October 30, 2007

It's time for Polish films

The Polish Film Festival in America is starting this week in Chicago, on Saturday Nov. 3, and continues through the month until November 18. Check it out here - http://www.pffamerica.com/schedule.htm

October 29, 2007

Kasparov's Day

Once again, here is a short post to report that this Monday morning's interview on NPR's Fresh Air will be with Gary Kasparov, the long-time chess grand champion, and now head of Other Russia (Drugaya Rossiya), an out-spoken opposition party campaigning against Putin's Kremlin. I recently posted a link to an interesting profile of Kasparov, his career and his political aims, in a recent issue of The New Yorker.

I think there is something very special about a country that celebrates a chess champion such that his fame would propel (and hopefully protect) him in a political career.

October 25, 2007

Steve LeVine on Fresh Air: "Parsing Petro-Politics in the Caspian Sea"

In my last post about Russia, I mentioned that journalist and blogger Steve Levine (http://oilandglory.com) will be joining us at The University of Chicago to discuss his new book The Oil and the Glory next Thursday, November 1 at 6pm at International House. I just heard that he is going to be interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air this morning, Oct. 25. The show is called "Parsing Petro-Politics in the Caspian Sea." Fresh Air episodes are available as podcasts, so if you miss or want to listen to it often, look it up at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=15625253.

October 18, 2007

Russia Risen

It's not news today that Russia has risen to be a dominant political and economic power, both in its region and globally, since President Vladimir Putin has taken control of the country. Partly due to the dramatic rise in the cost of natural gas and oil resources, for which Russia is the number 1 and number 2 producer in the world respectively (oil went from $25 to over $80 per barrel in this period, and that price seems to be sustainable), Russia was able to pay back its multi-billion dollars in aid loans that were used bolster it after the collapse of the USSR, and Moscow now boasts as many resident billionaires as does New York City.

Some of the above information comes from a fascinating article in The New Yorker last week by David Remnick, author of "Lenin's Tomb" among many other non-Russian volumes by him, entitled "The Tsar's Opponent".

This renewed economic importance is soon to be felt here in Chicago. As if a direct symbol of renewal, American Airlines has just announced a non-stop flight from Moscow to Chicago to begin in June 2008. A conference on Russian business was held about a year ago here in the city. And the Moscow-Chicago sister city partnership is also being re-articulated. The International Sister Cities program, once an expression of good-will and cultural appreciation in the face of the cold war and the guarantee of mutually-assured destruction, seemed to lose traction and direction overall for its projects of diplomacy since 1992. Now a new focus may give the organization a realm for activity: the Chicago-Moscow committee has recently convened a Russian Business Forum. I received an email from the group just today, announcing a panel discussion entitled "Real Estate Development and Investing in Russia", on Tuesday, Oct. 30. [The cost to attend is $50. FOr more info, call 312.742.8497 or email g37boxoffice@cityofchicago.org]

Russian economic prosperity is only half the story. Under Putin, a former KGB spy, the state has re-centralized vast energy and media resources, degraded the heretofore fledgling democratic structures and developing civil society in Russia, and a new virulent strain of nationalism has taken the nation [and propelled Putin to remarkable approval ratings, up around 80%]. The Chechen war continues without regard for basic human rights, while international media attention strays farther and farther from the tragedy. Journalists that dare to report news in opposition to Kremlin prerogatives are routinely threatened and murdered (notably Anna Politkovskaya, for whom the one-year anniversary of her murder just passed).

Here at The University of Chicago, we were lucky to hear a talk given by Robert Amsterdam on October 2. Amsterdam is legal counsel to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the deposed Russian oil oligarch and former head of Yukos Oil, once the largest and most-profitable oil company in Russia, and who now resides in a Siberian prison, serving out an 8-year sentence on charges that are terribly difficult to unravel (basically, tax evasion), in a trial that was largely understood to be a show trial. Robert Amsterdam, friend and counsel to Khodorkovksy, is intimately acquainted with machinations of the Kremlin, and is quite out-spoken as a critic and in his fears for what these details portend for the Russia and indeed for the international community. This talk was part of UC's World Beyond the Headlines series, and will soon be available as audio/video podcast on CHIAMOS.

