Jonah Lehrer: On the Brain, and Truth

Interview by Andrea Hiott, Boston, 2008.

Jonah Lehrer thought he was going to be a neuroscientist. He thought he’d wear a white lab coat and study the brain. Then he discovered that he wasn’t very good in the lab. His Nobel Prize-winning friend and mentor Eric Kandel jokes that Jonah “excelled at experimental failure”. But it wasn’t intelligence Jonah was lacking – he was a Rhodes Scholar after all – it was that he found it hard to satisfactorily answer questions like “How does memory work?” by experiments involving the neurons of a sea slug alone: One could learn a lot about the brain from studying sea slugs, but one could also learn a lot about it by reading the work of Walt Whitman and Marcel Proust. Lehrer was interested in the way memory worked, and he was open to learning more about it from whatever source available, be that science or art.

Today, in scientific articles for SEED Magazine and in books like ‚Proust was a Neuroscientist‘, Jonah Lehrer writes about the ways two seemingly distinct pursuits – science and art, for instance – actually touch and overlap. It isn’t a matter of one being better than the other; it’s a matter of how to learn something from looking at both. When it comes to subjects such as memory and language, the literature of George Eliot or Gertrude Stein opens up perspectives not traditionally thought about in a scientific lab. Likewise, when looking into the inspiration of writers and painters like Virginia Woolf and Cezanne, one finds science catalyzing their work. There has always been a dialogue between disciplines, and Lehrer brings this out in his books, opening up a new space for thought and debate about learning itself. Not everyone agrees there is anything to be gained from such an interdisciplinary exploration, and yet Lehrer’s work has hit a chord. His books and articles are popular with a new generation, a group of people comfortable with questioning and noticing the connections between diverse things.

Have you encountered any resistance to your work?

Jonah Lehrer: Yes. There’s been a little bit of push back, criticism, some of it deserved, but I think for the most part I’ve been really gratified. Many scientists are intrigued by the idea that Walt Whitman and Virginia Woolf were interested in how the mind works. People are surprised by just how serious these artists took their investigations into the mind, about the fact that they didn’t think of themselves as just making pretty stuff or writing lovely sentences, but that they saw themselves as doing something true and tangible. George Eliot described it as “a set of experiences in real life”.

Do you think artists and scientists are ultimately looking for the same thing?

I do. I think truth is a vague word but nevertheless I think they are all looking for the truth. A work of fiction is very different from a controlled experiment, but I think in the end they both want to capture the texture of mind, how the mind works. If you asked Gertrude Stein what she was trying to capture in her art, she’d say ‚the mind‘ — she was trying to capture the essence of language in the same way Noam Chomsky does. Virginia Woolf is very explicit about this, she says “I wanted to capture the atoms of thought”. The flow of consciousness. She wanted to write so that people would read and understand right away this feeling of the mind at work, the processing that goes on.

Is it this same inclination in our society that has created “popular science”?

I think science is popular because it has this accepted authority. It smacks of truth. It comes with these acronyms that are intimidating and, because they are intimidating, seem even truer. Because science feels inaccessible, it also feels even truer in some paradoxical way.

And how does that relate to art?

I think it’s very different with art. I think the reason we read Virginia Woolf in large part is because her novels feel true to us. She shows us our own thought processes. The first time I read Woolf, I had this shock of “Yes, this is how I think.” I’d never seen my own thought process described so perfectly on the page before. The same with Joyce: I remember the first time I read ‚Ulysses‘, the feeling of it was almost painfully accurate. What makes the brain interesting to me is the fact that there isn’t just one way to talk about it, or just one way to describe it. We can look at it on multiple levels. You don’t necessarily have to dissect it and break it apart. You can also lie in bed like Proust and study your memory that way.

Reading instigates a kind of awareness. And because each reader is different, the text is open to an infinite amount of interpretations. In science, however, it seems the opposite is true. In science, isn’t there the feeling that interpretation can be a dangerous thing?

Well, the results of science are so easy to take out of context. I’m sure there are many scientists who have horror stories of how a reporter took something they said and used it to write a terrible headline. That said, however, I do think it’s important for scientists to be public intellectuals and to see part of their job as not just producing facts but also explaining why those facts are so important. It’s not just a matter of translating the conclusions; I think scientists should also be trying to translate the process. Too often the media treats science like a list of facts that just magically appear every day. I don’t think science writers or scientists themselves always do a good job at explaining how we got those facts, why those facts might be a little bit ambiguous, or why those facts might not be as transparent as they seem. Facts are not simply found or plucked from thin air. Facts are made and manufactured, and I think a part of any real science writing is conveying that process.

To speak to this idea of scientific fact, it’s often assumed that facts are like tools the scientist uses to tell us things. It’s more like the scientist is creating the tools even as he or she uses them. I like that you say it’s important to “convey the process” – if we could think of science more as a process than a fact-producing machine, do you think we might be more productive?

Yes. And we can even apply that same idea to the language of science itself. When you read a science paper, everything is passive, in the passive voice, passive tense. It’s as if the person wasn’t actually doing anything, as if these tools were magically working on their own, as if the bacteria were magically engineering themselves. But I think when you realize that there is actually a lot of human work there, years of labor trying to get these answers that go into scientific papers, you realize that science then isn’t quite so different from the process of artistic creation. They both involve people searching. A lot of it is experimentation. There’s a rigorous, active process. To change the way we think about these two cultures would be to change the way scientists write these papers. Why is there never a first person in a scientific paper, for example? Why is there never an “I”?

I remember the first time we had to write up one of those peer review papers when I was studying neuroscience. It felt so inaccurate to use the standard scientific language. It felt like a really phony way to describe what I’d just done for the past two years. It wasn’t dishonest, what we wrote, but you had to fit this formula and the formula was, inherently, just a bit deceptive. It’s like an agreed upon deception. You don’t talk about all the experiments that didn’t work, things like that. It’s ultimately a little misleading.

This seems to spread to all kinds of areas of society though, this way we try and present something everyone knows is “doctored” into looking true. And yet we go along with it because everyone else is going along with it, these agreed upon conventions. At some point, you have to ask why we’re all doing this? What’s the point?

It’s so hard to have a genuine sincere dialogue across disciplines or across cultures – it’s very difficult and very rare to have a real one.

Even though everyone is craving it?

It just takes a lot more work to go to that place than it does to rely on a social cliché or a social convention.

In a way, your work is attempting to do this.

I don’t think it’s as bold as that.

You talk about needing a new view in science, and I think whatever that new view is, it’s partly tied up in this idea of being honest and direct. I also think a lot of people are ready to see these topics and their connections in a different way.

Well, at least within neuroscience there is the feeling that this paradigm they’ve been relying on for decades – this idea that we can understand the brain and consciousness and all these other complex problems by this very rigorous science alone, by studying sea slugs or talking about synaptic proteins or neurotransmitters – people are realizing that this method has inherent limitations. To realize this is no longer a radical or an esoteric view. It’s kind of an emerging conventional wisdom, you might even say. There’s more receptivity to looking at thorny questions like consciousness from other views. People can accept that Virginia Woolf had some success too, and that maybe we can learn something from that. Not that Woolf is going to do your experiment for you, or Proust is going to tell you how to get to something like Prozac, but they can teach you how to ask better questions and how to think of these things in more complex ways.

Do you think that being open to learning the “languages” of other disciplines strengthens your own?

Absolutely. After all, you study Latin in junior high so that your English grammar and your overall understanding of language will improve, not because you’re ever going to need to speak Latin. I think it’s the same way with different disciplines. I first started thinking of this in the lab when we were studying sea slugs. We were trying to figure out how sea slugs remember by doing all these artificial paradigms where you have to poke the sea slug over and over again until it “habituates”, which basically means you just poke it till it doesn’t resist you anymore, until it just hates you so much that it‘s in this state of existential despair from a sea slug perspective. Then we call that “memory” because at that point, apparently, the sea slug has stopped resisting you because it remembers your touch. Then you pull out its neurons and you see how they were different before and after the poking. So that’s interesting. You’ve learned something interesting about how these neurons respond. But then as I was doing this, I was also reading this other guy Proust. And I was shocked at his whole novel about the resurfacing of memories he thought he’d forgotten. These were memories that hadn’t been reinforced. No one was poking him with a needle. In the book, he hasn’t thought about these memories in thirty years and yet he dips the Madeline cookies into the tea and suddenly all these things come flooding back to him. This made me wonder: how do memories work when they haven’t been reinforced? Proust had another way of looking at this.

We place such an emphasis on where the facts come from and if they fit the proper form. To fit social conventions, it oftentimes can only be true if it comes in the form of an acronym. If it’s in the form of a novel, according to this way of thinking, then it might be interesting or pretty but it’s not true. I think the model of truth I’m trying to suggest is the pragmatist model of William James which says it’s true if it’s useful, if it somehow fits your experience and can be applied.

It reminds me of the Richard Rorty quote that you use about the fact that just because there’s no one truth, that doesn’t mean there aren’t multiple truths.

Right. The idea that we should get over this fixation with saying it can only be true if fits these five criteria, because science is full of facts that might later turn out to be complete bullshit. No form is perfect, which is I think what Rorty was trying to get at with a lot of his career.

All of these old systems have served us though, like training wheels, and now we’re trying to ride without them, create some new form. But it can be really disorienting to imagine truth in this way we’re talking about now, as a changing process. It’s much more comforting to think there’s an objective thing called Truth and science has discovered it, or is discovering it.

There is something very reassuring about this idea of the guys in white lab coats who are doing this job, who will come up with this pill to fix this, or the truth to fix that, or who will eventually solve the riddle of consciousness. There’s also something a little daunting about the fact that anyone lying in bed, like Proust in his books, or anyone writing a novel, can look into their mind and understand things about how it works. To think of it that way is a scary idea for a lot of people, the idea that you don’t need fancy tools, you don’t need a graduate degree, you just need to be sensitive and you can learn so many things.

But that’s part of the knowledge that comes from artists and writers and musicians. They are telling us we can discover these things for ourselves. They walk these roads so that then we can walk them. It’s a way of changing what is possible.

Exactly. Virginia Woolf can show you your own thoughts. When she first starting writing that way, people thought it was atrocious, terrible. The idea of a stream of consciousness was a radical idea: people thought our thoughts were ordered and linear and clear and connected. It was radical then, but now it’s a scientific cliché: Everyone talks about the disordered nature of consciousness, how thoughts are buzzing about. So that’s an example of art inventing this whole new way of thinking that then became a scientific cliché. Another thing art does is take our simple models and show us how complex they really are.

„Every work of art starts with an act of imagination“, you write in ‚Proust Was A Neuroscientist‘. But you also seem to be implying that science is an act of the imagination as well.

That’s true in the sense that I think great science is about learning to see the world in a new way. It’s being able to take a phenomenon that everyone has experienced and saying maybe it’s being caused by this – that’s the idea, the act of imagination, and then you go out and test it. But scientific imagination is a bit more constrained than the artistic imagination and so that’s why art can help us when it comes to those initial ideas.

You often touch on the idea of paradox in your book. What are your thoughts about paradox?

I always think of that great Niehls Bohr quote that goes something like: “The test of any profound truth is that the opposite is also true.”

Do you think that’s where progression comes from? By allowing two contradictory things to be true? By opening up that space and being able to hold two things like that at once?

I think it is, but we’re terrible at doing it. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance involved when you try to accept that there are lots of different ways of looking at a problem. For me the ultimate paradox, and one of the great themes of scientific history, is that there is this linear march towards a unified equation, towards a complete knowledge of everything, and I think in reality, as we’ve searched, we’ve only found more and more questions. We thought we were closer to the final equation a hundred years ago. Now we don’t even know what Dark Matter is, even though we know it’s half the fucking universe. The mystery is even more mysterious. We don’t even pretend to have answers any more. The one reality that science can’t describe is the one reality that we will ever know. Which is this, drinking coffee in a café as we’re doing now: if you describe this in terms of neurons, you’ve somehow missed what it’s really like.

There’s a line in your book about how all great works of art exceed their materials. It’s as though we’re actually always throwing the universe out in front of us as we go. We’re always creating it and changing it even as we look at it and discover it.

Absolutely, but that’s not how most people think of it. I think there are lots of false assumptions behind that, one being this linear march towards one truth that we all have in mind. There’s also this fixation to come up with new facts and new ways of categorizing old experiences but just because it’s new doesn’t make it better. There might be new ways of looking at something but that doesn’t necessarily mean those new ways are getting us any closer to an ultimate truth.

For example there was an assumption that the Human Genome Project was going to make it possible to do all these things like solve schizophrenia and diabetes. But now, after these billions spent on it, the reality is that it’s rather astonishingly useless. We might have the vocabulary for the text, but the way our genomes interpret it depends on who is doing the interpreting and where we are and a million other things. The brain isn’t a static thing and your genes aren’t a static text.

The best metaphor for this is actually a work of literature. The way you read a work of literature depends on if you just broke up with your girlfriend or your boyfriend, or if you’re happy or sad. Who you are at that moment you read the book defines how you read it. That’s what makes a work of art great. There are these things that are deep enough and real enough and plastic enough to affect you in different ways at different times in your life, and to effect different people in different ways. The genome is the same way. And that’s the great gift of the human mind: here’s this text that actually allows us to exceed it, to get beyond it so that we’re not just a text. That’s what makes human nature interesting. Because if we were just a text, just a list of hardwired genes we got form our parents, we’d be very boring creatures, we’d be very easy to solve.

Do you think that gives us some sort of way of creating our own reality?

Oh, yeah, literally.

Individually? Together?

Culture profoundly affects the way the brain parses the world, but it’s a very conventional neuroscientific idea that the imaginations are multiplied into perception. That may seem radical or metaphysical, but that’s just how the brain works. One of the best examples that I talk about in the book is that we all have a blind spot in the middle of our field of vision where the optic nerve connects to the retina. And yet we’re blind to our own blind spot because the brain just fills it in, automatically. All these forms we take for granted in reality and are convinced are so real are actually just figments of the brain, hallucinations. It doesn’t mean reality doesn’t exist, it just means that what we think it looks like is a by-product of all kinds of mental processes, things like space and depth projection and color, these are calculations made by the brain. So, yes, we literally invent our own reality.

So we could even say that science and literature are two parts of the same thing, tools we use to create our own reality?

In that sense, yes, they are doing a very similar thing.


Darryl Pinckney & President Obama

interview by Andrea Hiott, 2008

Pulse: You called Barack Obama a ruthless politician in your New York Review article that everyone is reading. You clearly acknowledge that he knows the game, but you also seem to be suggesting that he knows another reality too.

Darryl Pinckney: He knows that there is something else. And I think this is a knowledge he gets from his mother.

What knowledge? And why from his mother?

His mother’s social vision is also his, the vision of an integrated America, a civil rights America. That’s not a legacy that he got from his African father but rather from his white American mother. It’s not only an idea of America that she gave him; she also gave him an idea of being black. It’s very moving when you think about it, how imaginative and fierce she was about that.

So much so that Obama was even embarrassed by it as a child. Still, wasn’t it the father who created this situation in the first place?

The father was completely absent – he was hardly there for a moment of Obama’s life – and yet his mother wasn’t bitter. This is a remarkable woman. She didn’t denounce his father, or Africa, or social justice. Obama’s absence of bitterness as a black guy isn’t just because he had these white grandparents and this white mother who loved him, it’s also because he had a mother who wasn’t bitter that she’d been left. He would not be the same man he is today had he not seen this example of it as a child, this guy who’s like Nelson Mandela, coming out of prison, but not angry about it at all.

Interesting you bring up Mandela. I wanted to ask if there was another moment in history that you can compare to this.

Well, there are two. On the personal note, yes, it’s Mandela. Obama is still a young man compared to Mandela, but this young man and this great elder have one thing in common and that’s that when you look at them you have the feeling that what you see is real; you don’t have the impression that you’re looking at a mask. You feel you can trust what they are telling you.

In voting for Obama, it’s as though the country has chosen a new level of accountability. We seem to want to stop pretending, even if most of us don’t know how to do that quite yet.

That’s because we can’t afford to pretend anymore. It costs too much to pretend.

Even on a personal level?

In every way. It’s a real generational change. We don’t want to pretend and we don’t want to feel guilty. Just as in Berlin, the Berlin Wall being the second moment I’d compare this to, there are many young people who don’t carry the burdens that their parents did, many white Americans your age aren’t racist in the ways that their grandparents were.

But doesn’t it go even farther than just not being racist. Isn’t it also that there are now actually positive qualities associated with being black?

One of the ways black people have challenged or conquered definitions of blackness has always been by embracing the negative qualities that a society says are black and projecting those qualities as positive instead. In the late 19th century white supremacists said that blacks were primitive, lazy, and only interested in sex and having a good time. Then after the killing fields of WWI, the Harlem Renaissance said these same qualities of black people actually started to look like social values: instead of being committed to the mechanistic society that can only figure out how to kill people, black people could show the world how to appreciate life and music and culture. In the post WWII days, everyone said that black people were very dangerous, aggressive, criminals, this kind of thing – the Black Militants of the 60s took all those qualities and made themselves into revolutionaries, standing up to the power structure and this and that. Black people have always embraced these ‘negative’ things people say about them and turned those things into virtues instead. This is happening again now. One more time.

I see that. And yet there also seems to be something very different going on here. Obama is like an empty vessel in a way, a place where just about anyone can see themselves or the qualities they admire reflected. He’s white. He’s black. He’s eloquent. He’s ordinary.

He can be very street. He can be very refined.

And it doesn’t seem there’s a whole lot of ego there. He seems to always try to get out of his own way. Not that he’s perfect in doing that, but at least he’s aware.

Well after these white politicians have lied to us, people are ready to trust the black guy. And so it reverts to another image of the black in society, which is the one person who will tell you the truth, the guy who has nothing to lose and will be honest with you.

Do you really think there is that kind of archetype at play?

I do think it’s buried there. Every white person in the south had a black person who was a friend. It’s like Zola Neale Hurston and the pet Negro system: She talks about how every white person in the south had one Negro who was considered to be the exception to the rule of everything she or he had thought of black people. In my generation of integration, people used to say to me “I don’t think of you as black; I see you as a person” and they thought that was a compliment. Being black still had a lot of negative connotations then. Now for most kids it’s not a big deal. Being black is just one identity among many. It seems normal to be black now. So the new message, what this election has really told us, is that the mainstream has been reconfigured. The mainstream isn’t just the white guy anymore. It’s women, Latinos, blacks. Obama sort of named them all in his speech. He even said gay. He’s not for same sex marriage, but he said it, “gay straight everyone came out to vote” so there’s a new mainstream in that definition, a new majority. Obama’s campaign made it impossible to play the race card anymore, to use that old derogatory tone, even though race has been a factor working in favor of the Republicans since Richard Nixon. All these years it’s been possible to exploit the fear of race and the fear of black anger and retribution, but that just won’t work now; it’s gone.

That’s a huge change! 

It is a huge change. It’s an idea that governed American politics for over a hundred years. But now white supremacy and the lawlessness associated with it have been repudiated: the Republicans simply couldn’t get any traction from trying to arouse people’s “fear of the black man” in this election; it just didn’t work because Obama was just so unassailable. There was something so unassailable about him.

