Blindness to Open Cannes

April 30, 2008

Forget Indiana Jones and the Legend of the Crystal Skull and The Dark Knight. The cinematic event of the year is Fernando Meirelles’ adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness. Check out the trailer.

The film, which has just been announced as the opening night gala screening at Cannes this year, is notable not only because it’s a visionary director’s attempt to film a heartbreaking, visually challenging book. It’s also notable because it’s got Canada stamped all over it.

Not only is Blindness‘ cast packed with some of the country’s most accomplished talent (including Sandra Oh, Maury Chaykin, and Martha Burns), its producer, Niv Fichman of Rhombus Media and writer, Don McKellar of, well, everything, were the driving force behind the project. Attending a film festival in Buenos Aires together almost ten years ago for McKellar’s fantastic apocalyptic Last Night, Fichman initially poo-pooed the idea of adapting Saramago’s novel.

After he’d read it, however, all of that changed, and the two men started bombarding the Portugese novelist with solicitations. Finally, in 1999, Saramago (who had turned down Meirelles when he approached him on his own) caved and invited the Canadians to his house in the Canary Islands. On the second day of their visit, Saramago offered Fichman and McKellar the rights, saying he wanted absolutely no control over the film.

“I always resisted (giving up rights to the Blindness),” Saramago told the New York Times Magazine in 2007, “because it’s a violent book about social degradation, rape, and I didn’t want it to fall into the wrong hands.”

Those right hands were Canadian hands (though said article never mentions Fichman or McKellar by name), the hands of a team of people who have been fighting to get Blindnessmade for the last seven years. They have put together the very model of an international co-production (Rhombus worked alongside Japan’s Bee Vine Pictures and Brazil’s 02 Filmes), the type of project can will hopefully show other Canadians the way forward.

It’s a great story of nerve, persistence, and global thinking in the Canadian arts world. Refreshing indeed.


In Defense of the BA

April 29, 2008

Paul here –

This morning, as I tuned in to hear Toronto radio legend Andy Barrie’s dulcet tones on Metro Morning, I was intrigued to find I had chanced upon yet another iteration of the classic debate over the value of a B.A. Barrie (who did a B.A. in Theatre at Dartmouth) was staging a debate between Donald Ainslie, the chair of the Department of Philosophy at U of T, and Tony Chan, an associate professor of Communications at the University of Washington. You can guess who stood on what side.

You can also likely predict the parameters of the discussion. Ainslie was talking about how philosophy grads (and humanities grads in general) are taught how to think rather than enact a specific skill; that they learn critical thinking, which equips them for a myriad of jobs beyond McDonald’s (despite what Queen’s Commerce students may chant at Football games); and that a number of rather well-healed business types in this country still look back on their time in Kant lectures without regret. Mr. Chan, on the other hand, derided Ainslie’s argument as indicative of an archaic and conservative educational model. He argued in favour of programs that focussed on specific, practical, and marketable skills.

But just because I could have written out both arguments almost verbatim before the program began doesn’t mean I didn’t welcome it on the public airwaves. As more and more of my friends leave the fetid couches of Bachelor degreedom and realize they need to rush off and nab a community college diploma to ensure their hirability, the value of the B.A. is being seriously eroded.

In large part, this is the B.A.’s fault. The Bachelors degree is the high school degree of the 21st century because standards have plummeted and most now see it as the reward for surviving alcohol poisoning in third year. This is sad for those who take their studies in the humanities seriously, because who wants to go into debt to get something no one in the outside world will value?

But fault also lies with those doing the hiring. While you may save the money required to train someone who appears to have done little beside tackle with political science, literature, or history for four years, are you really unable to see the value of having that person on your side longer down the line?

Okay, so yes, perhaps the worry is that said graduate will not be with you several years down the line. Good point, good point. In this day and age, we do tend to flitter and flutter about, scouting out the better deal, the tastier salary, and the greater opportunity for “personal fulfilment.” Point taken. Quite a conundrum that.

Here’s all I can say to the argument made by Mr. Chan on today’s program – the one that states that the philosophy degree is old and largely worthless. It’s a two part answer actually: Margot Franssen and David Pecault.

Don’t know what I’m going on about. Okay, I’ll tell you.