The next talk in the WBH series will be with Steve LeVine on November 1 [6pm, International House]. He will be discussing his newly released book "The Oil and the Glory". See http://oilandglory.com/ for a bio, details on the book, and most interestingly, Steve LeVine's blog. Steve LeVine has been reporting on the politics and economics of the Central Asian region for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times since the fall of the USSR, and he is well-versed in the power politics and struggle for control of the vast energy resources contained in Russia and former Soviet regions, which still pay much attention to Moscow. This talk will also be made available on CHIASMOS.

Other than the economic ties that I mentioned are impacting US cities like Chicago, why should we as Americans keep paying attention to Russia, Putin and the internal politics there? Especially when Putin's presidential term is constitutionally limited and will end next May? Russia's regained economic power has emboldened its impact in global affairs. Unlike the US, Russia will speak to Iran. They have a relationship with North Korea. On top of vast natural resource exports (Europe is largely powered by Russian pipelines, which the Kremlin can shut off at will), Russia also exports military arms and nuclear technology. Though Putin and Bush seem to enjoy a special friendship, that does not curtail diplomatic stand-offs, such as we are witnessing with Bush's plans to install a missile-defense shield on Russia's doorstep, Poland. Today's headline in The New York Times is "Putin Warns U.S. Over Missile Shield."

Please join CEERES for these talks and keep looking us up for new resources. We are currently in the planning stages for a program that could possibly take up to 15 K-12 teachers to Russia. This is an important period in time to keep paying attention to and learning as much as we can about this country. I should never fail to mention that, while the politics can be daunting and frightening, Russia is ever a country of exceptional people, dazzling culture, and globally important and beautiful natural lands.

October 5, 2007

East Europe at Chicago Film Fest

The Chicago film fest began this week, and it runs until Oct. 17. There looks to be a strong showing of films from our region of the world (mostly central Europe; though a disappointing lack of films from the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Central Asia), so I decided to run through the program and list the films from our region in order to save you that step.

The full program is available here. The locations are spread throughout the city, and the program is rich with material.

There's an especially extensive list of films from Hungary, as well as an-person discussion with famed Hungarian film-maker Istvan Szazbo (Mephisto). The Romanian film 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS & 2 DAYS has already been generating great reviews for a year, and I hear that the Czech film I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND (OBSLUHOVAL JSEM ANGLICKÉHO KRÁLE) will be really good.

Below, I've culled the films from the CEERES region:

Director: Aleksei Mizgiryov
First-time director Aleksei Mizgiryov, who picked up the Best Debut prize at the Sochi Open Russian Film Festival, looks at the stark reality of Moscow through the eyes of Anton, a young war vet from the countryside. Anton’s rosy vision of the city, fueled by memories of a lost love, is quickly squashed on his first encounter with the city’s crooked cops. 82 min.
Wed 10/10 | 9:45pm | LM3 | EHHD1
Thurs 10/11 | 6:45pm | LM2 | EHHD2
Mon 10/15 | 7:15pm | AMC9 | EHHD3

Director: Cristian Mungiu
Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, 4 Months combines documentary-style camerawork with naturalistic acting to draw viewers into a raw, realistic world. It’s 1987, at the tail end of the Ceausescu era in Romania, and college roommates Otilia and Gabita live in fear and oppression. Gabita is pregnant, and together they prepare to meet with a cruel abortionist who asks them for more than money in return for his dangerous and illegal procedure. Romanian with English subtitles. 113 min.
Sun 10/7 | 6:00pm | AMC4 | EMWD1
Tues 10/9 | 8:45pm | LM3 | EMWD2

Director: Andrei Zvyagintsev
The power of The Banishment, like director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s previous film, 2004’s Golden Globe®-nominated The Return, lies in the information that is withheld from the audience. Alex hurries his wife, Vera, and two children from an anonymous city to the stilly, bucolic countryside, where Vera reveals to Alex a shocking secret—she’s pregnant, and the child isn’t his. Russian with English subtitles. 150 min.
Sun 10/7 | 7:30pm | LM4 | EBAN1
Mon 10/8 | 8:15pm | LM3 | EBAN2
Tues 10/16 | 4:30pm | AMC4 | EBAN3

Director: János Szász
Based on the infamous writings of Hungarian psychoanalyst Geza Csath, Opium peers inside the chilling confines of an experimental institute for the mentally ill in the early 20th century. Though the film offers plenty of hair-raising glimpses of archaic instruments and barbarous medical procedures, the focus is on the increasingly symbiotic relationship between a morphine-addicted doctor and one tormented patient, whose voluminous diaries offer a window into her ravaged brain. Hungarian with English subtitles. 110 min.
Wed 10/10 | 6:45pm | AMC4 | EOIM1
Thurs 10/11 | 9:30pm | AMC7 | EOIM2
Tues 10/16 | 4:15pm | LM7 | EOIM3

Directors: Krzysztof Krauze, Joanna Kos-Krauze
Savior’s Square, which has already racked up five top awards from the Polish Film Festival and four more from the Polish Film Awards, offers a devastating glimpse into a family’s struggle to stay afloat in post-Communist Poland. After losing his money in an apartment scam, Bartek is forced to move his wife and sons into his mother’s tiny Warsaw apartment. Personal hostilities within the apartment come to a boiling point as family values disintegrate. Polish with English subtitles. 105 min.
Tues 10/9 | 4:45pm | AMC4 | ESSQ1
Wed 10/10 | 7:00pm | LM3 | ESSQ2
Thurs 10/11 | 7:00pm | LM4 | ESSQ3

Director: Jirí Menzel
Czech Republic / Slovakia
Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, this irreverent black comedy blends razorship wit and blunt tragedy into a no-holds-barred social commentary. The King begins in the 1950s with Jan Díte (Ivan Barnev) being released from a 15-year imprisonment imposed by the Communists. Flash back to the ’30s, when womanizing Jan, an ambitious go-getter who longs to be a rich hotelier, hooks up with a fervent Aryan as the Nazis begin to invade. Czech and German with English subtitles. 120 min.
Wed 10/10 | 9:00pm | AMC9 | ESKE1
Thurs 10/11 | 6:30pm | AMC7 | ESKE2
Tues 10/16 | 5:00pm | LM3 | ESKE3

Director: Bollók Csaba
Beautiful compositions of a criminally unfortunate way of life make for an eye-opening, dramatic experience in Iska’s Journey. Daily, poor young Iska must salvage enough scrap metal from the trash heaps to keep her witchy mother in booze and cigarettes. One day she and a lovestruck fellow ragamuffin decide to escape to the place of Iska’s dreams, the seaside—but the journey could lead to an even worse fate. Hungarian with English subtitles. 92 min.
Wed 10/10 | 8:45pm | LM7 | EIZJ1
Thurs 11/11 | 9:15pm | LM7 | EIZJ2
Sat 10/13 | 12:00pm | AMC4 | EIZJ3

Director: Béla Tarr
Hungarian master filmmaker Béla Tarr follows 2000’s award winning stunner Werckmeister Harmonies with another black-and-white masterpiece that is at once dreamy, genuine, eerie, and breathtaking. After witnessing a murder, railway worker Maloin’s quiet life of seaside isolation changes forever. Forced to examine his thoughts on crime and punishment, Maloin begins to question his own worth and the meaning of his existence. Hungarian with English subtitles. 132 min.
Thurs 10/11 | 4:15pm | LM3 | EMFL1
Fri 10/12 | 6:30pm | LM4 | EMFL2
Sun 10/14 | 8:45pm | AMC9 | EMFL3