He seemed to quietly rise higher and higher the more others tried to bring him down. I think he was growing a lot, even as the election was happening.

He kept his calm. There was that moment when people like Arianna Huffington and others were saying “He’s not fighting hard enough”, as if he were being passive, but that might be exactly the reason he won. He was doing the right thing even if a lot of people couldn’t see it at the time. He was being consistent. He wasn’t the angry black guy; he never played that role.

He took a risk in being quiet and consistent and having faith that Americans would eventually see the truth in that. Perhaps the more remarkable thing is that we actually did!

He showed us that those attacks didn’t matter. He couldn’t be baited. He couldn’t be rattled. And he didn’t care if people called him names. He ran his campaign on his own terms, and McCain ran his campaign in the old way, in the terms of Karl Rove.

It’s been said that McCain sold his soul. The unusual thing is that selling your soul no longer works, not even in the short term, as it has in politics of the past.

He did sell his soul. And he did quickly pay the price. Much more quickly. This huge majority has disappeared, this elite that no longer is. They seem like a rump party, a bit like Labor blowing out the Conservatives in England; the Conservatives haven’t been able to put it back together since.

Does Barack Obama having been elected give those who dislike Bush a reason to be thankful for him? If we’d had Kerry in the White House, would we have still voted for Barack Obama?

It’s not a reason to be thankful for Bush. And it’s impossible to know the answer to that question. Certainly Bush being so bad and unpopular contributed to Obama’s success in the sense that many people who were nervous about this unknown young black guy were willing to listen because they knew something had to be done.

But it does seem there is something to this dialectical pattern where the mood has to swing so far one way before people wake up enough to change directions and see another side. It’s as if there is a certain lucidity that only dawns on us in an emergency.

I can see what you mean. I think certainly the Bush years being so terrible galvanized those people who were committed to change through the electoral process. As much as McCain tried to distance himself from Bush and the Republican party, it never really worked. The difference was too clear. Obama is a much more reconciling figure.

He also seems to think that the best way to change something is to do it quietly, a bit like the speech he gave about race. Everyone was screaming about Reverend Wright, but Obama didn’t absorb that energy at all; instead he gave this very long and sober speech, one that was honest and drama-diffusing at the same time.

He stopped the campaign to have a conversation about race with that speech. I think for a lot of black people the things he said weren’t so extraordinary. But the fact that people were so amazed by it – Gary Wills even compared it to Lincoln’s second Inaugural address – showed how long it had been since this version of America’s racial reality had been spoken about in the mainstream without being attacked as liberal. Obama speaks in a way that defeats the static, in a way that silences the harping talk. His integrity comes through when he speaks. His thoughtfulness and the way he talks to the public is something we’ve been hungering for. We don’t want to be talked down to, or spoken to like we’re idiots, or manipulated anymore, even by politicians that we like. Playing along with all that manipulation has gotten old. This direct communication from Obama is something we recognize: no matter what medium he’s speaking through, he’s very direct, or at least we feel he’s trying.

That says something about the change that is happening in America though, doesn’t it? That we would respond to a man such as this?

I think it says something about how we’ve changed, about how technology has changed us: a lot of people are not dependent on the mainstream media anymore. Sources of information are varied and more and more people these days are getting most of their information from the web. Obama is perfect for that sort of audience and environment. He’s at home in this diversified media age. He’s very cool, which is very good for television, whereas McCain is a bit too hot.

In the Marshall McCluhan sense, yes, right.

Everything about Obama is perfect for that. He wears clothes well. He moves well. He speaks well. He photographs well.

He’s elegant without being someone others are jealous of. 

And he’s not trying to have a beer with us. You can see that his privacy matters to him. And that we don’t know him. And aren’t likely to. He’s as mysterious as JFK, if not more.

Isn’t there also a kind of stubbornness there? A persistence?

Well, it could be that his admiration of Lincoln is very much to the point. Which is to say that no matter what the issue is, somehow he will be free to say, “I didn’t want to do it this way – I didn’t want to free the slaves – but actually there’s no other way to save the union. It has to be this way.” So it’s the Lincoln who’s not an abolitionist.

Rather, he’s practical.

Right. He’s the practical guy that can accomplish abolitionist goals just by using his reluctance and therefore can appeal to the union and bring them with him step by step. He’s not a zealot. He’s not a radical. But he can accomplish radical goals. He’ll bring in everybody if he finds a way to respect everybody.

I don’t see him as having an investment in having power and control on a psychological level, especially not in the way some people in the past administration did. I don’t think he’ll be running for office his whole first term, or playing to the gallery. I don’t think he’ll be looking for political points. Because actually he’s done all that. Something else is happening. I really think that the change we believe we can detect in him over this campaign and these years is someone who is taking his encounter with history very seriously.

Do you feel like he’s sort of surrendered to his…


Yes. Does he see himself as in truly in service of the country at this point?

Yes. He sees himself as an instrument of something, so his decisions are coming from a perspective that he takes responsibility for, but not credit.

Which maybe explains that gigantic presence of his.

Even so, it may come as a shock to some of the people who voted for him to realize they are to the left of Obama. I think he is really a social conservative at heart.

But is he really rooted to that? Or is he still deciding these things every day? 

I think he is ready to go further, but I think he understands that the country isn’t. I think that he concedes much more to Regeanism than I would, as far as what it did for the way the country felt. And also when he says things like Turn off the TV and spend time with your children, this is sort of echoing Bill Cosby. It says something about his belief in traditional American ideals.

Which can be a positive thing, give meaning. What do think is meaningful in our country right now, what really matters to us in this moment after the election?

I think it’s the feeling that we’ve gotten past something, or come through something, that we are unified as one nation again. That’s the part that is very much like the Berlin Wall. In the same way people then rediscovered their identities, we’re rediscovering American-ness again and that it’s not a right wing thing. Definitions of being American have escaped right wing connotations in the same way that being German suddenly wasn’t being a neo-Nazi or even someone with a secret longing for the past.

This is idealistic, I know, but could Obama be the first World’s president? Or at least someone who is close to being able to represent more of us in the world than anyone else has? Because it’s hard to define Obama as any one word, even “black”. 

I think that could be the case. So many things go into the making of him.

He’s an outsider. Which makes him an insider in the world today. Maybe McCain wasn’t capable of understanding what it feels like to be the outsider in that sense.

And he didn’t seem to think it was important to understand that. Which is what I mean when I say that there is a new mainstream, that these experiences you’re describing are more normal for more people, are common among Americans now and somehow it was reflected in their understanding of the candidates: they identified with the guy who knew what it was like to be an Outsider more than they did with the guy who’s always been on the inside.

Its funny we only now realize such a thing because by definition, we’ve always been a country of Outsiders.

We have, but we’ve always deferred to a political class. That idea is sort of gone with this new presidency. More of the reality is represented. Obama is at the center of a lot of cultural flow that has been going on and that just hadn’t really been named or recognized politically the way it already was in many other areas of American society. He illuminates a lot that had only been dimly apprehended or glimpsed momentarily before. He does seem to cast a very real light. It’s not crazy to say so. But who knows what we’ll be feeling a year from now?

Maybe we’ll be feeling even better than we do right now.

I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned.


Earl Barnes: The Fountain Poet

street poems from our friend Earl, the Fountain Poet of Savannah


Tall Pines

As you stretch across the forest

The Mighty Redwoods you’re called

the towering sight.

Evergreens, a Christmas Tree

Covered in snow. December and the

Nativity, a star begins to glow,

Like the rainforest you provide oxygen

For all. Take them away and man will


Growing from the dirt a stick with

Leaves and a seed. In this race

You are the one who leads.


Life is Death

Rejoice for them that sleep

They are souls that belong to God,

Souls he will keep

In order for a seed to grow

It must die. In the dirt, the body.

But the spirit to the sky

All must go, then the judgment

But death is first, we must die

To self in order to quench our

Spiritual thirst.


Sitting Around The Water Fountain

While sitting watching the fountain flow

Tourists come, taking pictures that glow

I beg to take one picture for small change

Knowing if the police would catch me,

I would be taken from this watery range

Homeless I am, shoes torn apart,

But as artist to writer,

the fountain caught my sight.

A wishing well, I thought, may be a new day

Perhaps the watery fountain has shown me the way.


My Personal Statement/ My Story
by Earl Barnes, the Fountain Poet

I was born in a little town called Sylvania, Georgia in Screven County. I was raised by my maternal aunt, Mary Ellen Bryant. She took my three sisters and I in because my mother wasn’t able to take care of us. She introduced us to church, but as a young man my life was full of trouble. Childhood molestation, not knowing my real father, and poverty led me to depression. My life seemed to stand still for a long time. Years later up in Ohio, I somehow managed to get married but after ten years it was over. I broke down. I cried. I found myself struggling to live for the next twenty years as a man who is homeless. But God (through my poetry) has found me in the streets and has brought me back to life. If it had not been for the Lord, I would be lost. (Amen).

I first started writing poetry in the summer of 1972 in Savannah, GA. I felt the call to write to the Latter Day Children, the children of today. (Amen).

At that time, I decided to call the book “The Ghetto Child” because I felt that God had handed something down to me – he’d handed something down to us to share. My grandfather “Uncle Merit” saw it in a vision of hope at the “old gray shack” in Sylvania, Georgia, my hometown.

My intention is to spread these mystical words all around the world, to try to reach as many of these Latter Day Children as I can, to help the poor and to bring this to the church. (Amen).

I thank God for those he placed in my life. Earlene, Catherine, Jaunita, Mary Bryant, Adell Williams, St. Paul shelter, Bull Street Baptist Church youth department, and the 1:00pm church without walls on Sunday. May the God of peace bless all of you for your contribution. (Amen).