Margot Franssen is the former founding partner and president of Body Shop Canada. Nowadays, she runs Accessorize and sits on the board of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. She’s an Officer of the Order of Canada and all that. What did she study? Philosophy. Funny that. She tried to go to Business school, but after a few weeks she felt bored and uninspired. One day she met a guy sitting on a bench on campus. When she asked him what he studied and he said “philosophy”, Franssen wasn’t entirely sure what that was. But she dropped out of business and wrestled with problems of existence and truth for a few years. She knew it was a risk, that it promised her nothing, that she was throwing her money away. But she did it anyway. And when she came out, she was armed with the drive and the ethical framework to fly to England, ask for the Canadian rights to Body Shop, and proceed to make it one of the most progressive and successful arms of the companny in the world.

David Pecaut is the Iowa-born Senior Vice-President of the Boston Consulting group who Toronto Life magazine has called the city’s “Shadow Mayor“. He’s behind the Toronto City Summit Alliance and the Luminato Festival. He’s a versatile mind with a strong civic sense – the kind of guy who balances with striking economic competence with a desire to do good. And what did he do his degree in? Economics? Management? A specific degree tailored to the job market? Hell no. He did a BA in Sociology followed by a Phd. in the Philosophy of Music. He still got a job as a consultant on the other end. Hell, they were intrigued.

Does simply mentioning the career paths of too successful people somehow negate the argument that doing a specialized degree increases your chances of getting a good job and pushing your career forward? Of course not. But a BA is not solely a pre-requisite for law school, politics, or teaching. It provides a grounding for how we act (history), how we communicate (literature), how we organize (sociology) and how we are in the first place (philosophy). That has value.

I don’t want to say that such degrees “teach you how to think” because that’s a cliche and as a writer I’m meant to hate cliches. But, when taught right and given a proper chance, a BA forces you to engage with the world in a way that no specialized program does.

Does that mean I don’t think bringing practical skills from the world of employment into the classroom has any value? Of course not. It just means that, despite the devaluation the Bachelor’s Degree, I’m not going to recommend anyone bypass it.

Roberta Bondar, the boundary-defying scientist who was both the first Canadian female astronaut and the first neurologist in space, has just launched the second phase of her Mission for Memories campaign, aimed at raising awareness for Alzheimer’s disease. Bondar is calling on Canadians to submit stories that relate to their experiences with the disease. In addition to holding public forums across the country on the subject, the program is now inviting you to tell your stories online (or through the mail). From today to June 30, you can go to and tell your story.

Alzheimer’s was the subject of Bondar’s Phd. thesis, and emphasizing the need for early diagnosis has always been close to her heart. Here’s hoping that her project successfully gives voice to both those who have struggled with the disease and their tireless caregivers and loved-ones.

We’ve talked about designer Bruce Mau here already, but he’s a difficult person to pin down. Here, PBS broadcaster Charlie Rose sits with Mau for a half-hour and gets the man to walk through his work and its evolution. It’s a great primer and a very intriguing conversation.

Once you’re done with that, check out this hilarious spoof called “Charlie Rose’ by Samuel Beckett” – a playful one act Mr. Mau would no doubt approve of.

Paul here: I just saw Patrick Reed’s Triage: Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma and thought I should make some note of the effects it had on me before (like too too many other feelings of value) it faded in the din of the weekly rush.

Having met and worked with Dr. Orbinski during the course of Kickstart we were well aware of what an insightful and inspiring figure he is. We were also aware that he was in the process of writing a book on the difficulties and future of humanitarianism (mainly because, after our interview, he immediately asked for a transcript, thinking, perhaps, that he might have said something of value – he most certainly did). All that aside, I wasn’t fully prepared for the power of watching Orbinski return to the sites of his most challenging humanitarian dilemmas (Somalia, Rwanda, the DRC).

As commentator Gerald Caplan (author of the new book, The Betrayal of Africa) says of Orbinski in Reed’s film, the former President of MSF and current head of Dignitas International is simultaneously a pessimist and an optimist, well aware of just how horrible humanity often looks when it peers at itself in the mirror but remains fervent in his belief that change is possible. This, Caplan points out, makes Orbinski’s life rather difficult, especially now that he has taken it upon himself to write a memoir that will reclaim the meaning of “humanitarianism.”

But Orbinski relishes the difficulty. Not because it’s jolly good fun, but because to do otherwise would be to abstain from his responsibility to his fellow human beings. Growing up in Montreal during the nineteen seventies and working at a hotel that doubled as a holding facility for incoming immigrants, Orbinski learned from an early age that the world of pressing political questions realities did not exist “out there,” in the world beyond his suburban borough. No, as a human being blessed with a life, he was responsible. Thus, he needed to remain response-able: able to respond.

He didn’t always know what he wanted to do. But, even as he ran away from CEGEP to work on the west coast or help start a hotel with friends in the Laurentians, even as he took every course imaginable at Trent University and flirted with a variety of disciplines, philosophical questions, and potential careers, Orbinski was “exploring with intent”. As he told me in our interview, a person’s responsibility in their early years is to discover “their question,” the struggle with which they are to wage. Orbinski finally found his question when, after finally deciding to attent medical school, he went to Rwanda to do immunology work. In the beginning, the trip was motivated by a desire for adventure. But what Orbinski found there was a passion – he found his question.

The path Orbinski took to find his question, and the horrifying experiences he has lived through since, make him of one the most philosophically compelling characters I have ever seen on film. He doesn’t want the movie to be about him. It’s clear he isn’t entirely comfortable in front of the camera, but when he speaks about doing what is right, you know he’s given a great number of wrenching hours to the meaning of the word.

Today, many of us expect things to come easily. We demand comforts, including the comfort of ignorance. James Orbinski has refused these in the name of being a responsible human being. It’s just a bloody shame there aren’t more like him.

The cliffhanger Reed’s film leaves us with is ‘what will Orbinski’s book conclude?’ Struggling to reconcile his pessimism and his optimism, the failures of Somalia, Rwanda, the Darfur and many more with his belief that things can be different, can Orbinski emerge with a new direction to and approach for 21st century humanitariansim. Only one way to find out: read his new book An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the 21st Century.

More those who don’t know, here’s Orbinski on what his present organization, Dignitas Internation, does, and why.

Photo: Owen Egan

Pascal Zamprelli of the McGill Reporter, the bi-weekly administration newspaper of McGill University, wrote this article on Alex (beamingly captured above by the Reporter’s photographer) and the boys: Where To Begin?

Recently, lots of people have been asking us about Raffi and what the children’s entertainer is up to now. While we couldn’t track down any video or audio of the rap the Baby Beluga composer did for us during our initial phone interview (it’s called Resisto Dancing, a single from his album of the same name), we did want to point you towards the online platform for Raffi’s recent re-incarnation as what he calls a “global troubadour”:

Here, you’ll find an outline of Raffi’s philosophy of “Child Honouring,” as well as fresh tunes like Cool It – The Global Warming Song(feat. David Suzuki). Check out the music video.

You see, Raffi wants you. He’s working to make Child Honouring (and an environmental consciousness is an essential part of that) a global movement. A crucial step involves a call to those he refers to as ‘Beluga Grads,’ the kids who grew up with a Banana Phone and are now preparing to have youngins of their own.

We thought we’d give you guys a peak at a piece of the transcript of our interview with Raffi that we never used in the book. This is Raff and Paul chatting it up about the issues that matter the most.


Raffi: ….Interesting that we’re having this conversation. You’re writing about Raffi the children’s icon, or some such thing. I only mention this because I don’t want to forget it in this interview – you might find this interesting; I don’t know where or whether it’ll factor in your writing, but I’m just now going through what we call “a Raffi renaissance”, in which I am evolving yet again, now into a global troubadour….. How old are you guys?

Q: We’re about 24.

R: Perfect, so you’re right in that demographic. And did you both grow up singing my songs? Baby Beluga among them?

Q: Yes. Baby Beluga among them.

R: So you are the archetypal “Beluga Grads”. Generation B, or BG. The BG is alive and well in Canada and elsewhere, yes!

