What to Watch, What to Read and What to Listen to…in May

Seven Seconds (on Netflix) is a multi-part series about a white policeman who  accidentally kills a working class black youth in a deserted park in Jersey City.  The policeman is a young protégé of a senior corrupt investigator. The prosecutor is a Black woman, who is an alcoholic.  The acting is first rate; the story itself is well done and well written.  In all it’s nearly a cliff hanger.  I highly recommend it.  Here’s the trailer.

I also thought Operation Varsity  (on Netflix) was great.  I laughed throughout! Remember the scandal of the celebrity-rich parents who paid sometimes six figures for their children to get into the ‘best’ universities?   Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin did jail time for bribing university officials to admit their kids.  The situation was huge, almost a pyramid empire built essentially by one college “coach” who paid tens of thousands to the university admissions officers and kept a healthy portion of the parents’ money for himself.   Here’s the trailer.

The Dinner (on Kanopy) is a pretty good Italian movie – even if the ending is a bit weak.  And far different from the book it is taken from.  That novel The Dinner by Herman Koch is set in Amsterdam.  It’s excellent, suspenseful and masterly written.  The premise is this:  two couples get together for dinner at an expensive and chic restaurant. They talk about everything – holidays, work, celebrations, money – everything but their two 15 year old sons who display a lot of aggression and negativity.   In the novel, the grim past of one of the fathers – a retired school teacher – comes out.  The role of secrets and docile relationships  between spouses, and the the couples’ desires to ensure excellent future opportunities for their sons. And the film, made in Italy, means every city street and every apartment is beautiful. Here’s the trailer.

Top photo: a tryptic from Seven Seconds (prweek.com); middle row: from Flack (prweek.com); The Dinner; from Operation Varsity (the Colgate Maroon-News); ad for The Dinner or “Our Boys” in Italian.

I watched Flack (on Prime Video) a British comedy with a brilliant first season.  It’s a very funny series which focuses on Robyn, brilliantly portrayed by Anna Paquin (Canadian!), who is a transplanted American and works as a publicist for an upscale PR agency.  Her job is to smooth the ruffled feathers of well-known, well-heeled and rich clients.  Most of the time Robyn has to make up alternate facts on the ground which clear the client of misdeeds – yet, inevitably, present a major blow to his or her ego.  The best episode is the one that takes place on a flight from London to New York.  Robyn has to babysit a well-known misogynist and nasty client – who is in the midst of a melt down.  Robyn’s wit and anger is so refreshing.  Here’s the trailer.

 Uncut Gems (on Netflix) is a very good movie. It features Adam Sandler (from Saturday Night Live) in an exciting – even  thrilling –  role as Howard, a jeweler in New York City. Howard is as spell-binding as he is angry and loud.  The story begins with rare black opal – mined by near-slaves in Ethiopia – that finds its way into Howard’s store.  It’s worth a fortune, but Howard can’t stop himself from using the opal to make more money on bigger deals that may or may go south.  His vicious personality, his sad and infuriating attempts to build a homelife with his bitter wife and children, fuel his actions and his pursuit of big money.   Don’t watch Uncut Gems just before you go to bed – it’s pretty enervating!! Here’s the trailer.

Stills from film Uncut Gems.

In these troubled times of Israel’s air strikes against Palestinians, their homes and livelihoods—this Canadian comic is worth watching.  On Youtube you have to watch That Muslim Guy.  This  episode is  about Israel taking the homes of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah — excellent, humourous – well done and right on, I’d say.  That Muslim Guy’s spot about Sri Lanka banning the import of “muslim” books is funny – and unfortunately true.  Watch it here.

Left: the grave of Baruch Goldstein the American Jewish settler who killed 29 Muslims at prayer (credit Emil Salman) and right: at the Ibrahimi Mosque, friends rescue massacre survivors (credit: Patrick Baz/AFP). In 2019, on the 25th anniversary of the Massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque, Meretz, a Israeli left-wing party, called for legislation to change Goldstone’s tombstone at Meir Kahane Park that glorifies Goldstein, killer of 29 Muslim worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994.

For background and another emphatic reality check, I also recommend AlJazeera’s new “Witness” documentary:  Skies above Hebron: Growing up Palestinian in the Occupied West Bank.  This  45 minute film documents the lives of three young boys from 2015 until today.  It’s fascinating, as they live in Hebron, the home of Shuhada Street, which the IDF allows only Jewish Settlers to walk on – Palestinians are not allowed on their own street. If Palestinians own shops on the street, they must enter and leave through the back door, as they can’t set foot on the street.   Also these boys live near the Ibrahimi Mosque in which, in 1994, a Jewish settler murdered 29 Muslims at prayer, and injured 125 others.   Watch the documentary here.