Maryanne Wolf: Deep Reading

interview by Andrea Hiott, 2009

Contrary to popular belief, Maryanne Wolf is not against new technology. Ms. Wolf, the somewhat controversial author of Proust and the Squid, merely wants us to be careful. Technology is a convenience we need not relinquish, she says. Still, sometimes in our rush to jump from desire to fulfillment, we miss the very thing we are looking for in the first place — the meaning.

Reading deeply does not mean being miserable. Quite the opposite: it means deepening one’s capacity for pleasure. Reading has implications on our brains that result in the ways we see and navigate our world, ultimately opening our lives to a richness and quality hard to quantify in charts or graphs. Wolf‘s work ultimately asks us to slow down long enough to realize this immense gift we‘ve developed, and thus to strengthen this capacity within our brains, rather than to become lazy and let it go.

Pulse: Why do you think some people have difficulty agreeing with your book, even as they feel compelled to discuss it?

Maryanne Wolf: Part of the reason people don’t always understand what I’m trying to say in the book is because of the tendency to think in a binary way of “either/or” rather than with the complexity that is the nature of knowledge. A complex way of thinking that holds both the “either” and the “or” at the same time has always been a necessary part of arriving at any real knowledge, but now that our awareness is expanding, this is an absolutely essential idea in a way it never was before.

You mean that to be able to see both sides of any issue without judging either of them has indeed become almost an urgent skill for us now? It’s not a new idea. I think of Emerson when he says…

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Right. Or think of F. Scott Fitzgerald who says, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I think that expresses very well one of the things that in academic life I’m always butting my head against. We deal with contradictory pieces of information all the time and we must navigate our own intellectual vessel through those contradictions rather than only go with the maelstrom.

Like how you say our brains were never made to read, and yet reading has become one of the most important things. How has reading changed, or how is it changing, our brains?

Our brain has beautiful genetic programs for all the basic organs of the body and for our basic structures which organize how we receive information and how we organize it. When I say basic structures, I mean things like vision, memory, auditory processes, and language – it’s all in there. But there’s nothing in there for reading. There’s not a gene and there’s not an organ. Instead, what you have in the brain is this miraculous capacity to take those older structures and create a new circuit, a new pathway, which results in reading.

So parts of our brain are communicating with other parts in new ways?

No matter what you do, both sides of your brain are communicating. I’ll use music as an example. When you deal with music you are using some aspects (she hums a little tune called Ode to Joy). When I first started whistling just then, you were using your right hemisphere because it was just a fun thing, you were just listening to a whistle. But then very quickly you heard the melody, and with that you started trying to place it, and then there were associations, maybe “Berlin”, then “Beethoven”, then “Ode to Joy, 9th Symphony” – and with such association, you were using your left hemisphere. So all of this information is easily integrated even in the act of listening to just a simple thing like a whistle. With reading, you use the left and the right for a few milliseconds because the right hemisphere visual sends it across to the left hemisphere and that connects it up with language and then, once you have become a fluent reader, there are many different parts of your brain being activated at the same time.

Can our brains create new neurons? Can we change our brains not only by establishing new connections between existing neurons but also by having totally new ones come into play?

Yes. It’s true. When I was going to school, it was considered impossible to create new neurons but we now know that isn’t true. One of my friends was very involved in work on the hippocampus which is a part of the brain that is heavily involved in memory and they suddenly found ‘oh my god the hippocampus is getting new neurons, this is not possible’ and of course that was the beginning of our understanding of how changeable the brain really can be.

Can we do this consciously yet? Can we consciously change our brain?

Everything changes your brain, but that’s different from neurons being developed. So you can change your brain in all kinds of ways when it comes to neural pathways between existing neurons. A five-year-olds brain when its first beginning to read and getting all this information is sort of firing in all directions – it doesn’t know what to use so it uses all these different parts at first — but as it goes along and gets better and fluent, things become automatic and certain paths get put down in the brain. Soon, it uses less to produce more. The important thing to understand is: once it is pruned, there’s actually even more comprehension.

Is that what you mean when you say that the most important contribution of reading is that it provides us with more time?

That’s it. When we are children, it takes us a very long time to decode a word. You might have one image that goes with various sounds, but basically you’re using a lot of brain activity to get that image. You haven’t gotten to that rich semantic process where “bat” can have multiple meanings. But let’s say you’re nine or ten and you’ve done some of this pruning so that now you have this basic idea of “bat” decoded. Well now you have time to comprehend all the other ways this word can be used – it’s multiple definitions, its ability to be both a noun or a verb, to become Batwoman or Batman or whatever. You begin to have time to connect all the variations of that word and then you can use it in a sentence and connect it to prior experiences and knowledge: in essence, you now have time to think. If you don’t have to think, you will not be able to proceed. And that’s a very basic problem with digital. It’s not that you don’t have the potential to have time, but it’s that the medium itself prevents you from using that time to think. There’s so much passivity that goes on because you’re receiving so much that you don’t actually pause and use those extra milliseconds for the richness that would otherwise become a part of the brain, as it does in traditional reading.

So it’s not a matter of not using the technology; rather, it‘s a matter of using it in a way that still allows for resonance. It’s about being aware enough to appreciate the experience itself.

Right. Being aware enough to notice the rest of the picture. And “the rest of the picture”, as you read, becomes what’s activated from that point on. So let’s just go back to “bat”: If you learn all this stuff about “bat”, every time you read that word, it’s all activated. So that means that it’s additive, it’s this cumulative brain that just keeps adding associations. Reading literally enriches the brain and that’s why there’s this paradox, this thing that requires you to hold to opposing ideas at once – it both prunes and makes you more knowledgeable and faster. It makes you faster for the purpose of richness, so that you have the time to bring together all the things you know about whatever the word or subject might be. When this happens, every time that part of your brain is activated, you get this extraordinary, embroidered, complex of association around any concept or word.

Can time in the sense that you use it be the same thing as awareness, so that you’re not only thinking, you’re also thinking about thinking? Does it give you the space to be aware of your thoughts? Is that part of learning as well?

In the sense of attention, focusing the attention, yes. Awareness is similar but I’ll use “attention” because it’s more cognitively precise in my research world. Time allows you the ability to focus your attention more broadly or more deeply or more narrowly and what you do with it is in some ways reliant on the medium. If the medium like a book permits and even invites you to go even more deeply, then that actually invites deeper contemplative processes. If the medium, like my computer, invites me to speed up, I’ll somehow end up focusing less deeply. My attention is then being drawn very quickly to the next and then the next and then the next.

Maybe I’m not expressing this clearly but what I mean is the difference between „having your attention taken by something“ and „being aware of what your attention is on“.

I see. Interesting.

Because then it makes sense for me when I hear you say that you want to get people to think about how the expectation of the medium affects the quality of their days or lives.

Technologies are like anything else. They’re a tool, and they can be used for good or for bad. I’m saying: we must understand more about the tool than we do right now.

You want us to take the time to understand the relationship between thought and technology rather than just –

To lurch. We tend to lurch into these things. My hope is that we will take the time necessary to think through the implications of what each medium promotes and fosters and threatens. I think where we are now is kind of a dangerous moment in time because we have it within us to be very thoughtful. And the capacity for just the opposite. Because of the research I do on the preciousness of the reading brain, I smell a great threat and I want to alert everyone to the possibility for good and ill when it comes to this precious commodity, reading, and our new digital culture.

I don’t think we can live without the arts, and without what I think “reading” for you represents. It’s how we learn what is possible. I think everyone knows this but doesn’t think about it. You’re trying to get us to think about it. This is necessary. And I understand your worry, but I don’t think these things can go away. Change, yes, but not disappear.

I hope you’re right. But I will say that I was unpleasantly shocked when I read the Atlantic Monthly article Is Google Making Us Stupid? In that article, the writer used part of my book as well as an interview with me in which I called all these processes “deep reading” processes. He used this term “deep reading” in his article. As a result, the encyclopedia Britannica had a Blog on this topic and people wrote things like “Who cares about War and Peace? Who cares about Tolstoy? This is too long and we don’t need it. It’s boring.” So the kinds of responses to these questions were more often than I would ever have believed possible, reductionistic, a thought bite and sound bite mentality and not appreciating what you are now saying about how important art and writing are for our culture. I could not agree with you more. That’s what I believe too. But I’m seeing evidence that a portion of society that believes that it can get along very well without it.

Point taken. But I would suggest that it’s actually not that the idea that we’ve just expressed that has changed but rather the sources. Young people still need books, they still crave stories. Think Harry Potter. Think Twilight. Now this isn’t exactly heady stuff. But there’s heady stuff out there too. And some of the heady stuff of the past wasn’t considered so heady either when it first came out.

It’s very true. There’s a lot of it there. My question though, is whether the richness that we talked about in the beginning of the interview is being reduced.

It‘s true we can get so caught up in wanting the next hit, the next high or the next stimulating point, so that we have no idea what we’re really reading or experiencing at all. That’s one level. The level I think you say is dangerous. But then there’s another way to live today, too, isn‘t there? We can step back and see all this in a wider way and then anything that comes in can be read quite deeply, can‘t it? Harry Potter or War and Peace.

That‘s true. But about whom is that true? And is the percentage for whom that’s true narrowing in our societies? I have been accused in this whole discussion of being an elitist. On these radio shows and whatever, people say to me “Well you’re talking about a very small percentage of the population and who cares because these people will always be reading these books” and my evolving response to that is: I’m really wanting the next generation to be better than us. I’m not thinking about percentages. I’m thinking about the young. I’m thinking of how we can develop more and more of the potential of more and more of the young. So to talk about elitism is merely missing the point. I want the best for every person and that means a lot of diversity. When when people talk about deep reading being possible in these other forms such as graphic novels, I can understand. My son Ben (who is dyslexic) is an artist and for him, the narrative is visual. He and I couldn’t be more different. He is a product of a beautiful feature of human species and organization which has diverse brain organization possibilities. I think the digital and literate cultures reflect some of that diversity. And what I don’t want to have is some of that diversity thrown to the side or discarded.

