quiz to test your current affairs knowledge!

Of Dictators and Terrible Cockroaches: A Russian children’s story…from 1925!

Tarankanische (The Terrible Cockroach) original book cover, 1925

Sometime ago, when I gave a talk at the Sri Lanka Rationnalists’ Association, a member of my audience asked if parents should be banned from reading fairy tales to their children. His argued that children should be raised on reality and not fantasy. I was talking about science fiction and their social relevance, and I answered: there is absolutely no harm in fairy tales as they nurture in our young minds those vital qualities of imagination and sense of wonder. I quoted C S Lewis as saying that the only people really against escapism were…jailers!

These days, not all children’s stories are fairy tales and some of them actually carry very down-to-earth messages either overtly or covertly. Members of that largest club in the world – Parenthood – keep discovering new depths and insights in some children’s stories.

On 30 January, as people power struggles were unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt, I wrote a blog post titled Wanted: More courageous little ‘Mack’s to unsettle Yertle Kings of our times!. I related how, while following the developments on the web, I have been re-reading my Dr Seuss. In particular, the delightfully inspiring tale of Yertle the Turtle King. To me, that is the perfect example of People Power in action — cleverly disguised as children’s verse!

Turns out another parent on the opposite side of the planet had a similar insight, but from an even older children’s story written in Russia! Philip Shishkin has shared his experience in the latest issue of Newsweek.

Tarankanische, or ‘The Terrible Cockroach’ (also translated as ‘The Giant Cockroach’) is a children’s story written by the Russian author Kornei Chukovsky (1882-1969). The first edition, with illustrations by Sergeii Chekhonin, was published in (then) Leningrad 1925.

I was raised on translated Russian children’s stories (the only books of that genre we could access in the closed-economy, socialist misadventures of Sri Lanka during the early 1970s). Whatever economic realities that thrust those books on my childhood, many of them were very fine stories, always well illustrated. But I had somehow missed out on this one — so I quickly did some web searching for this story. And what a fantastic fable it is!

Tarankanische tells the nonsense tale of a threatening cockroach who is so fierce that he terrifies all the animals who are out to enjoy a picnic. Even the mighty elephants are helpless in his presence. The cockroach bullies and scares animals much larger than itself, and demands they surrender their cubs so he can eat them. He is seen as “a terrible giant: the red-haired, big-whiskered cockroach.”

Tarankanische, or The Terrible Cockroach, Sergeii Chekhonin, illustrator, 1925
The little tyrant rules the whole jungle on a mix of fear, submission and misery. A laughing kangaroo points out that it’s no giant, but merely a cockroach. The hippos tell him to shut up: “You’ll make things worse for us”. Then, one day, Nature finally restores balance (as it always does): a sparrow comes along and gobbles up the Terrible Cockroach.

In his essay titled Watching the Mighty Cockroach Fall, Philip Shishkin writes: “It is hard not to read the poem as an allegory for the rise and fall of a dictatorship. Despots tend to appear invincible while they rule, and then laughably weak when they fall. Once their subjects call them out on their farce, dictators look ridiculous. Often, they react by killing and jailing people, which buys them more time in power (Iran, Belarus, and Uzbekistan come to mind). But just as often, when faced with a truly popular challenge, dictators shrink to the size of their inner cockroaches.”

Shishkin then raises an interesting question: Did Kornei Chukovsky have Joseph Stalin in mind when he wrote it? Was Stalin prominent enough when the story was first published in 1925? To find out, read the full essay.

According to his mini-bio on IMDB, Chukovsky was a praised Russian translator of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and other English and American authors. His writings for children are regarded as classics of the form. His best-known poems for children are “Krokodil”, “Moydodyr”, “Tarakanische”, and “Doctor Aybolit” (Doctor Ouch).