So I really wanted to just take a moment or two and say isn’t it interesting that you’re writing about those early times for me and the decisions that I made. I’ve had to make a whole new set of decisions in this renaissance because it really does feel like a re-birthing of sorts. You should have seen me in Victoria, a week ago. I was presenting at a theological conference called “Epiphanal Exploration 2006” at the First Metropolitan Church in Victoria. The talk was called “Child Honouring: The Next Ecological Paradigm” and I was co-presenting it with a couple of friends of mine who are totally into Child Honouring, which is a philosophy I’ve developed on which there’s an anthology I’ve just finished that’ll be out in May. I co-edited this anthology, which will be out in May and you can find it on the new website. In any case, there I was not only talking about child honouring, but singing about it – the new songs that will be out on the new album. This is kind of like, well I don’t know how to put it, this is like the birth of a whole new…

Q: Is it Raffi 2?

R: Yeah, yeah man, that’s it. The album is called, are you ready for this, it’s called, “Resisto Dancing.”

Q: I like it.

R: Resisto Dancing, the song, is a blend of Hip-Hop, Dylan, Abraham Maslow, Shakespeare, R & B, Jazz, in a style that I call Hip-Hope. Apparently no one’s coined that phrase. It’s “Hip-Hope” in the sense that it’s very celebratory; there’s no clenched fists in it. I mentioned Abraham Maslow. He was a psychologist who said, “healthy individuation requires resisting unhealthy enculturation.” So the song is a metaphor. Resisto Dancing is a metaphor for living a life of creative resistance to a culture that doesn’t reflect your heart of hearts – a consumer culture, a wasteful culture, a bottom-line culture. To make a long-story short, the CD will have about 14 cuts on it, including an audio version of the covenant for honouring children, which I wrote. This is a recording that features the voices of the Dalai Lama and Jane Goodall among others. It’ll have a number of songs written in recent years that are motivational songs that I sing at keynote presentations like the one in Victoria that I was mentioning. The Raffi Renaissance this year, which is the 25th anniversary of the recording of Baby Beluga, features the book Child Honouring, the anthology, and this new CD and a whole host of keynote presentations.

Q: I wanted to talk briefly about what’s really at the core here, which is the childhood imagination. You say that the development of the child requires a dream space, a private space, and I was wondering about what the potential long-term effects of having that space infringed on by advertising…

R: You got an hour or two? You are asking the question, the question of the day.

Q: And what’s the answer to the question of the day?

R: I’m going to stay with your question; I’m not going to jump to an answer. You’re asking the question because within your question is the understanding of what’s at stake for society in protecting that imaginal space for the child, in protecting that space and respecting the child’s psyche and spirit from a young age, from birth. By doing that you’re actually nurturing and protecting the social capacity of society and the developing intelligence of its members. That’s what you’re doing. So to not do that, to legally allow corporations to exploit that space and violate the child’s psyche and spirit, is a folly of huge consequence, and I liken it to nothing less than the colonization of the child in my mind. Whew. I didn’t know I was going there. But I really want to applaud you for that question.

Q: How does impacting that imaginal space affect the choices a person will end up making which relate to who you want to be?

R: There’s a lot to say here, and I’ll see if I can tease out the most important threads. The image-making capacity of a young being is critical to creative thought and a creative life. Television’s intrusion into that space is that it feeds you pre-fab imagery, and that’s why the American Pediatric Association recommends no TV for children two years or younger. It’s the reason that I haven’t gone into television. The concert videos that I made were first marketed for children aged 3 to 7 and that’s historic fact, and secondly they were so interactive it was as though you were actually at a Raffi concert, so I was very careful with that. But on another point, you’ll understand why I haven’t made one commercial endorsement of any kind in thirty years doing this, and that certainly goes against the grain of what celebrities do. And I’m very proud of that track record by the way. I’ve not done one advertisement – I’ve never marketed our products, me being Troubadour, to children directly. We are of the view that it’s unethical to advertise to children and to market things to them directly. I just sent a letter to Ted Rogers, asking him to take the cell phones for pre-teens off the market, voluntarily. To stop advertising to pre-teens directly.

Then you can get into the whole question of rights, as beings, as young beings, do children have a right to be unexploited. You can look at this question from a number of points of view, but one thing I can say is this: if it’s morally repugnant, if it’s morally and spiritually repugnant, the idea of exploiting the innocent, why is it legal? I think in posing that question we get at the roots of this unhealthy enculturation that I’m asking Beluga Grads and everyone who will listen, to do the creative Resisto Dancing around.”