Do you ever think when people tell you things like “your views are elitist” that it’s coming from fear? The same fear that we’ve always had, that we’re not smart enough or that because we haven’t read all these classic books we’re somehow unworthy? If they really understood what you meant by “deep reading” they would probably feel a real sense of common purpose with you on it.

Right. It’s probably not that the things we want are different, we’re just speaking different languages. If I were to really sit and talk with them, it might come out. If I were to ask them what they truly want for their children. They would want their children to experience the fullness and the richness that is possible in life. I think what you’re also expressing is the fact that there are anti-intellectual forces always about and that’s part of the diversity but I would just want to talk to the person who seems anti-intellectual and eliminate the fear factor or the inferiority factor and just try to make it clear that we could all work together to make the best for the next generation. That’s the point.

photo credit: Tufts University


Noam Gonick: Manitoba Arson

In Winnipeg, Manitoba, a filmmaker named Noam Gonick is pushing the borders of film. Stryker is one of his most well-known works. Stryker was an official selection at the Venice Film Festival in 2007, and was reviewed in everything from the local Winnipeg papers to the New York Times. Unfortunately, people in the states aren’t aware of the strange tone and rhythm of the Native language in Manitoba and so they attributed this slow speech in the film as bad acting. The truth is quite the opposite actually: the acting is good, maybe too good. And yet the film is difficult, odd, flamboyant: it crosses into physical, emotional, ideological and sexual places that most films, even indie or avant-garde films, rarely dare to go. It’s a bizarre mythological feast of discomfort, offset by the soothing, stunning cinematography of Ed Lachman.

Stryker is the story of Native gangs in Winnipeg, specifically the Indian Posse and the Asian Bomb Squad. At the center of the film is a quiet 14-year-old boy called Stryker. Stryker comes to Winnipeg from Brokenhead First Nation, a nearby Aboriginal reserve. In the opening sequence he sets fire to a church, and then flees, riding on the top of a train from Brokenhead to Winnipeg’s North End. When he arrives in Winnipeg, Stryker immediately finds himself in the midst of two warring gangs, unsettling them both, setting fire (literally and metaphorically) to whatever he sees. The film takes place in a part of Winnipeg that was once full of Jewish immigrants but is today mostly comprised of Natives and Asians. Many consider it to be the poorest and most violent part of town. Gonick found inspiration for the story of his film in many places, especially in the history of Winnipeg itself.

Pulse: In the 1990s, there was a problem with arsons in Winnipeg. Could you give me a really quick overview of what happened and how it was perceived?

NOAM GONICK: It was a time when Winnipeg was really whipped up into a panic about Native kids burning the whole city to the ground. There were a lot of abandoned houses that were torched, also garbage fires. A few really high profile arsons were pinned on Native youth and later ended up being the work of middle aged schizophrenics, or in the case of the Alexander Steam Baths and Barber Shop, disaffected gay flight attendants. But at that time, every out of control BBQ was deemed to be the work of the Indian Posse.

What is this story about the “7th Generation”?

It’s a Mohawk prophecy that states that after seven generations of contact with white people, the new generation of Native youth would save Mother Earth, righting wrongs & settle the score with their oppressors. There’s also birds falling from the skies and stone creatures that emerge from underground. With “Stryker” I romantically equated these Winnipeg firebugs (who were predominantly Cree & Ojibwe tribally, not Mohawk) with this seventh generation idea, and posited that the burning of the city was a moment of reckoning for the generations of genocide they’d been born into.

In the film, how does everyone immediately know that Stryker is from Brokenhead? Is it something about the way he looks? And how do they all know to call him Stryker already? It’s like they’ve been expecting him….

Daisy recognizes him because she’s also from there. When Mama Ceece sees him she mistakenly calls him a “swampy Cree boy”, which is wrong – Brokenhead is from the Ojibwe Nation. Kids like that, in their early teens, arrive off of reservations all the time to try life in the big city of Winnipeg. Some of them meet a very brutal end quite quickly, so I was interested in documenting that voyage. I wanted to imbue Stryker with a mythic aspect, like a lone gunslinger from a Western who comes into town to raise hell. Just by being in the shadows, he causes strange things to happen to those around him. The name Stryker is a generic title given to any kid who wants to join a gang, it’s the entry-level position. Our character plays both sides, seemingly working for both gangs in the North End turf war, but in the end he’s flying solo, like avenging angels tend to do.

Do you know this quote by Spinoza: “All things excellent are difficult as they are rare”? I think that is what your film is: excellent, rare, and thus, difficult.

I don’t know the quote, but I’ll take it as a compliment – at times I have also felt like an excommunicated Jew. It was a difficult film to make, and difficult for many to contend with as viewers. It wasn’t the most politically astute move on my part – Canadians are very sensitive about the way Native reality is depicted on screen, owing to the fact that this county’s existence depends on our brutal history of conquest, the results of which are so omnipotent in Winnipeg, which it’s large First Nations population. Many commentators didn’t appreciate a non-Native filmmaker foraying into this terrain but I liken the situation to living in apartheid or the occupied West Bank – if you are a witness to state repression, even if it’s not directed at you personally, how can you be blind to it?

Is the mythology of Manitoba a native mythology? Does Canada have a connection to mythology? Because I think there is something of the myth or fairy tale about your film…not the happy ending Hollywood version, but more like Greek or Brothers Grimm, where what is strange and boundary-stretching and jarring and uncomfortable turns out to be what is most transformative for you in the end.

Manitoba means the place of spirit in Cree. I own an artwork by Jake Kosciuk that inverts the map of our province which, with a little bit of doctoring, looks a lot like a twisted windigo mask. Manitoba was born out of an uprising of the mixed blood (Aboriginal and French) Métis people, led by Louis Riel, a bit of a madman anarchist who predicted that a new Vatican would rise out of the Saint Vital neighborhood on the south side of Winnipeg. Another one of his prophecies was that his people would rise again in a hundred years, led by artists. The graphic novelist Chester Brown posits that the Canadian government used this rebellion to fund the national railroad system, first as a means of troop transport, and then for settling the prairies. There is still war booty in southern Ontario, in the form of church bells, brought home by returning soldiers. As to the boundary stretching transformative, its inevitable when someone like me takes on a the street gang genre – it’s gonna come out a funky hybrid. My concern wasn’t to make traditional urban entertainment, even if I sometimes like to frame the movie that way. It’s like a red herring to lure the audience into a tale of that not only encompasses the usual tropes: drug wars, juvie hall, et al – but also walks down the trannie stroll, asks tough questions about Native reality, openly fetishes thugs and finds humour in areas where we’re conditioned to tsk and shake our heads at the sad reality. In the final scene when Stryker returns to face the city again after being dumped by the police in a snow bank on the outskirts of town, I really wanted him to rise to that god-like level in Greek myth, where you don’t know if he’s alive or dead, if he’s going to destroy the city.

Have you watched many Baz Luhrman films? There’s something about the pace and timing that reminds me of some of them….

I’ve seen Australia, Moulin Rouge! and my favourite: Romeo + Juliet. I really loved that scene when Des’ree sings “I’m Kissing You” through the fish tank (and come to think of it, we’ve both used fish tank cinematography). We work on different scales, but I did manage to elevate Aboriginal issues to a Wagnerian level. With Australia he broached the aboriginal adoption issue in his home country, and David Gulpilil who played King George was great to see on screen again, I’ve missed him since Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971).

I’m interested in the native idea that disrobing can be a way of “shucking off the body” or “uncovering the soul”. There are also native tribes who believe that disrobing in a dream is a sign of approaching death, not necessarily a physical death, maybe the death of some old way of seeing, old way of life… In many aboriginal societies (not necessarily Canadian), there is also a lot of talk of “intercourse” – of all things having the most physical interaction, of the sun itself having intercourse with the earth (as Australian aboriginals believed). Did you find anything about this in the research you were doing before the film?

I didn’t come across “shucking off of the body” in my research, but your description of the sun and earth in intercourse reminds me of some ancient Egyptian beliefs I’ve studied. There has been the allegation of Queer tricksterism going on with our inclusion of transgendered sex trade workers. But Native trannie, or “two spirited” people as they call themselves, are a genuine phenomena in the Winnipeg underworld that needed to be depicted. In the pre-contact era, cross-dressing men and women were revered by their tribes as medicine people, given positions of respect and power. All that was repressed by the church, where same-sex encounters resurfaced in abusive power relationships between priests and children. The hustler stroll in Winnipeg is comprised of mostly Native teens, many with gang affiliations. When you mix in the federal penitentiary where Native people are also overrepresented, where a senior Indian Posse overlord was nearly bludgeoned to death by a mob of his underlings for forcing younger inmates to fellate him, you see that these worlds really do interconnect, this isn’t just the fevered imaginings of a queer filmmaker with an obsession for hoodlums. Mama Ceece’s butch lesbian depiction has also been corroborated by auditioning actresses from the hood who informed us that in reality there were several Mama Ceeces who controlled different aspects of the underworld, car theft rings, etc. Scripting a dyke who’s in charge of the Indian Posse with a gaggle of Native trannies was challenging for audiences who wanted a movie with standard gender role representations found in mainstream gang genre films. I wouldn’t deliver that type of fare to the viewer because the truth is that street life has always meant the meeting of these worlds: sexual outlaws and criminal outlaws find commonality. Someone once said about the film, that it feels like everyone wants to fuck everyone else, which made me remember the words of Divine in her disco hit “Native Love (Step by Step)”: ‘This Native Love is Restless/And I’m Just Not Satisfied.”

Also, in much of traditional native culture, a vision quest is the decision to meet one’s self. Stryker is on a kind of vision quest turned inside out isn’t he? Because by looking at him, other people seem to meet themselves for the first time. Are you wanting the audience to have to wake up? Wordsworth said that “Habits rule the unreflecting herd.” Are you trying to wake people out of their habits?

The character of Stryker was written as a catalyst for the people he met in the hood, causing each of them to transform or curve further along their individual path. Ideally we wanted audiences to feel what its like to walk in to torn sneakers of a teenaged arsonist. The film is a stiff slap in the face for a certain audiences, there’s a certain brutality that isn’t coated in morality, but young Native people have seen the humour, the local references, characters they recognize but don’t find on screen.

Have you found this film doesn’t fit into the usual modes of discourse about native subjects? Has it been hard for you to take responsibility for this film? Has it been hard for others to see their own “human-ness” reflected by to them? 

The film is an audience splitter. It takes a special viewer to go the whole distance with us. But I have seen people really moved by the work, crying at the end, or really worked up and angry in the aftermath – both reactions that I was going for. When a film causes debate: some people not able to handle the LGBT curve balls I’ve tossed, some people taking a firm anti-gang stance against the film, I think that’s positive – these irritants should generate discussion. As I alluded above, Aboriginal representation is severely vetted in our national cinema. As a state-funded apparatus, its rare to find a film about the underbelly of First Nations experience that doesn’t advocate disaffected youth buying into the society at-large, casting aside juvenile anti-social associations and affiliations. I came out publicly in defense of the Indian Posse vis-à-vis my seventh generation reading of the situation. That was something a lot of people didn’t want to see, a backwards way of looking at things. The notion that a work of art can glamorize gang life and serve to pump up membership was something that came up from a vocal minority in that class, and it’s something we’ve heard before in the area of ‘taking responsibility’ for the film. If representing something forbidden equates to glamorizing it, than I suppose I’m guilty as charged. I am not at all averse to the allegation of glamour. We could all use a little more of that in our lives, not just the beaded gown, gold tipped cigarette variety. But the film isn’t perfect (I don’t strive for perfection), so I have stopped chalking up critical resistance to a refusal to face one’s human-ness reflected back at them. The film very much wants to push the viewer and if the viewer opts to push back, who am I to squawk?

Are you less interested in “giving people hope” than you are in being an instigator? In forcing people to get so uncomfortable that they must move, act?

There’s a polemical Argentine film from the 60’s called the ‘Hour of the Furnaces’ that was extremely critical of the social structure at the time and the last title card is an entreaty to the audience to turn around and discuss the issues amongst themselves. I like that idea and would aspire towards it. If the images and narratives stoke fires in some viewers I think that’s a form of hope, if it inspires their own creativity and empowers through representation.

In literature, the Outsider is often the one who is interested in extreme states, the one who either consciously or subconsciously searches for true balance by unleashing his own hunger in full force. There are extremes in your work in terms of drugs, sex, violence, even extremes when it comes to sanity. Do you think that it’s usually at the physical, mental and emotional extremes that people are able to experience some kind of alchemical change? Or is it the opposite: are people using these things to numb themselves from reality, because reality itself is too much for them?

I am attracted to extreme personalities, if I look at some of the lovers I’ve had or the muses I’ve taken on, and underdog or outsider has, in a political sense, has also been a character I’ve advocated for in the work. In terms of drugs, they’re useful in allowing one to voyage outside the normally prescribed behavior patterns. There are also a few very sexy schizophrenics whom I’ve known for a long time, predating their condition, and as difficult as they can be for friends, I’m at times susceptible to their altered reality and conspiracy theories. The alchemy is that reality is fairly elastic and in my reckoning drugs, sex, psychic states and violence are all useful tools in shaping or destroying (for the purposes of rebuilding) one’s own environment.

Your film is about fire, and fire is an extreme, something that can change the physical form of something, rearrange its parts completely….

And of course pyromaniacs get a sexual thrill from their craft. I recently heard that watching fire intently is very good for the eyes. In my previous feature, “Hey, Happy!” (2001) sexuality and libidinousness are the primary traits of the star, Sabu. And he uses his quest the for bedding of two thousand men as a means to not only search inward, but also to affect the world around him. It was a pro-libertine film at a time when young fags were being herded in the opposite direction: marriage, anti-sex panic monogamy, or abstinence.

With your work, you make people uncomfortable, push them beyond their comfort zone. In making this film, did you also have to push yourself in this way?

Working with a cast that were for the most part the real thing, i.e. young aboriginal hip-hoppers or Asian thugs, meant finding a language and meeting ground where we could collaborate in making a film together. Coming from a different place wasn’t much of a challenge for me – I’m a fairly sociable person and as a director you have to be able to relate to the people you’re depicting, even if they’re outside your milieu – that’s also part of the fun. In the aftermath of the film I have great contacts in the criminal underworld of Winnipeg who are very proud of the legendary status participating in the project generated. The set was rife with crew discontent, the hours were long and the indie film spirit was running thin in the wake of a few big budget Hollywood films preceding mine and setting the bar high in terms of comfort and payment. It was a difficult film physically, shooting in winter and taking on the weight of the topic. Becoming a conduit for the story took its toll on me, but no one else was going to tell the story and once I signed on I didn’t really stop until the red carpet at Venice.

Have your most basic, natural desires ever been a source or reason that you’ve felt like an outsider in Winnipeg? If so, do you think this gives you a way of understanding someone like Stryker? Are the experiences of someone of differing race or class or sexual desires really so different when it comes to the way it feels and the way one must find his or her own confidence and social poise?

I don’t really feel like an outsider in Winnipeg, as much as I’ve been called out on Stryker, I think the majority of people here support ruminations on difficult subjects. Perhaps queerness informs my empathy for the outsider, but I would also ascribe it to my father’s politics as one of Canada’s foremost Marxists, the kind of indoctrination I cottoned on to at an early age, coupled with my mother’s stories as a community mental health worker focusing on the underclass, really sensitized me to social injustice. Ed Lachman, the cinematographer on the film, used to say that all cinema is about relationships, be they gay or straight, about the connection between people. But getting back to homosexuality… the kind of homosexual practice I’ve maintained has allowed me a passport into so many worlds. Beyond the enjoyment of multiple partners, it’s the stories and rooms that you’re given access to which is great fodder for filmmaking.

For instance, in the moving scene where Stryker and Daisy first meet and seem to really connect, isn’t it this outsider understanding that is at the heart of that unlikely connection/friendship?

For me that moment is about finding commonality across difference. About a basic human instinct for warmth and caring, for doing the right thing, helping a roughed up trannie with a ripped fur coat out of the snow bank and taking away her matches so she doesn’t burn herself, lighting her smoke. When we were doing the sound mix on that sequence, we discovered a very beautiful ambient tone, like a distant whirring drone, in that moment when Stryker hands her keys back to her. I always felt like that was angels crying at the beauty of that moment.

It’s amazing to me that the native way of talking about transvestites is to call them “Two Spirited People”. I think this reflects some kind of understanding of the fact that by being “different” one has to wake up more fully than those around him or her, and thus, once he or she is comfortable with that “strangeness”, he or she has even more to give.

It is like being doubly blessed with twice the amount of spirit that everyone else gets.

At the end of the film, Omar asks Kyle’s character “Who the fuck are you?” But he’s really asking himself “Who am I?” This is also the ultimate question of the Outsider because the Outsider by definition is one who has come to question his own place in the larger picture, seeing that things don’t quite fit, questioning the whole system, bringing that question into all his interactions as Stryker so silently does. Do you think people are afraid of asking this kind of questioning? Is that part of the problem?

Well there aren’t too many reassuring images of whites in the movie where white audience members can gain entry and say: “that’s me up there”. That might be part of the problem, if there is a problem. The film requires a bit of work soul searching, and “who am I?” (or, “who are we?”) is perhaps not the best question for selling popcorn. But if I’ve done my job, the film is watchable enough that those tough questions seem in unconsciously and the outsider’s lament infects the viewer over the longterm. If the film suffers from distribution gatekeepers or homophobic word of mouth, I think both these things add to its mystique, and judging by the thousands of downloads and youtube hits, the burnt copies I’ve heard about across the Canadian arctic on Native reservations, I’m satisfied that it’s finding an audience and doing it’s work.

Why do you think people have such a hard time with the sexual and homoerotic parts of the film? Is there any relation to this inability for people to be comfortable with the most basic parts and drives of themselves and their inability to see the aboriginal people in a true way?

It’s not the most obvious choice of hybrid hyphenate in the gang war genre “street thug –slash – trannie flick. But my remit compels me to push the medium forward and put things together in new and unlikely ways. How else can we develop as a culture, as people? But as I’ve alluded above, the tainted reputation that the queer content gives the movie one of the most entertaining aspects. As much as people want to resist the homosocial in the work, we know its just a performance of rejection, and in their deepest darkest nights, either in the cell block or on the internet, they’re not as close minded as they’d lead us to believe.

Do you really believe the native people should “take back what is theirs”?

Yes, I support Native self-government and at a recent election for National Grand Chief one of the nominees, the chief of Kyle Henry (who played Stryker)’s Roseau reservation, Terry Nelson, proposed that the Northern territories negotiate joining the United States to put them in a better bargaining position with Ottawa.

Did you grow up feeling / do you feel now / any guilt in relation to the native communities in Canada?

No, only fascination.

In what ways do you feel thankful to the native community in Manitoba?

I am thankful for their connection to Mother Earth, to the natural environment, to magic. I am thankful because they are sometimes amazing lovers, generally well endowed. There are moments of deep yet instant connection. And that the two-spirited traditional has survived residential schools and the church, providing a key to unlocking the mysteries of human sexuality.

