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Women, Men, Refugees, UFOs and the CIA: The Places Documentary Can Go at Sheffield Doc Fest 2013

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Sitting down on the bus carrying us out through the stunning Darbyshire countryside to a cavern where we would watch an Opening Night film for the Sheffield Doc Fest, little did I know what the woman sitting next to me would come to represent for me, and for many other women and men. I have been speaking about this woman from Southern India, from a rural Muslim village, ever since, to friends and colleagues in London, to a Muslim woman about to marry outside her faith against the disapproval of her parents, to men who listened as intently as the women. So who is Salma? Her name is also the title of the documentary by Kim Longinotto, a film which succeeds through its intimate detailing of the life and tests that this dignified, extremely strong and present woman lived, and still lives, inside of a culture and a religion which does not fit her soul, heart or body. Salma spoke of how she would love to live in one of the small picturesque, peaceful cottages we passed in the small hamlet, and I smiled as I had been thinking exactly the same thing. It is one of those fantasies many writers have, of endless amounts of time with no worries, in places which seem to call out to the ideas for the blank pages... a place where woman's partner is not made insecure by her act of writing and need to be alone, that Room of One's Own which resonates as much today as it did in Virginia Woolf's day.

Who is Salma? We spoke during that bus ride about growing up in patriarchal, controlling societies, inside of conservative cultures where women and men do not question, but repeat the same patterns. This woman had obviously asked herself many of the same questions other women who challenged authority had asked, but she had begun by doing something about it through writing poetry. This modern-day Emily Dickinson had been locked into a basement room and taken out of school when she reached puberty. Through parental lies, she ended up marrying a man she did not want to marry and then was locked inside the house of her husband's family for twenty years. But her resistance came through her Tamil poetry. She would fill notebooks which she would hide and which her jealous husband would find and throw away. I will not give away her story as I want people to see this film, and to buy her poetry, not only because both are powerful and beautiful, but because if her life has meaning, it is because the name Salma becomes synonymous with more than resistance, but with something so "anti-fragile" that it has uncovered greatness and has thrived even when despair was everywhere around her. She embodies forgiveness, and she emanates wisdom. She painstakingly moves down garbage strewn paths to visit the most humble homes, to try to convince families, the poorest, to keep their daughters in school and not marry them off too young.

I made a friend at Sheffield Doc Fest this year, someone who had the strength of purpose, and presence that I have encountered very few times in my life. One other person with this kind of integrity is Muhammad Yunus. I could imagine Salma collecting a Nobel Peace Prize one day just as Yunus and the women of the Grameen Bank had in 2006. We will be hearing more of her and from her. Salma and the director were accompanied by two bodyguards when the film first came out at this year's Berlin Film festival. The documentary will not be shown in India, though it has been shown to members of Salma's family. As I think of the possible danger for her and her family for revealing such an honest portrait of what so many women live in the world, I am reminded of her desire for peace and calm in that small hamlet in rural England where danger and anger and darkness are far away, back in a place which is both the home which formed Salma, and from which she had to escape through the ink of pens hidden in lavatories, words written on scraps of paper, like a prisoner in a camp. And the words, "Never again" come to mind as I think of the millions of impoverished women imprisoned by a world in which they remain invisible. Salma speaks for all of them.

I was heartened to meet up again with representatives of FilmAid at Sheffield as a few weeks earlier in Cannes, I had learned about this amazing organization at a fundraiser. FilmAid tests the limits of where film can go and what it can do to bettering the human experience. The idea of bringing film, at times lifesaving information via educational videos and documentary, but also pure entertainment, feature films and even cartoons, into refugee camps was the wonderfully wild idea of Caroline Baron. Her pure and calmly quiet strength which came through as she presented FilmAid, and its beginnings at Cannes, made me want to know more. Caroline described how FilmAid came to be during the war in the Balkans when she felt compelled to simply be a bystander as the atrocities took place and refugees suffered, not simply physically, but also mentally. After asking a few well-known film friends, such as Robert de Niro, to help, FilmAid was born.

This week, on June 20th, FilmAid will honor World Refugee Day. I spoke with a former employee of FilmAid in Kenya, present at the Sheffield Doc Fest with the film project "Dadaab Stories," who explained how FilmAid brings films into the camps and changes what is one of the most trying and potentially explosive situations, that of living in a refugee camps in and bordering war zones, and in the heart of the slums, into an uplifting and often magical communal experience of joy, laughter, and most of all, a chance to escape the brutal reality these people endure. He laughed as he recounted that one surprise "hit" was Alvin and the Chipmunks, and such a film might be shown alongside an educational documentary touching on health issues, or educational, or audiovisual attempts to promote peace. But the film project at Sheffield was doing something more serious, it was helping the refugees of the largest refugee camp in the world, Dadaab, in Northern Kenya, recount their lives via video, photography, poetry music and journalism. Some refugees at camps are trained to go on to become journalists and report on their countries' stories from an insider's view. The film can be found online at www.dadaabstories.org

From FilmAid's website about the Dadaab Refugee Camp:

FilmAid's role in this crisis is simple -- and critical. We provide life-saving information.