Alex and Paul were guests on CBC Montreal’s Radio Noon, FM 88.5, between 1:00 and 2:00 pm on Monday, April 21. The phone-in show took calls from people talking about their own early careers. Hosted by Anne Lagacé Dowson.

To listen click here:

Kickstart on CBC Radio Noon, Part 1

Kickstart on CBC Radio Noon, Part 2

The good people at Maisonneuve magazine (one of the country’s most literate and boldly unique mags) have re-packaged an old satirical piece of Paul’s from 2005. The topic: could Jon Stewart win the 2008 US election? Now that we’re in the midst of election fever all over again, they’ve thankfully given my modest proposal a second spin. It’s ridiculous, but hopefully it’s still funny and at least mildly thought-provoking three years on.

The Lessons of Clairtone

April 18, 2008

Just when we expressed disappointment that a recent Globe and Mail profile on Peter Munk didn’t explore his halcyon days at Clairtone in the swinging sixties, today’s paper featured an excellent piece from Business writer Gordon Pitts on the just that very subject. More specifically (and quite interestingly)? The question: “Is there something in the Canadian psyche that militates against product development and marketing?” Are we doomed to be perpetual hewers of wood and drawers of water, timorous in any arena where design innovation is life?

Good question. And one we’ve been playing around with ever since we interviewed Munk two years ago.

Because the story of Clairtone ends rather badly, much of its history has been buried in the collective consciousness. My parents vaguely recall the company’s celebrated “Project G”, but when I show them the company’s cutting edge ads, it all comes tumbling back.

Here, you try. We’ve already shown one. Here’s another.

Pitts’ comparison to Apple may be a bit of a stretch, but when Munk and his business partner, David Gilmour, burst onto the scene, they represented an entrepreneurial vigour Canada hadn’t seen, perhaps ever. It was the ultimate coming together of technology and design, and the company’s advertising reflected this. The campaigns, designed by legendary political tactician Dalton Camp, pitched the two men as Trudeau-era saviours of corporate Canada.

As Pitt points out, though, the real star of the show was the Project G. You may remember it from such films as The Graduate (in one of the first instances of Hollywood product placement). It’s that stereo with the globe-shaped speakers in the famous seduction scene. The Ipod of its day, or almost.

The very sexy Clairtone G2

After flying high and expanding into the US, Clairtone went from being an astonishing Canadian success story to a cataclysmic failure in a matter of years. The more minor “whys” differ depending on who you ask, but its clear that Munk wasn’t the most frugal of men and that the company sought to expand even as finances were pinched. It’s main mistake: it went after easy regional development funding in Nova Scotia, setting up factories for the manufacture of radios and TV in rural Stellarton and allowing politicians and local business people onto its board in lieu of industry experts. Then it tried to get into the automobile industry and one day found itself controlled by the provincial government of Nova Scotia. A significant woops to be sure.

Pitts’ piece explores all this history, but his core thesis pushes beyond the standard ‘shouldn’t have gone east’ line adopted by most. He actually suggests that despite its marketing verve and undeniable moxie, Clairtone was too timid.

“For all its bold design”, he writes, “it never stopped turning out clunky mainstream stereos encased in period furniture. Project G was actually a small part of the product line. It could be argued that Clairtone could only survive by catering to popular tastes. Yet Apple’s Steve Jobs has prospered by leading tastes, not by bending to those of the masses.”

It’s an interesting argument, and one that Pitts then segues into a brief discussion of Clairtone’s most recent progeny: Research in Motion. RIM appears in a far safer position than Clairtone ever did, partly due to its financial management, but also due to cultural changes whereby the commercialization of technology advance has gone more mainstream. Clairtone had to live by the seat of its pants for its entire life cycle in a country that hadn’t ever really seen its like before. That is changing now. But more slowly than it should.

If we want more Clairtone’s and RIMs – and we do – then we shouldn’t let the Munk and Gilmour story be forgotten.

For more on the design evolution of Clairtone, take a look at The Art of Clairtone, The Making of a Design Icon, a book that Munk’s daughter Nina has co-authored with design curator Rachel Gotlieb.