How did your own views/feelings about First Nation people change in the course of researching and making and then talking about this film?

One observation is that there is no ‘one’ Native voice or opinion. I’ve met Native artists who’ve hired me to produce their work in the wake of Stryker, and aboriginal critics who’ve championed the film, and there are just as many who won’t look me in the eye.

Do you think monetary retribution to First Nation people really helps?

Until the fall of Capitalism, money helps. Send some.


Roberto Ferri: The Still Cycle

Roberto Ferri first came to NYC to attend film school. He was born in Italy, and by the time he moved to NYC he already had a degree a degree in film from the National Film School. Robi first started making films when he was only 14 years old. Those first films, and the films he made while in school, were more traditional narratives. In NYC, however, the narratives turned into The Still Cycle, a group of videos where the center of the action is a person who, in the midst of the normal movement and chaos of a day, remains still. The contrast is more shocking than it sounds: this still presence at the center suddenly causes one to see normal activity and movement in a very new way.

The first “Still video” that Robi made came as surprise even to him. It lasted as long as a typical workday, a video of a young man standing completely still in front of a camera in his room. It was a spontaneous gesture that came one morning after his father called from Italy to tell Robi it was time “to get busy, to make something of himself, to do some real work”. When he hung up the phone, Roberto’s immediate reaction was to turn on his camera and for the next eight hours, to only stand still. From there, the cycle has expanded into the streets and cultural institutions of New York City and other cities around the world. Roberto and I met in the West Village one winter day to discuss how he came to making such videos, and what The Still Cycle really means to him.

Pulse: What kind of movies are you generally drawn to watch?

Roberto Ferri: I’ve always liked to watch movies that reflected the pace of real life, that had a similar timing to the way we experience the world. I’ve been watching a lot of Andrei Tarkovsky lately, and I think he’s someone who often does this. There’s also the work of people like Bill Viola or Bruce Neumann, where the medium of film is as much about timing and an element of silence than it is about story or plot. I’m interested in films that do not try to escape the loneliness, silence, and melancholy that I experience in real life.

It sounds like you’re interested in the space between things. Which, in a way, is the same thing as being interested in the space that holds things, in the background, in the canvas, in the pause. 

Yes, exactly. I’m interested in the paradox of the silence that is necessary for the noise. I’m interested in the way the pause is mixed up with the activity. I think that interest stems from my childhood. I grew up in a very middle class household where a lot of emphasis was put on activity. My parents thought it was very important to always be active, to be a good student, to wake up early, to always do your homework, to be sure and have lots of friends, to have a steady girlfriend. And yet, in a lot of ways, I was naturally inclined to the opposite of all of that. I spent a lot of time alone, watching movies and reading and my parents were confused by this, always wondering why I was “wasting so much time” with all these boring movies when I was just a kid. They didn’t think it was healthy. They wanted me to be like someone in an American movie – always active and moving and go, go, go. So basically I eventually gave in to their pleas and I tried to do this, I went against myself to try and live this way and keep busy. I pushed myself because I thought it was the right thing to do because my family was so concerned about this. I was a good son. I went out a lot. I was a good student. I didn’t make a lot of trouble for my family. But there wasn’t something about me that was lost in all that. So I think that’s an important point for my work now. I think that’s how I got pushed to that moment where I woke up and decided that all I was going to do was stand sill.

Did you feel like you were breaking away from your old life by doing that?

I felt like I was stopping time for a bit. If you imagine your life as a timeline, you are born and you die and you should fill all this space between with as many things as possible. You’re not able to think about consequences at first. You are too young. You just follow it. You just try and fill it up. You stuff your time as full as you can. At least that’s what I did. There was always something before and after school to do. There was soccer practice. There was getting a job. There was university. And on and on. It never finishes. There’s no end to this. And day by day, you lose yourself.

Do you mean that by stuffing our days so much we lose an awareness of who we really are?

You don’t let yourself be there long enough to be aware. You feel like something is wrong because you haven’t given any thought or space to whatever is really you, is really real, but you think it’s crazy to feel that way and you keep doing things to fill your time, as if that will be the thing that defines you. But the more you don’t follow yourself and the more you follow something else instead, the more insecure you feel and the more guilt you feel and the more you feel like you have to do even more to make up for that. So it’s this big circle and you get really confused in that. You never just step back to see how you really want to live your life. You just pack the timeline full of things. I was doing this, but day by day I realized that this timeline doesn’t even belong to me. None of that stuff on there was even mine. And I didn’t know what I was.

And it took that extreme action of just standing still for eight hours to break through and realize all of that?

I’m a kind of masochist. I like to go to the place that I hate the most or that is the hardest for me because that’s where I can see new things. I have to confront all this in myself in those places. I have to make something out of it, be creative. I came to NYC with this hope that maybe I could solve myself here, but I was even more stressed when I got here and realized it wasn’t any better; in fact, it was worse. I wasn’t able to do anything. I just stayed in my room without windows, reading. I hardly even went to school. I realized I was just filling my time with sadness again. I was still following the timeline and I didn’t know how to step away. So that morning when I was really sad in my room all alone and my father called me and said “What are you doing with your life?” – I couldn’t lie to him. I told him I was sad and that I had no idea what to do. And he had his usual response which was to say things like “I told you not to go to NYC. You’re always wasting time.” After that phone call the pain was so extreme that I just turned on the camera and stood there without moving again for the next eight hours. I don’t know where that came form but I just suddenly had to do it. I just had to have that response. And I did it every day for one week. Like a job. Every day I woke up at 8 o’clock and I prepared the camera and I stood still for eight hours.

It’s like you pushed yourself over the edge.

Yes. I needed to do this. It was necessary. I don’t know how to explain it. But it was so unnatural for my body, it actually really hurt my body. For three or four hours it would be quite painful but there was something in that too, in forcing myself to bear it and stand still through it. It was a serious process. I wanted it. I felt it was really good for me to do this. To stay still. To just wait. To just be there. To see what happened.

What has changed from doing this?

Well, it changed everything and nothing. It’s this same paradox I was talking about earlier. After I did this, it was a whole new world and it was the same world. I’m not the same person as before I did this, and I am. It’s like if you imagine that timeline again, the stillness was like getting back to the zero point, the point where there is no activity, no movement. I just got back to the space, the pause, everything that is not the activity. None of the things that stress me were in that space. I can still go to that place, and all the stress is gone there… So I don’t know what that really solves but I know it is a good thing, a healing thing, to reach this zero point, this place that is still. This is something good for me. Even if I can’t say exactly why.

But isn’t that space you’re talking about always there?

Yes. It’s always there. At any moment.

Does the stillness, or even just knowing the stillness is there, change the way you feel when you aren’t being still, when you’re back in the timeline, when you’re active?

It makes me aware of how I spend my time. It helps me to accept it for what it is, or to stop it. I don’t think about the results. I’m just in the process. The whole point of being still is that I’m not thinking about the past or the future; it’s not about the past or the future. I’m the same person I was before I started this. Sometimes I even have the same stress. But I’m aware that there is also something else. So the important thing for me is this knowledge that comes with the stillness, knowledge about myself and the people and the life around me. At first, it was just me in this room standing still alone. But in the films after that, I’ve put myself in the society, in the middle of the city, and I am still there. It’s not a kind of religious awareness or the stillness of a monk who is alone and prays all day. It’s important for me to relate the stillness in my video to the movement of the society as a whole.

You want to show this contrast?

The contrast is important. To see these two things being there together at once. The stillness is what makes the activity clear. You wouldn’t notice the activity in the same way if there wasn’t this figure in the frame being totally still. There are all these timelines around me in the videos, being active, moving. And then there is the zero point. When you watch the video, it is as though there is something wrong, you feel like something is wrong because this one figure is not moving at all in the midst of all this other movement. It draws your attention to the stillness, and so you can’t help but notice this really typical street scene in a different way.

In being still for hours in the midst of a busy NYC scene, are you protesting all that movement? Or is this your way of saying “I accept this”?

I am accepting it. I don’t want to change it. I just want to see it as it is. I’m not resisting anything. I’m just stopping, just being there. It’s a place of timelessness. It’s the space in between the space. And I don’t know why I want to stay in this zero point, but I want to experience this.

It’s like by learning how to be with yourself alone, you found a way to really connect with the world again.

Once someone asked Tarkovsky what advice he would like to give the younger generation and he said the only thing he could say was that they should learn to be able to be alone with themselves, to learn how to feel the space and just be there with themselves. We are social animals and we cannot, nor should we, try to escape each other, but a society can’t do anything together if the people who create it aren’t comfortable enough to be alone with themselves first.


Interview by Andrea Hiott, New York City, 2009


Josh Grossberg: On New Orleans

a 2007 interview with the director of A Bridge Life

Josh Grossberg’s documentary A Bridge Life: Finding Our Way Home From Katrina chronicles the actions of a man named Dan Sheffer as he travels to Houston in the wake of the 2005 hurricane in the United States. In the midst of the national disaster, Sheffer’s goal is to get as many evacuees as possible out of the Houston Astrodome, a place where more than 30,000 survivors were sent after being evacuated from New Orleans. Dan’s idea is to gather as many people as he can afford to bring back to Florida with him, take them away from the bedlam of the Astrodome, and give them the money and resources they need to restart. As the movie progresses and the men and women start their new lives, it soon becomes clear that not everyone Dan has taken back with him is the same person that he or she first seemed. Things get complicated as the evacuees face various obstacles in trying to start over and rebuild their lives. Dan is forced to face the realization that despite all his good intentions, perhaps not everyone can be saved, and perhaps the final outcome has never been in his control in any case. The film is moving and at times heartbreaking, but at the center of „A Bridge Life“ is the idea that what binds us together is ultimately our need for communion and community, and because of that shared need, when life appears to be at its worst, a simple act of compassion always has the power to make things right again.