Director: Károly Esztergályos
Middle-aged Tibor, unhappy in his marriage and career, never considered bisexuality, but a manipulative 19-year-old male prostitute pursues him and ignites a sexual passion and artistic inspiration that Tibor feared he’d lost forever. Bold and affecting visuals lead us through a rocky relationship plagued by the human fear of aging as well as the potentially tragic interplay between love and sexuality. Hungarian with English subtitles. 94 min.
Fri 10/5 | 10:00pm | AMC9 | EMIN1
Mon 10/15 | 9:45pm | LM3 | EMIN2
Tues 10/16 | 7:30pm | LM3 | EMIN3

Director: Jim Loftus
Against the backdrop of a high-stakes Bulgarian election, this dense political thriller finds an ingenuous, low-level CIA officer and her disgruntled boss trying to strike a dangerous deal with the prime minister’s top political officer, who desperately needs to finance his campaign. In a world where information buys money and money buys power, everyone along the trade routes faces questions of duty and betrayal. English and Bulgarian with English subtitles. 117 min.
Fri 10/5 | 9:30pm | LM2 | ETRR1
Sun 10/14 | 12:15pm | AMC9 | ETRR2
Mon 10/15 | 9:45pm | AMC7 | ETRR3

István Szabó
Friday, October 12 6:45 p.m.
Landmark’s Century
Centre Cinema
2828 N. Clark St.
The always entertaining Hungarian director István Szabó (Sunshine, Being Julia) spends an evening at the festival speaking on the intimacy and the insight that can be achieved with the use of the close-up in film. Szabó has said that film has “one singular quality that no other art form can supply. The moving picture is capable of showing us a living human face in close-up: this ability is the source of its special energy.” In his carefully cast films, Szabó perceptively uses close-ups to convey what he has called “life’s beautiful changes, the constant movements of the human expression in the most intimate moment, in the moment of its birth.” Szabó received an Academy Award® for Best Foreign Language Film for Mephisto, one masterpiece in a trilogy that includes Colonel Redl and Hanussen. Now is your chance to get up close and personal with one of the world’s great film artists.

October 4, 2007

a whole world of graphic novels

One of the most dynamic forms of narrative expression- be it fiction or memoir- is the graphic novel. And I'm not talking about superhero comic books, though those are great, too. There are a whole slew of graphic novels now, and many of them are illustrating intense personal and historical situations from our region of the world.

As a reader, I find graphic novels-with their mix of whimsy, intimacy-to be a unique and often gripping way to express moments in our lives. I also think this form would be a great resource for teaching in middle and high schools about certain historical circumstances. As resources, these books and often their websites provide great contextual information for learning and teaching about these regions and themes.

Perhaps because the recent history of East Europe has been so tumultuous, and often hard to describe only utilizing traditional forms of narrative (novels, history books, films), there now seems to be a boom in graphic novels trying to make sense of, or at least represent the memory of, this region's events.

In my memory, what really launched the form of the graphic novel as a literary tool with deep emotional impact, was Maus: A Survivor's Tale, which was set in Poland during the Holocaust. Maus is written and illustrated by Art Spiegelman, and it depicts his relationship with his father, and his father's story of living to tell the tale of Holocaust. [In a turn of brilliant metaphoric graphic depiction, the Jewish Poles are mice, while the Nazis are cats]. When I was a high school student, the film "Schindler's List" was the chosen media to discuss the Holocaust in my school. I think Maus is at least as compelling, and perhaps more personal and accessible.

A recent publication has me excited, but I'm kicking myself for missing the chance to meet the artist. And it sort of picks up at the point of history in East Europe where Maus leaves off. The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain by the famous Czech graphic artist and MacArthur Fellow Peter Sis, was launched last weekend in Chicago. This is story of life in communist Czechoslovakia under the thumb of the Soviets.

