Thursday, September 21, 2017

Women in Media

My conversation with Angelina Jolie last Saturday, September 9th at Toronto’s acclaimed International Film Festival (TIFF) was personal. Even though I had come to hear her speak in CBC’s (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Glenn Gould Studio with 200 people as part of TIFF’s annual In Conversation Series, Angelina said something that won my heart. Clearly passionate about her new role in film and what she intended to do, Angelina said:

I love diversity and believe our world is stronger for it. We have so much to share with each other and it’s the greatest way to deeply learn and create together.

Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF, In Conversation With, Angelina Jolie, Artistic Director of TIFF, Cameron Bailey, cultural diversity, Girl Interrupted, Gia, Maleficent, Unbroken, The Breadwinner, Louis Zamperini, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Khmer Rouge, Jon Voight, Marcheline Bertrand, Changeling, A Mighty Heart, Disney, Sleeping Beauty, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, UN Ambassador, global activist, Lee Strasberg, Jonny Lee Miller, Billy Bob Thornton, Brad Pitt,This message is the essence of WomanScape – building cultural connections for learning and growing together! I sat riveted. And, over the course of this hour-long interview with TIFF’s artistic director Cameron Bailey, I escaped into Angelina’s world. Bailey’s job was formidable. He avoided the impossible task of listing the more than 48 movies Angelina has appeared in. Instead, he highlighted her most prominent accomplishments as an actor, director and humanitarian.

Angelina’s Acting Career

Dressed in a simple loose fitting white shirt and a long matching skirt that floated around her feet, Angelina was ethereal. She sat very still when the movie screen behind her flashed film clips that accompanied Bailey’s references to her mounting film credits. Not once did Angelina turn around during excerpts like this one below with Whoopi Goldberg. This was not the wild-child actress of years ago, or some Brangelina figure.

Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF, In Conversation With, Angelina Jolie, Artistic Director of TIFF, Cameron Bailey, cultural diversity, Girl Interrupted, Gia, Maleficent, Unbroken, The Breadwinner, Louis Zamperini, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Khmer Rouge, Jon Voight, Marcheline Bertrand, Changeling, A Mighty Heart, Disney, Sleeping Beauty, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, UN Ambassador, global activist, Lee Strasberg, Jonny Lee Miller, Billy Bob Thornton, Brad Pitt,

No, Angelina’s composure and graceful movements matched her deliberately thoughtful and insightful answers. I confess, like most people, that I was curious to know who Angelina really was, in lieu of the fanfare surrounding her celebrity status in Hollywood. For years, we’ve seen photos of her beauty and tabloid-fodder stories that rip apart her past marriages to fellow actors Johnny Lee Miller, Billy Bob Thornton and, until recently, Brad Pitt.

In many ways, I think this history has eclipsed her acting artistry and philanthropy. It is a far cry from the UN Ambassador and decorated global activist who started humbly as a young theater student-in-training with Lee Strasberg in New York. Angelina’s stardom happened quickly, after movies like the 1998 film Gia (about a model hooked on cocaine) garnered attention.  It showcased her depth of emotion, opening the door to more opportunities like the action hero figure she played in 2001, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. This led to a massive fan base and broad audience appeal, while opening the door to more serious dramatic roles and award, like her severe paranoia character in Girl Interrupted.

Dramatic scripts and meatier roles in movies like the Changeling and A Mighty Heart took her to new heights. In her personal life, Angelina adopted children from several international countries while also giving birth to children of her own. This likely influenced Angelina as she stepped into the world of Disney’s adaptation of Sleeping Beauty. The wide-eyed face and radiant smile that I saw on stage at TIFF was an equally captivating and scary sorceress in Maleficent (shown below). Angelina had become a very self-aware and seasoned professional.

Angelina as Director

Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF, In Conversation With, Angelina Jolie, Artistic Director of TIFF, Cameron Bailey, cultural diversity, Girl Interrupted, Gia, Maleficent, Unbroken, The Breadwinner, Louis Zamperini, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Khmer Rouge, Jon Voight, Marcheline Bertrand, Changeling, A Mighty Heart, Disney, Sleeping Beauty, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, UN Ambassador, global activist, Lee Strasberg, Jonny Lee Miller, Billy Bob Thornton, Brad Pitt,So why the director chair? Angelina is the first to admit she never planned to move behind the camera when she started out in film. As the daughter of two film actors, Jon Voight and Marcheline Bertrand, Angelina felt destined to act. Her mother just assumed she would go into the family business. However, this changed when Angelina lost her mother to ovarian cancer at just 56 years of age in 2007.