What to Read …

Elizabeth Loftus, an American psychologist, single-handedly helped put a stop to the mania of recovered memory.  Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many adults came forward to say that they were subjected to sexual abuse because they had a recovered  memory of the abuse.  From cases such as the McMartin Daycare in California to Martensville, Sask. hundreds of innocent people were convicted and jailed.  I myself was involved in the Martensville fiasco – a local lawyer and I fought for people caught up in the justice system who were wrongly charged with sexual offences against children.  A huge number of Saskatoon parents and other adults insisted everyone had to “believe the children” – no matter how absurd and inconsistent their accusations were.  In fact on our Saskatoon street, signs went up in many front windows which read “We believe the children.”  To learn more about the times and  the terror visited on anyone who disputed the children’s (and inevitably their parents’ accounts), you could listen to the CBC podcast here

Elizabeth Loftus, portrait photo by Matthew Brandt of the New Yorker

Thinking back, there was tremendous support for children and their parents who insisted the Martensville case was true.  The gist of Martensville (a bedroom community near Saskatoon) was that parents who took their children to a home-daycare discovered their kids had been sexually abused.  The parents, psychologists and social workers insisted the children – aged 9 months to 12 years – were taken to a barn day after day to be handcuffed and tortured.   My husband used to joke that  he did not believe they made handcuffs for nine-month olds.  But those were terrible days.  The police lined up with the crown prosecutors in Saskatoon who were building their professional reputations – and their empires — on this case.  The children identified several policemen, a postman and several other men as well as the daycare owners as their abusers.  Eventually, the daycare owners were found not guilty, and the others caught in the net were also exonerated. 

All of this is to say I really looked forward to reading the New Yorker article  How Elizabeth Loftus Changed the Meaning of Memory

Loftus is a heroine of mine.  I was disturbed and rather shocked by the catty treatment she received by the story’s author, Rachel Aviv (whose other writing I also liked).  The whole question of recovered memory is a minefield – and it was used to falsely accuse and incarcerate many in the last three decades of the 20th century.  These were dark days and Loftus’ experiments and her testimony in a number of high profile cases saved lives.  Another point to remember is this: it’s one thing to make false allegations; it’s another to grow up believing you were sexually abused but you were not.  The CBC podcast interviewed a Saskatoon defence lawyer about just that.  I would say read the Loftus article but also read what Loftus actually researched and said. 

Loftus, who like many academics in the US (and Canada) think that their research is pure — doesn’t come down on one side or other. In 2020, she in fact testified on behalf of Harvey Weinstein at his trial. Her evidence was that memories could be malleable, and porous. She was denounced for having done this — for a paltry fee of $14,000 — and her speaking engagements at major universities were cancelled. Perhaps this is the reason Rachel Aviv was so nasty in the article. For another take on memory see this column in Medium. Not sure what I think about it.

In the Guardian Long Read, writer Katie Engelhart  details the last few months of the life of a free spirited, educate and exciting older woman named Avril Henry.  In this article, the police become involved because word is out that she wants to die.  How Henry combats this and asks to be left alone is amazing.  When she is wrestling with the idea of dying she writes,

“What I want to avoid is taking a last look around the garden or having a long look at my beautiful pottery. That would just make it difficult and it would only hurt and it would serve no purpose.”

Avril Henry

Avril said she would remind herself that death was inevitable anyway. She did not think she would be afraid. How can I be scared if I don’t exist?” she asked. “Simple logic. I shall know nothing. There will be nothing.”

Short Fiction: The Shape of a Teardrop

The story, “The Shape of a Teardrop”, by T Coraghessan Boyle is a delight – like all his work.  You can read it free in the New Yorker, but I prefer to listen to him read it here.

It’s about a young man, spoiled by doting parents, who resort to “tough love” when Justin’s behaviour becomes corrosive.  Justin has been living in his parents’ basement for some time; we find out he’s a deadbeat dad who takes no interest in his 5 year old son Alejandro, and feels nothing but resentment toward his the boy’s mother. The short story focuses on the day Justin is served with an eviction notice.  He is humiliated and furious.  He decides to sue them as he points out,

“What I really wanted to sue them for was giving birth to me in the first place.”

Justin, in the short story: The Shape of a Teardrop

It’s a great story.

I read “Good Looking” a short story in the New Yorker by Canadian Souvankham Thammavongsa, who is a poet and a short story writer.  I read that she never took an MFA in Writing because she said reading taught her how to write.  Born in Thailand of Laotian parents, the family emigrated to Toronto when she was a year old. Listen to it here or read it for free.

The short story in the New Yorker starts out slowly, but quickly we learn about a young girl who goes to a restaurant with her father who is a personal trainer in a gym.  He is at the restaurant to meet an attractive 40-year-old woman whom he has coached at the gym.  She is also a university professor.  The story is quiet but touching, embarrassing –and all too real.

Author’s photo is right. photo credit: theparisreview.org

I also read Thammavongsa’s Giller prize-winning book of short stories called How to Pronounce Knife.  It’s excellent! Each of the 14 stories is separate and unconnected.  The stories focus on immigrant fathers who work too hard for minimum wage, women who function as the shock troops for the immigrant family; love and hate – and work issues.  I got it as an e-book from the library.

What to Listen to…

I first go to Jesse Brown on Canadaland. I think it’s the best Canadian podcast. The episode Why Can’t the Military Stop Sexual Assault? is timely and well done. A number of women (ex-military) talk about their speaking out exactly 23 years ago, and what the fallout was. Canadaland’s episode 370 is here.

May 25, 1998 issue of Maclean’s

Canadaland’s alternate host, Ryan McMahon, did a dynamite interview with Aaron Lakoff, Communications Lead at Independent Jewish Voices Canada. Full disclosure, I’m a founding member and on the steering committee of IJV Canada. We are the largest Jewish organization in Canada in support of Palestinian human rights and against Israel’s illegal and brutal occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and of course Gaza. I recommend having a look at our site and joining (non Jews can join as supporting members) or making a donation here. McMahon’s interview with Lakoff is excellent especially in these times of the destruction and anguish of Gaza. Here’s the interview.

Arshy Mann on Real Estate, which is part of “Commons” on Canadaland, is well worth listening to– here. In episode 2 of Real Estate, we hear the true story about Africville.  And we hear from two mayors, Walter  and …. who thought nothing of forcing African Nova Scotians out of their homes, and giving them $500 to start life again.  Mann also looks at the the Carverys – Irving who was on the (now defunct) Halifax School Board and is chair of the Africville Geneological Association, and his brother Eddie who has spent the last 50 years living in trailers and shacks in Seaview Park to protest the destruction of Africville. Fascinating and one of many stories in Canada about ethnic cleansing.

Arundhati Roy, the famous writer and critic, has written a wonderful article “We are witnessing a crime,” which appeared in the Guardian.  But I also listened to it on the Guardian Long Read.  She explains the giant steps toward fascism that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is taking. Roy shows how the monetization of the anti-covid vaccine means the wealthy owners of the Indian companies which make the vaccine have gotten richer as the vaccine has made 90% of Indians poorer.  The vaccine is sold in huge quantities to the west, while the poor in India can’t afford even a single shots – which can cost a week or two’s salary.  She explains the political economy of India and how the BJP (and Modi’s) racism fuelling India’s war on terror against Muslims.  Excellent.

Funeral pyres in Delhi early May 2021.  Photograph: Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images

APTN Investigates is an informed 20-25 minute plus podcast here.  I recommend several recent episodes:

  • Decolonizing Museums, a two part series about what is happening in Canadian museums around the issue of First Nations’ history and artifacts
  • Homegrown:  about trafficking of Indigenous women
  • For Trust or Profit:  about band offices and politics on reserve

Right: Rosemary Green, Host of Life Jolt

CBC Podcasts is running a series called Life Jolt.  The first two episodes are very hard hitting, and hard to listen to.  The host is a Canadian woman, Rosemary Green. Green spent five years in a US jail when she was arrested at the Miami airport for working as a drug mule.   She is very impressive, well-spoken, ironic and direct in what she has to say about women (who are almost invariably mothers too) in the prison system.  Statistics reveal that 70% of women in Canada’s federal prisons are mothers to childen under 18 years old.  Green speaks with several women in Canadian prisons (or recently released from them).  It is not what you expect. And it is not as Hollywood portrays it.  Green reveals a lot about her own circumstances – her four children were farmed out to different relatives and her ex, as her life and many important relationships fell apart. Listen to them here.

Featured Image: Green Painting by Dorothy Knowles (1983), Saskatoon.

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