Thursday, April 21, 2011

Good Movie and Bad TV

The Way Back is out on dvd. It is based on the book The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz who was a Polish citizen caught up in the insanity of the Stalin purges in Russia around WW2. Some say Stalin was responsible for 20 million deaths and some put it as high as 40 million! Rawicz tells the story of his imprisonment in the Gulag in Siberia. He escaped along with five others and walked to India! From Siberia, through Mongolia and the Gobi desert, and then over the Himalayas! Amazing, so amazing some critics doubt it ever happened. Few people could do it or would do it today. But what Rawicz and the others had going for them was survival. They had to do it or die. Others have tried to duplicate his journey and even with modern survival gear have found it impossible. Rawicz and the others lived off the land for over 4,000 miles! So, while others debate whether he really made the journey or not, watch the dvd. It's a beautiful story of human survival. Man (and one woman) vs Nature. Nature is shown in it's dramatic majesty but also it's brutal insensitivity. One minute you are marveling at the mountains or taking in the awesome grandeur of the desert and the next moment you are trying to stay alive in a blizzard or a sandstorm. The Way Back is a throwback to the days when epic films were made. The special effects are all natural. There are long silences as there would be on a long walk. There are deeply humanizing touches as the men and one young woman come to know and help each other. One powerful scene has the woman washing the badly damaged feet of one of the men (appropriate for this Maundy Thursday!). Another scene of similar power is a simple funeral with prayers asking for God's mercy for one of their companions who died on the walk. This is one of those "they don't make movies like this anymore" moments.

Greg Mortensen who wrote Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools is all over the news after CBS's 60 Minutes 'exposed' him as a fraud last Sunday night. Author Jon Krakauer who was an early supporter of Mortensen's questioned his work and his integrity. He claimed Mortensen used donations to his charity, Central Asia Institute, as his personal ATM and most of the donations funded his publicity trips where he sold his books. After 60 Minutes was done, Mortensen looked like a fraud who had pulled the wool over everyone's eyes and got rich doing it. His humble, disorganized, demeanor looked fake, as well, a cover up for his dishonest intentions. 60 Minutes in a 20 minute segment undid years of charitable work and ruined a man's reputation as a self sacrificing humanitarian. We are quick to make heroes in this country and just as quick to discard them. All it takes is a hit and run segment on a popular tv show. Nicholas Kristof writing in the NY Times cautions against this rush to judgment. He knows Mortensen well and wonders whether some of his better qualities make for poor management skills. He has personally visited and written about some of the schools Mortensen's charity has built (the only images of Mortensen's schools 60 Minutes showed were empty). He reminds us that what is beyond doubt is that Mortensen has provided educational opportunities for countless numbers of Afghan and Paksitani children, especially girls that they never would have had. He has made a difference in their lives and his work has had a peaceful and positive impact on relations in the Middle East. He has done something and that something amounts to way more than most people have done in their lives to benefit others. The 60 Minutes piece was largely negative. Even when they showed Mortensen what they showed was how he seemed to be avoiding them (who wouldn't knowing the kinds of hatchet jobs they usually do on the people they are after). That is not the whole story. Let's give Mortensen a chance to explain these allegations (which 60 Minutes portrayed as "facts"). He may have made mistakes but there is too much good here to trash his name and his work and move on to the next scandal. You can't document a person's life in a 20 minute video complete with commercials. All you can do is leave them with the impression you want to create. 60 Minutes did this and it was irresponsible and unfortunate.