This prompted new ideas and the kind of creative work we see in Angelina’s two films at TIFF. Both films directed by Angelina explore women from other countries. In the cover photo of this article, we see a clip from the BreadWinner. It is an animated feature about a young girl in Afghanistan who disguises herself as a boy to help her mother and sister. The other movie, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, is a Netflix film about a child soldier in the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975. (Photo clip below is taken from the movie.)

Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF, In Conversation With, Angelina Jolie, Artistic Director of TIFF, Cameron Bailey, cultural diversity, Girl Interrupted, Gia, Maleficent, Unbroken, The Breadwinner, Louis Zamperini, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Khmer Rouge, Jon Voight, Marcheline Bertrand, Changeling, A Mighty Heart, Disney, Sleeping Beauty, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, UN Ambassador, global activist, Lee Strasberg, Jonny Lee Miller, Billy Bob Thornton, Brad Pitt,

Angelina says several factors explain her desire to be behind the camera.  She slipped into directing her first film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, when she wanted to learn more about the war in Bosnia and the history of Yugoslavia. A self-proclaimed history buff, Angelina says she’s always been very aware of the macro picture in filming – crews working together, the direction of the cameras, stylized costume and language, etc. Watching actors use their words and seeing the trans-formative power of scripts created a keen interest in writing. Bringing all of these worlds together just seemed like the next thing to do.

Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF, In Conversation With, Angelina Jolie, Artistic Director of TIFF, Cameron Bailey, cultural diversity, Girl Interrupted, Gia, Maleficent, Unbroken, The Breadwinner, Louis Zamperini, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Khmer Rouge, Jon Voight, Marcheline Bertrand, Changeling, A Mighty Heart, Disney, Sleeping Beauty, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, UN Ambassador, global activist, Lee Strasberg, Jonny Lee Miller, Billy Bob Thornton, Brad Pitt,What’s clear when you look at Angelina’s entire body of work, is the progressive maturing of her point of view. In her humanitarian work, she hopes to leave the world in a better way. She feels the weightiness of being a role model for other women and girls, and wants the dignity of all people to matter. Her focus on cultural history and stories from around the world illustrates where Angelina is headed.

For Angelina, art can help people find peace and resolution. She is one of a new breed of female directors powering their way to the top of the box offices. TIFF announced that it would make a five-year commitment to increasing opportunities for women behind and in front of the camera. Angelina is one of those women who believes her films can help humanity to learn to grieve, to heal and to be empowered. Unbroken is produced in 2014, and examines the true story of World War II hero, Louis Zamperini. Louis fights to survive the horrors of Japanese war camps.

At the conclusion of Angelina’s interview, she did something I never would have expected.  She stayed behind for more than 20 minutes signing autographs and taking selfie photos. Talk about truly moving behind the camera! It’s clear that Angelina wants to communicate with young people around the world.

Toronto International Film Festival, TIFF, In Conversation With, Angelina Jolie, Artistic Director of TIFF, Cameron Bailey, cultural diversity, Girl Interrupted, Gia, Maleficent, Unbroken, The Breadwinner, Louis Zamperini, In the Land of Blood and Honey, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers, Khmer Rouge, Jon Voight, Marcheline Bertrand, Changeling, A Mighty Heart, Disney, Sleeping Beauty, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, UN Ambassador, global activist, Lee Strasberg, Jonny Lee Miller, Billy Bob Thornton, Brad Pitt,

Our heads smack against the inside roof of the black 4×4 Land Rover like kernels of  popcorn. We scream so loudly that when I glance sideways to see my husband’s face it’s purple. The setting sun and our perilous speed make it impossible to know if it’s just the light or if he’s having a heart attack. I breath deeply to slow my pulse just in case we need to make the hospital our next stop!

This is the start of my Arabian adventure – giant sprays of white sand swooshing underneath the tires. It is terrifying and exhilarating, and not what I expected when I asked the hotel concierge about Bedouins and a desert tour. I pictured a less dramatic tour retracing the history and lifestyle of ancient desert caravans.

But I should know better. In Dubai, people expect the unexpected and this tour is grand like the Palace Hotel we’re staying at in downtown Dubai. The Palace is surrounded by lush gardens and spectacular views of the Dubai fountain, nestled in front of Dubai’s world renown shopping complex. Visitors inhale exotic floral scents as they enter the lobby and feast on jewel-colored interiors.

Our tour of the desert started when guides arrived in luxury all-terrain vehicles to chauffeur five parties of six people to the desert conservation area less than an hour from the city center of Dubai. The promise of a falcon demonstration and tented campground dinner with music and festivities under the setting sun was a dream come true for me.  I had been to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) once before but it had been to Abu Dhabi, one of the seven UAE states that definitely felt culturally more conservative than Dubai.