Pulse: How did you end up at the Houston Astrodome during the hurricane? Did you go there with the intent to make this film?

Josh Grossberg: I watched the aftermath of Katrina on TV like everyone else in America and I felt a sense of helplessness. Several days had gone by since the storm hit New Orleans and the Gulf and little was being done to help those caught in its wake, save the extraordinary efforts of the US Coast Guard in rescuing hundreds trapped on rooftops from the flood. I had to do something and saw an email sent out by the Hillel Jewish group at NYU where I was attending grad school at the time. It was an announcement that was seeking volunteers to travel to the Houston Astrodome where thousands of Katrina survivors were being bussed to by authorities after their rescue. Organizers weren‘t sure exactly what the volunteers would be doing. All we knew was that Edgar M. Bronfman, former CEO of Seagrams Ltd and onetime chairman of MGM Studios, had agreed to sponsor the trip and pay for flights down there to lend a hand. I went to the Hillel meeting and put my name in as interested in joining them. Not three hours after attending, I get a call from one of the organizers asking me if I wanted to go to Houston to volunteer. I said yes and the next thing I knew, I was joining the other nine volunteers and two administrators on a flight down to Texas. Whether fulfilling such simple tasks as handing out water bottles or arranging clothing donations or just comforting the victims, jobs were plentiful once we got to the Astrodome. Many of the people there looked like they were suffering from post-traumatic stress. A majority of them had very little in the way of belongings, a great number only the clothes on their back. Some were wearing t-shirts donated to them, the only clothes they had after being plucked from the flood and taken to communal showers. One woman I distinctly remember had on a Shell t-shirt. She told me she escaped from the flood just barely but as she was swimming through the muck a plank of wood hit her square in the teeth, knocking out the center ones. She was a cab driver with a thick Cajun accent. And she was just dying to tell anyone who would listen her story of survival.

I’d brought along my digital video camera just in case and when many evacuees saw it, they would come up to me wanting to share what they had just went through. So in answer to your question, no, I didn’t come there with the intent to make this film. But I quickly realized that instead of handing out water bottles, perhaps it was my purpose while I was there to record as much of their stories as possible, not only for posterity‘s sake but also because it was very therapeutic for survivors to discuss their ordeal. It made them feel like someone was listening, and that meant almost as much as anything at the time. After all of this, after interviewing one traumatized person after another, I knew I had an obligation to do something to make sure these peoples‘ voices would be heard, even if it took me several years to do so. And that’s what became this film.

One man you met there, Dan Sheffer, the man you call the Good Samaritan, becomes the center of your film. Why do you think Dan was on such a mission to save these people?

While most people felt satisfied sending a donation to the Red Cross or other relief organizations, Dan wasn‘t sure such action would make a difference. He wanted to get more involved because he felt, as I did, helpless to the point of almost being paralyzed. He was also angry at the lack of response on the part of the government. He’d also admit that a tiny part of him wanted to make up for the allegations of racism in the aftermath of Katrina. Some might speculate he had a bit of a white man‘s burden complex but I would say it was more that he wanted to reach out and extend a helping hand to strangers because as a kid, growing up as an army brat in Guam, he had seen firsthand how hurricanes had devastated the lives of his Guamanian friends. Perhaps this was his way of stepping up and doing his part now as an adult. It was Dan‘s war, if you will — that is, his dad was a Navy doctor who served during the end of the Vietnam War, but since Dan never followed him into the armed forces, this was his opportunity to make a difference: He launched his own one-man operation, military in its efficiency, to bring aid and comfort to those Katrina evacuees in need. He went there with the plan to bring these people back to Florida with him and help them get back on their feet again. He was determined to do something real and immediate to help.

Dan’s motives really were pure, but it’s still hard for a lot of people to understand why he would go and help all these people he didn’t know. People don’t always understand that anyone could find themselves in a terrible situation rivaling or even exceeding Katrina, and in that situation, the only thing you can depend on is the kindness of strangers. In the end, if we don‘t have that, what do we have? Dan‘s idea was so spontaneous and hair-brained when looking at it from the outside, that it was easy to express cynicism, and many of his friends and co-workers certainly did. But that‘s what is special about Dan‘s story and the story of his evacuees. It‘s like a Rorschach test. It brings to light people‘s own views and, at times, even prejudices. I‘ve had people here and there express surprise at how the story turns out. And they quickly look within themselves and see their own cynicism. It’s interesting what our expectations can tell us about ourselves.

Which isn’t to say that I didn’t lack my own prejudices. The events of this trip made me question an uneasiness I found in myself as I meandered among people of lower socio-economic status, particularly those of color. I felt a pang of guilt and embarrassment at how New Orleans‘ African-American population was being treated, particularly by a mainstream media and this country‘s white elite establishment that viewed many of their actions of survival as „looting.“ As I talked to evacuees on cots and saw what little many of them possessed—normally plastic bags filled with family pictures, trinkets, love letters and whatever precious memento they‘d rather die than part with—I became angry. As I listened to their stories and looked at how they viewed me without judgment, not judging me by my own white skin tone, but just seeing me as a fellow human being no different than themselves, I felt as if all the stereotypes generated by the media and our society at large were swept away in an instant. I felt connected to them as a human being. And that feeling emboldened me to forego my initial intimidation about approaching evacuees. At first, I kept my emotional distance out of respect and sensitivity to what I believed was the racism they suffered at the hands of their own government. But I soon realized that putting up such a barrier only played into such divisions. I was letting my own internalized prejudices limit what help I could give them. This was a liberating experience personally for it proved that despite our different skin tones and even educational background, we‘re all the same underneath. We‘re all cut from the same cloth.

It sounds like this was almost a spiritual journey you were all on there together.

In a lot of respects, one of the most memorable realizations I know we all had — I’m talking volunteers and evacuees alike — was that in the midst of this terrible catastrophe, we were all experiencing a powerful spiritual renewal. I can‘t tell you how many times not only did I hear myself but others say, ‚despite how tragic this all is, it‘s beautiful to see so many people coming together to help each other in such dire times.‘ That communal spirit, that vibe that we‘re all in this together, was very prevalent in those days of Katrina‘s aftermath. It gave us all hope that maybe we as human beings could learn something out of this. That we‘re better as a people when we look out for each other, then when we‘re on our own. What I‘m saying isn‘t an indictment of capitalist America entirely, but it is an indictment about how the system is rigged by those seeking to subjugate others for their benefit. Racism and classism are merely by-products of such machinations. So for me, the beautiful part of taking on this project as a filmmaker was that it forced me to reach across the racial and class divide to tell their stories, enabling me to shed whatever preconceived notions I had that society had ingrained in me ever since I was old enough to walk.

And I think that’s what Dan was doing too. He wasn‘t a prophet. He was just simply trying to fulfill Jesus‘ Great Commandment, „love your neighbor as yourself“. Isn‘t that what the Bible teaches us? And yet, modern society looks upon such acts as bizarre. Dan‘s not even a particularly religious man. Far from it in fact. But his ability to love the stranger—while anathema to people in his own social circle—enabled him to overcome the skepticism necessary to get evacuees to come to Florida and find temporary homes and jobs. He gave them a unique opportunity to start their life anew with a kind of support many had never seen before. The fascinating thing about the film is how very different were all of their reactions. Dan provided this ‚bridge life‘ for these people – a life that eventually included free condos, food, clothing, financial support and help getting jobs and transportation—all the ingredients needed to help them on their way. And yet that didn’t mean that it was a success story for everyone involved. As you see in the movie, the results were mixed, ranging from exultant to tragic at times. Some took advantage of the opportunity while others made some bad choices, which took them down a different, darker path.

Dan says in the beginning that he had five stories of success and one tragedy and that he finds those to be pretty good. Do you think the results of his efforts somehow mirror other things about our society?

I think Dan‘s group is a microcosm of society in that it really brings together a group of strangers of varying racial and economic backgrounds and shows that when stripped of all the trappings that our consumerist life has to offer, in the end what we have is each other. The tragedy that occurs in the movie is an unfortunate twist, but it doesn‘t overshadow all the good that happens, and it’s also this tragedy that leaves many having to reconsider their own initial expectations as they viewed the film. If anything it reminds us of the choices we make and the unpredictable hand that life can sometimes deal us. That in turn allows us to appreciate all the good that came out of Dan and his evacuees‘ journey and makes it all the more powerful. The pay-it-forward mindset that he represents, that legacy of giving, is the glue that makes our society a stronger and happier place. If this film accomplishes anything, I hope it allows people, particularly those living lives of privilege and convenience, the feeling of what it might be like to suddenly one day lose everything you own, and in some cases, even lose family members, and have nothing but the clothes ON your back and have to start over. A person can learn a lot about himself and how he reacts in a crisis living through such trauma.

Incidents such as Katrina remind us of our capacity to love, empathize and create positive change. It‘s up to us to recognize those opportunities and take advantage of them. And in a sense politically at least we have taken a step in that direction by electing Barack Obama. In a way, I think this film is the perfect story for this new era we‘re entering. I love the irony that people keep mentioning—the fact that America had to live through eight years of hell under President Bush for people to consciously decide to elect this man to the nation‘s highest office. Sometimes progress means going two steps back and three steps forward. Of course, the pragmatics of the Obama presidency and wielding power will undoubtedly dull our expectations at some point, but there‘s no denying our desire to usher in rapid change, to find something meaningful. And that‘s a beautiful thing. Hopefully this film holds up a mirror to show what people really want in the coming years, a renewal of community and the American spirit.