Fast forwarding to more tragic events in Europe, we have Joe Sacco's account of the Bosnian war - "Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-95". Can't make sense of this complex conflagration? much less teach it? Here is a work of journalism and comic illustration that might be a useful tool, and is a great read as well. This is a genre that Sacco excels at. In 1996, he was awarded the American book award for a two-volume graphic novel account of the West Bank and Gaza strip, "Palestine".

Another very popular graphic memoir is Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi. It's the story of an Iranian woman growing up at the time of the Islamic Revolution. It's actually going to be released as a film this year.

As a sort of instructive, optimistic, if still harrowing addendum to "Safe Area Gorazde", we have this year's "Macedonia: What does it take to stop a war?" I mentioned this book in an earlier post about the Republic of Macedonia (and I'll probably mention it again, because we're going to be hosting the creators of this book down here in Hyde Park!). It's co-written by important American comics writer Harvey Pekar, and Heather Roberson, a peace worker who spent time in Macedonia when the country was on the brink of civil war; and illustrated by Ed Piskor. Heather's website and blog about the book, and peace work in general, raises a very valid point - why do we focus on war and the history of those countries afflicted by war so frequently: in our media, and in our classroom teaching. Why shouldn't we work for, document, write about, teach, and celebrate peace, whenever, wherever, and however it occurs?

I am especially excited because Heather Roberson is going to be visiting Chicago this month. She'll be talking to schools; and down here at the University of Chicago, we'll have a chance to meet her (of course, this is free and open to the public, so anyone can come). She'll give a talk at UC on Monday, Oct. 15 at 3:30pm. Check the events list on the CEERES home page for more details. Hope to see you there. For a sneak peak at the author, this is Heather over here on the right, as illustrated in her book by Ed Piskor.

song and dance

After the summer festivals, fall seems to be the opening of the performance season in the city. Perhaps it feels like that to me since I'm writing from a university campus; all of the students have returned, their sports teams and a cappella groups have reconvened. But it's more than that in Chicago.

Here's a few entertainment options coming up in Chicago that could be of real interest to you if you're interested in culture from our region.

Georgian State Dance Company will be performing at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on October 6, 2007 at 7:30pm. The costumes will be authentic, and the acrobatics will be explosive. In the CEERES office, we actually have $5-off discount vouchers, so if you're on campus, come by and see us and we'll pass this on to you.

October 13 is the Macy's Day of Music, with performances by a wide range of groups and artists, including a few performing music from our region, not to mention the Chicago Symphony Orchesta with Branford Marsalis, and the legendary Tortoise. The entire event is free and open to the public - yeah! A pdf of the day's schedule and locations is available here. Performers of our region include-
  • University of Chicago's very own GOLOSA, a Russian folk choir.
  • LIRA SINGERS will perform traditional music in authentic costumes from various regions of Poland
  • CHICAGO KLEZMER ENSEMBLE, founded by clarinetist and music director Kurt Bjorling
Yuri Yukanov's Romani (Gypsy) Wedding Band will play at the Old Town School of Folk Music, October 26, 2007. One of my first blog entries was about gypsy culture and music- if you were interested in that, definitely put this on your calendar.

There's a World Music program at Symphony Center that is putting on "Spiritual Sounds of Central Asia", on Friday, November 9 at 8:00PM. This will feature music performers and ensembles from six countries of the region. Student tix are a reasonable $10, and the program will include some multi-media documentaries and text feeds to contextualize the performances.

For more music from our region, check out some of the programming happening at our local radio station down here in Hyde Park, WHPK 88.5 FM in Chicago. They have an expansive international music interest, whose centerpiece is Marta Nicholas' "Music Around the World" show on Thursdays at 4pm. Marta picks a rainbow of music and topics, and does some complementary interviews. Also, UC students Ksenia and Sasha have a hot little show on Tuesday's at 5pm that they are calling "Not Necessarily Russian". Poslushai!