My desire to see the desert stemmed from memories sitting with my father and watching American spaghetti westerns and the Oscar winning Lawrence of Arabia movie. Long flowing robes and headscarves were as foreign as my grasp of British colonial history and the state of the Arab world during the First World War.

So when Werner Herzog’s “The Queen of the Desert” was released early in 2017, I felt that same allure watching Nicole Kidman play the female version of Lawrence of Arabia in her portrayal of Gertrude Bell. I remembered highlights of my touristy Dubai desert adventure as I watched Kidman’s performance; of course, my experience paled in comparison to the 30 years Bell spent roaming vast desert lands in the Middle East.

Born into 1868 Victorian England, Gertrude Bell’s education was unusual. She was the first woman to graduate Oxford with a degree in modern history and her personality was considered “too academic” to attract marriage offers, despite her family’s significant wealth. So when her father encouraged her to visit her uncle, a diplomat stationed in Iran in 1892, Bell fell in love with the Middle East. The wanted to make a life for herself writing and documenting her desert travels so she taught herself how to speak Persian and Arabic. Bell’s archeological and academic interests became a love affair that lasted a lifetime.

During this time Britain was struggling to maintain its Imperial Rule and Bell’s knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and her travels throughout present-day regions, that include Palestine, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq, became a valuable asset to the government. Bell helped to stop the expansion of the Turkish Empire with her knowledge and the unorthodox relationships she had forged roaming freely and meeting with Sheiks and Bedouin communities. Her geopolitical knowledge of borders surrounding Iraq and Jordan were critical in helping the British negotiate diplomatic settlements at the end of World War I.

There’s a scene in the “Desert Queen” where Kidman poses for a picture with Winston Churchill, just as Bell did at the 1921 Conference in Cairo, Egypt. She was the only woman delegate in the group and were it not for her trusted relationship with the Arabs, Churchill’s diplomatic efforts and relations with these Arab countries would likely have turned out quite differently.

Obviously much has changed since Bell’s time and her legacy helping to build the Museum of Antiquities in Iraq and her preservation of desert history. Her  passing in 1926 marked the end of her adventures long before the United States bombed her beloved Baghdad in 2003. Camels that once transported Bedouin tribes and foreigners like Bell who rode through the desert are now used in other ways, like camel racing for sport. Mechanical robots have replaced traditional child jockeys who used to ride on top (thanks to protective United Nations child labor laws) and robotic whips are used to lead a camel to victory while a lead truck races alongside the camel.

Riding a camel in Dubai was as thrilling as I thought it would be after our stomach churning Land Rover drive dropped us at the Desert Conservation Reserve. It was daunting to mount a camel, as they are huge animals who need to bow the front of their bodies so low in order for you to straddle their bumps. You then have to trust your body to lean way back in order for the camel to uncurl its long front legs allowing it to stand. But my nerves were buoyed by the smells of roasted meats, spicy scents and thick coffee smells permeating our campsite; a stark contrast to Bell’s lifestyle, where her desert survival depended on the hospitality of Arab tribes visited and personal rations of food and water needed to survive the grueling desert conditions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seated in tented areas and regaled with stories about the nomadic existence, I learned about the Arab’s falcon traditions. Professional falconers demonstrated the hawking skills of these majestic birds of prey used for scouting and hunting food, until a sudden sand storm had our group running back to the cars for cover. It’s not unusual for this to happen and the sands are like shards of glass that sting your face and fill your eyes and nose.

I can still taste the grit between my teeth as we reach the campsite replete with portable bathrooms, until I think of the whirling belly dancers who entertained us and the magnificent dining feast at this final stop. Tucked in the starry heavens overhead was a sky filled with centuries of history that will forever beckon me back. I can remember standing out in the open air and walking back to the car thinking about my infinitesimal place in the world and the deep connection I felt to the desert.

Bell’s legacy as a gentlewoman of the desert –  a Khatun in the Arab culture – is wrapped in that same dark sky that I see when I look up at the night wherever I am. It’s a place where her legacy as a queen of the desert lives forever.

Bell wrote a series of letters collected into a number of publications that I hope to read one day. They can be found in the New York City Public Library or one of the many libraries around the world that house copies of these letters. Her words in the preface of one book, “Amurath to Amurath”, remind us of our place in the world:  “We wither away but they wane not, the stars that above us rise; the mountains remain after us, and the strong towers when we are gone.”

Note: You can read more about Gertrude Bell in, Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia

 

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