To the new refugees, who arrive in the overcrowded and overwhelming camp half-starved and collapsed from exhaustion, our films help direct them how to get assistance--how to access food, shelter and medical care, how to take care of infants and children suffering from acute malnutrition, how to access safe drinking water, how to get urgent care for the most vulnerable- - children who have arrived alone, the elderly and disabled, those subjected to rape or other violence on the journey.

But given the rapidly-changing situation, we need to be able to make more films and make them faster. We desperately need new cameras, sound and editing equipment and additional training to get our turnaround time to where it needs to be.

On an entirely different note, what is it with guys, UFOs and the CIA? Does every man secretly harbor the desire to become James Bond or a NSA agent? Possibly no longer as the revelations about data mining and spying on citizens, governments and industries around the world continues to pour out during the G8 meetings taking place in Northern Ireland. In two screenings at Sheffield Doc Fest, "Mirage Man" made by four filmmakers who follow a story (conveniently put forth by the CIA to one of the filmmakers) about disinformation, secretive defense air force testing in the deserts and mountains in New Mexico, UFOs, MK12 and the loss of sanity by a brilliant man, Paul Bennewitz. Bennewitz was fooled by Special Agent Richard Coty into believing that he had indeed discovered highly classified exchanges with UFOs, when in fact what Bennewitz had recorded were secretive defense developments which were to be kept from the Soviets and others at all costs. They literally drove the man insane by promoting his belief, and the belief of many people who attend UFO conferences across the U.S., that UFOs not only exist, but that the government had been communicating with them for decades.

Everything from dead cows with their lymph nodes missing in farmer's fields near Dulce, New Mexico to staged landing sites to sending out signals with misinformation picked up on by Bennewitz and others began to add up to a very strange aura over parts of New Mexico. One of the most disturbing experiments by the government (which may have been linked to testing the lymph nodes of those dead cows) was related to what we now know as fracking, intense pressure to release natural gas deposits, of which there are many in these parts of New Mexico. What the government had been doing in the environs of Dulce in 1967, was exploding an underground nuclear bomb to see if it would release the natural gas. It seems the experiment entitled "Gas Buggy" did not work. The poor dead cows were tested for radiation and aftereffects. The poor human beings living in the area, including those farmers who lost their cows, were never told. (strangely enough another Sheffield Doc fest documentary, "Drill Baby Drill"also deals with ailing cows and fracking in the U.S., made by a Polish filmmaker who investigates as his home country also begins to include fracking as part of their revenue stream). So the disinformation-linked UFO sightings were also linked to this event, just as we today receive the disinformation that massive data collecting is for our own good, and to fight terrorism. The truth behind it all may be as simple as covering up a nuclear explosion or massive failed fracking to release gas deposits, economic warfare.

Along the same lines of men wanting to play James Bond was the film entitled The Secret Life of Uri Geller: Psychic Spy? Vikram Jayanti's documentary about, yes, that spoon-bending guy you might have seen on Johnny Carson years ago, also ties into both the CIA, with which he worked carrying out remote viewing, as well as the oil and gas industry. This time, however, the link to the oil and gas industry was not tied to fracking, but rather to Geller's being awarded Mexican citizenship by the Mexican government for "divining" the locations their offshore oil deposits for PEMEX.

It seems that a group of highly sensitive remote viewers, working for various governments, the U.S. as well as Israel and the former Soviet Union, once financed the study of everything from wiping out radar systems with telepathy to later post-9/11 reactivations of remote viewing teams in the U.S. to try to discover more about terrorist networks. Guess the NSA's data mining wasn't working well enough, they had to add the psychic spies. The often hilarious narcissism of Geller (who also showed up both before and after the screening to answer questions) becomes paranoia as the documentary shows us the many cameras and elaborate technology of the security systems Geller has installed around his home. He tells the camera that he believes in UFOs. He also believes in a magical item given him by John Lennon, a pagoda from a shrine in Japan and his own charisma, which somehow I did not "get". In fact, what really stayed with me from this film was that Geller had gone on the Johnny Carson show in the U.S. and his psychic ability did not work. He later left the U.S. and was more successful with his fame in Britain, where he lives in a large country home, which is, as the director let us know, "Bigger than that of his neighbor's, Jimmy Page" In fact, in the end, what I was left with was less of a fascination with Geller, psychics and the CIA, and more of a distaste of the grandiosity that comes with the belief that somehow someone is actually more gifted and more deserving than the next human being.

Sheffield Doc Fest never ceases to amaze me as I am transported into so many different worlds, so many different realities in such a short period of time. From playing an interactive game about the financial crisis, to watching a documentary in a cave about tragedy on the ice and snow on K2 in Pakistan entitled Summit, the festival was a success. Whether the theme is technology, spying, abuse or endurance, each story always leaves me wanting to see more documentaries, learn more about my world and the fascinating cast of characters who are a cross-section of Humanity itself.

Best Session Title at Sheffield this Year is that of the Performance: "Facebook is like Disco and Twitter is Like Punk"

If you wish to some of what FilmAid is doing visit the following sites: