Monthly Archives: March 2013

Human Rights Watch Film Festival

Forget the snow and lack of spring weather… Mid-March can only mean one thing – The ‘Human Rights Watch’ Film Festival!

Running from 13-22 March, 2013 saw its 16th anniversary, celebrating the defence and protection of human rights. Annually screening approximately 500 films in 8 cities, the festival attracts transnational audiences through its multiple trans-border locations, gaining followers from London to Toronto, Zurich to New York. Run by the ‘Human Rights Watch’ organisation, the festival aims to “create a forum for courageous individuals on both sides of the lens”, thus hoping to “empower individuals with the knowledge that personal commitment can make a difference”[i].

London’s closing ceremony, held in Brixton’s very own ‘Ritzy’ razzle-dazzle cinema, was on Friday 22March. ‘Wadjda’ was the film chosen to close the event. A co-production between Saudi-Arabia and Germany, the film is renowned on the film festival circuit since its release in Venice 2012. Not only is it the “first full-length feature film shot entirely inside Saudi Arabia”[ii] , Haifaa Al-Mansour is also Saudi’s first female director. No doubt then, the film is revolutionary and rather telling of life in the capital, Riyadh.

‘Wadjda’ set in Saudi Arabia

The film, titled after the 10-year-old female protagonist Wadjda, follows a girl’s fight of defiance. Director Mansour swallows us into her world, revealing the on-going patriarchal society. Women are still considered as second-class citizens[iii], unable to leave the house or get a job without the approval of their husbands, lest they insult their reputation. In fact director Mansour had to “direct several scenes via walkie-talkie while hiding out of sight in a van”[iv]!

Mansour explores these inequalities through a child’s innocent perspective. Wadjda, a child ridden with curiosity, is eager to own a bike so that she may race (and beat!) her male friend Abdullah. Her mother refuses to buy her a bike, claiming bikes to be dangerous to a woman’s virtue. How inconceivable it is to imagine a woman cycling! Wadjda is instead forced to raise the money herself, upon hearing of the prize money at a Quran competition. Her strength and determination make it a tale that can be easily related and understood by viewers and activists new to the Saudi Arabian context.

Wadjda and bike

Whilst the subject matter is playful, Mansour’s implications are much greater. The film is an interesting watch, as it is informing of the on-going repression in their society. There are plentiful laughs, as Wadjda’s cheeky character is heart-warming, yet there is a stronger more political message to be explored by the audience.

The experience at the Ritzy proved delightful – £10 ticket that included film entry, a free drink and some middle-eastern cuisine. The crowd did not disappoint; the provided ‘dinner’ was set apart in the upstairs foyer, thus allowing a more intimate setting in which attendees could mingle and share their personal responses provoked by the film. Interesting discussions naturally unfolded as most members boasted impressive job descriptions as either activists or independent directors, thus they provided interesting insights and opinions.

For those who missed out this year, watch the film and join us at next year’s event.

FOLLOW ON: http://ff.hrw.org/london

MORE INFO RE: SAUDI ARABIA http://www.hrw.org/middle-eastn-africa/saudi-arabia

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The Coal Country

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Australia is stripping down to the bare essentials – forget water, land, farms, forget community and food  – All we need is coal, or so the Australian Government seems to think. We are at the crux of re-creating our national identity and like oil to Saudi Arabia, coal has become our international engine of economic growth and large scale devastation. We have become the Coal Country, and despite our comparatively small population, we continue to be one of the largest global contributors to CO2 emissions and currently supply 1/3 of the world´s coal. Both these figures will double by 2020.

We´ve all heard it before, the sundry green spiels of imminent natural disaster, greenhouse gases and a rapidly diminishing ozone layer, but do we really care? The fact is, that few and fewer know what is really going on and even fewer act. The tokenistic terms that are rattled off more times than weight loss in a slim fast infomercial render us immune, ignorant and uninformed about the issues that really matter.

Coal and gas mining matter, it is a nation-wide issue and less than 0.000001 percent of citizens understand the magnitude of consequences, both long term and short term, that result from mining. The Bowen Basin is located in central Queensland, where you can also find the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Dividing range, along with fertile farming land and iconic Australian flora and fauna. There are 44 mines operating in the Bowen Basin, a further 12 new mines and 7 expansions proposed or underway. The Galilee Basin will be a site for 11 proposed megamines, 2 of which will be double the size of the largest coal mine that currently exists in Australia. This displaces Aussie farmers and greatly threatens all surrounding nature and wildlife, especially the Nature Reservation, Bimblebox – (see video reference below)

The Darling Downs in Southern Queensland are known as the “gardens of Australia” boasting the richest soil in the country. With 4 small mines operating, 15 more mines are planned to go ahead. There are 18,000 gas seam wells and 4000km of pipeline. This means the clearing of hundreds of thousands of hectares of fertile rich land. Approvals are now being sought for a further 8,400 wells. Alongside these mines, comes massive infrastructure that includes export plants, 4 coal ports in the Great Barrier Reef, coal transport railway and Major Dams. If these plans go ahead, Queensland will never be the same and instead mirror something similar to Fitzgerald´s grand metaphor, the wasteland. Except this is unfortunately an Australian reality.

Coal mines and gas wells exist all over the country and there are plans to expand over regions that include, the Gunnedah Basin, Liverpool Plains affecting the Murray Darling Basin and the Pilliga State Forests. These of course are linked to our major rivers and waterways including the Sydney Drinking Water Catchment, the Condamine River, Dawson River and the Fitzroy River Catchment.

The effects of coal mining and coal seam gas mining are vast and frightening. They will indeed be our undoing and you don’t have to be a genius to figure it out. Of course Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard are neither geniuses nor commoners, they are the politicians of the worst kind. They lack in passion, they are uninspiring and work better than birth control in ensuring that youth do not become involved in Australian politics.

Instead of investing in a bleak future, Australia should be funding major research into alternative energy resources. Coal is finite. Further entrenching our dependence upon it through scrapping our land, farmers and wildlife by increasing our coal production capacity is selfish, immoral and illogical.

Lock the Gate is a tremendous Australian organization with boundless information about this very serious national issue. For more information about the ramifications of coal mining please click on the following link: http://www.lockthegate.org.au/

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Peyote – Drug or Spiritual Plant?

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I have spent the past week researching the future of Peyote within the Huichol tribe in Mexico… thought it would be appropriate to share.

A lot of controversy surrounds ‘peyote’, the hallucinogenic plant that grows in northern Mexico and south-east America. Although it is recognised as a spiritual cactus that legally belongs to the Huichol indigenous community, recent misuse amongst non-indigenous individuals have led to increased speculation and concern regarding the effect that this emerging drug culture has on the future of the Huichol lifestyle. Part of its attraction as a drug is its mescaline substance, that shares similarities with LSD and acid, however it is traditionally associated and used within sacred rituals and religious ceremonies. But, the use of peyote as a ‘recreational’ drug is endangering the future of the plant as a spiritual symbol. It takes between 3-5 years for the plant to grow; therefore the emerging non-indigenous drug culture is threatening the extinction of peyote due to its rapidly diminishing stock.

Peyote has existed since 200 AD[i], accompanying the Huichol culture, which is famed as one of the “last great pre-Columbian civilizations”[ii]. Within this community, peyote is used as a spiritual plant, belonging to their daily routine as well as being used in spiritual ceremonies. If consumed in small amounts, it can prolong energy and suppress hunger allowing the Huicholes to work for longer; however, if consumed copiously, it enables the Huicholes to communicate and connect with their Gods. They are responsible users of this drug, embarking on an annual spiritual pilgrimage to Real de Catorce to harvest the plant. Often, during this pilgrimage, the Huicholes engage in ceremonies throughout the night, evoking and reinterpreting their traditional legend of the ‘Blue Deer’. For some, the peyote is considered ‘food of the Gods’, as the Huicholes, as practising animists, believe that their psychic abilities enable them to communicate with the spirits of plants and animals. This celestial experience in which the Huicholes induce an alternate state of mind, allows the community to connect with the souls of their previous ancestors.

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However, despite the consumption of peyote, the ceremonies are not built with the intention of stimulating themselves. “Peyote is their teacher”, also known as the ‘grandfather’, [iii]and it is part of their culture to gradually accustom themselves to the power of the drug. Often, younger members are even blindfolded as part of their initiation ceremonies; for fear that the hallucinations are too strong. It is an insular learning curve, in which the Huicholes must learn to appreciate and listen to the peyote, for it is a tradition that must be taught and transmitted across generations. It is believed that the consumption of peyote reveals the truth about oneself; therefore it is recommendable to have a pure clean mind to ensure the evocation of positive images. These rituals are often essential to their culture. They can be used for medicinal, curative purposes, to predict the weather or to provoke artwork. Their visions can serve as important symbols of their tradition and are often emulated throughout their jewellery and artisan products. This provides the Huicholes with an opportunity to creatively express themselves and recall their ancestors through their art.

Furthermore, the Huicholes’ disciplined use of peyote demonstrates their ability to shift between sacred and mundane realms. They recognise the importance of peyote within their culture as a means of gaining deep peace and serenity. Yet they remain in equilibrium with nature through their protection and careful maintenance of the land in which the peyote grows. Despite its slow growth, the Huicholes only extract the buttons of peyote once a year, hence why the laws defend the Huichol culture as they do not abuse the peyote plant. The ‘commission naciónal de areas naturales protegidas’ states that it is only legal to consume peyote with a native Indian or if one can prove a minimum of 25% Indian ancestry. This maintains that the indigenous culture be continued appropriately across generations and that it is conserved against the ever-encroaching modern world.

Unlike the Huicholes, there is an emerging culture of hostility towards the treatment of peyote. Increasingly, non-indigenous groups, both tourists and Mexicans alike, have been tempted by the plant. This has resulted in various hotspot locations, such as Real de Catorce and San Luis Potosi, which have catered to the tourist industry through the transformation of mountainous villages into Europeanised communities. Even Hollywood has seen the attraction of Real de Catorce, having filmed ‘The Mexican’ there with Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt! Whilst it could be argued that the tourist industry brings money, there are undisputed concerns about the effect that the organised trips taking tourists into the desert have on the future of peyote as a religious symbol.

In 2011, 8 tourists were arrested in Real de Catorce for possession of 225 peyote heads[iv]. This confirms that tourists are visiting these locations with the sole purpose of seeking out the ‘mystic experience’[v]. Whilst many want to innocently emulate the sacred path, they are not fully aware of the potential health dangers that can be caused by peyote. Many non-indigenous individuals fall victim to the drug as they are not used to its effect nor do they use it respectfully. This has resulted in an increase of admission to psychiatric hospitals, with victims suffering under disastrous psychiatric conditions.  In 2009 alone, 98 patients were diagnosed with mental distortions after psychotropic substance consumption[vi]. This proves that peyote is dangerous for non-indigenous individuals as they run the risk of losing their minds. The long-term effects of the drug are still relatively unknown[vii], but it is worrying that there exists this fascination about the experimentation of the plant.

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So what is the appeal of peyote as a psychedelic drug? Experimenting with drugs is becoming an increasingly common aspect of adolescent behaviour[viii], therefore we can assume that this desire to experiment with peyote is appealing as it is a rare drug, located only in Mexico or the USA and it is renowned for its cool reputation through artist association, such as Ken Kesey who wrote “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest”.   The desire to experience the alteration of the conscious perhaps may also be part of its allure. As described by Kira Salak, international writer and adventurer, peyote offers individuals the chance to enter the Huichol culture, and experience the ‘supernatural realm’[ix]. It is an innate part of our culture to discover the unknown, therefore perhaps through the consumption of peyote, tourists and non-indigenous Mexicans alike are eager to experience something ‘other worldly’ in an attempt to analyse and understand the Huichol culture. Their use of ceremonies, and indeed peyote, is far removed from modern society. Peyote as a drug allows users to experiment with their identity and seek personal truth. According to Susana Eger Valadez, an American lady who has married into the Huichol community, they “have a map to a dimension of consciousness that western culture has very little idea even exists”[x]; the map is peyote. This suggests that through the consumption of peyote, many believe that they too can access the magical properties associated with the Huichol culture, perhaps enlightening users to understand more about themselves and their purpose in life. This intrigue in the plant only confirms the western inability to understand the depth of the power of peyote, and perhaps leads us to question a lack of fulfilment in their own cultures.

In addition, non-indigenous users are often disrespectful of the plant. Not only are they unaware of the cultural implications of the drug, but they are ignorant when digging out the plant, with most users killing it in the process[xi]. By using peyote as a recreational drug, users are diminishing the stock of peyote which threatens the extinction of the Huichol culture, as the tourist route is located alongside that of the pilgrimage. What makes the Huichol culture so charming is its ability to maintain its traditions through its use of peyote. This could now be in jeopardy due to temporarily complacent tourists.

First and foremost peyote is legally recognised as a religious symbol, as it permits exclusive use amongst Huichol members. However, we cannot ignore that in the eyes of non-indigenous individuals, it is considered as a recreational drug to enjoy. Often, tourists do not appreciate the history of the peyote culture nor consider the long-term effects of their actions, as they frequently abuse it and infiltrate in the lives of this community. Already there are various projects that exist eager to preserve the Huichol culture, such as Valadez’s located in the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental. However, there should be an increase in campaigning awareness of peyote to educate and deter potential users from willingly trespassing and consuming what is legally considered Huichol property.

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[i] Fikes, J. (1996). A brief history of the Native American Church. One Nation Under God. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers. Retrieved on September 1, 2009 from http://www.csp.org/communities/docs/fikes-nac_history.html

[vii] Halpern et al, 2005

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