Film Reviews
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The Blackfish Backlash


The documentary is negatively impacting ticket sales at SeaWorld.

We recently explained the Participant Index, a ratings scale for documentaries that measures the impact films have on viewers’ lives. One documentary that would likely generate a high score on that Index is Blackfish which chronicles the captivity and training of orcas, detailing incidents of trainer deaths and the shortened lifespans of the whales, specifically at SeaWorld. It premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and has since aired on CNN.

The film’s after-effects are now being felt in the pockets of SeaWorld investors as shares have dropped a substantial 33 percent this quarter. Initially the company denied the film’s influence on its revenues, attributing it to competition from other amusement parks, but it has now acknowledged the documentary’s impact on their ticket sales.

Blackfish has prompted the introduction of legislation including the Orca Welfare Safety Act which would outlaw the use of whales and dolphins for entertainment purposes, if passed in California. Additionally publicity from the film led to a petition pressuring Southwest Airlines to terminate its partnership with SeaWorld. A recent statement announced the end of their collaboration although it did not specifically cite the petition. Southwest’s three SeaWorld themed planes will be repainted. Backlash has also been felt on social media as thousands of tweets were sent out during the CNN debut. SeaWorld responded by calling the film “propaganda.” Since then, users have continued to tweet to SeaWorld, employing hashtags like #emptythetanks and even creating memes. So far it's clear that the film has resonated strongly with people, however its impact on the lives of the whales remains to be seen.

Photo by Stig Nygaard, licensed under Creative Commons.

Coexistence in Berlin


The House of One will provide a space for prayer and dialogue between the world's religions.

Many of the world’s disagreements and conflicts can be attributed to religion. But in Berlin, one site’s construction is hoping to create a bridge of understanding and dialogue between different faiths. The idea for the House of One began in 2009 when St. Peter’s Church was undergoing excavation after having been destroyed during WWII. The Protestant community recognized that there was not enough need for another church while also noticing the lack of spaces for local Jews and Muslims. A collaboration between a pastor, a rabbi, and an imam put into motion the tri-faith place of worship. Markus Dröge a Protestant bishop commented, “We can see all over the world that faith can divide people. We want to show that faith doesn't divide Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but instead reconciles them.”

A competition for the design of the building was opened in 2012. Architect Wilfried Kuehn, won with his plan for separate rooms for each religion and a central area connecting the spaces. Each of the three rooms are the same size but feature different elements like an organ in the church and a foot washing area in the mosque. Kuehn notes, “What's interesting is that when you go back a long time, they share a lot of architectural typologies. They are not so different." A crowdfunding campaign is hoping to raise the $13.5 million needed for the basic version of the building to be constructed. The final version is expected to cost $58.6 million.

While the House of One is certainly a unique project in its intentions and scope, it’s not the only site where religions cohabitate. Religious communities have been known to share their buildings with others, especially since they may pray on different days or at different times. Additionally, public places like airports and university campuses often house spaces for multiple faiths under the same roof.

Photo by zeevveez, licensed under Creative Commons.

Mindful Mapping


New mapping projects bring the human touch to getting directions.

Tools like GPS have made getting from point A to point B easier and quicker. But efficiency isn’t always the most gratifying. That’s why a team of researchers in Europe are mapping out pedestrian routes that are more enjoyable, reports Randy Rieland for Smithsonian Magazine

The researches uploaded images of London taken from Google Street View and Geograph to UrbanGems where they crowdsourced reactions to come up with a “beauty score” of various spots. Using an algorithm, they were able to create directions using the better scoring places and found that the directions were only about 12 percent longer in length than the most efficient route. To double check their initial findings, the researchers turned to Flickr where they found that the locations they had included in the map had received more positive comments and were featured more often. In the U.S., the only city that they have mapped out so far is Boston, but the researchers are planning on expanding the project to many other cities.

Another idea that brings more consciousness to mapping is an app called Mapkin which is also using crowdsourcing to gather data. Users can submit references about landmarks and places that the app company then reviews and incorporates in their GPS directions if they like it. Marc Regan, co-founder of Mapkin commented, "GPS navigation does one thing extremely well, which is getting you to the destination as fast as possible. But what if you want to point out the great coffee shop on the way or know about the most scenic route for a bike ride?"

Photo by Nick Page, licensed under Creative Commons.

Approaches to Prevent Poaching


A number of efforts are being aimed at saving Africa's animals.

The outlook for many of Africa’s grand animals is bleak. There are only 26,000 rhinos left, the majority of which live in South Africa where one dies every seven hours; in Gabon forest elephants are dying at a rate of 9 percent of the population per year. A major cause of this is poaching, an industry in which incentives are lucrative—rhino horns can bring in $65,000 per kilo (equivalent to 2.2 pounds). However advocates are addressing this problem from a number of different angles.

In an effort to save rhinos, Rhinos Without Borders is planning to relocate 100 animals from Kruger National Park in South Africa to Botswana, which has the lowest poaching rate on the continent. The organization is identifying rhinos suited for the January 2015 move, finding areas within Botswana to bring them to, and raising necessary funds (each rhino will cost about $45,000 to relocate).

Officials from Namibia, Tanzania, and Togo are looking for high-tech ways to track poachers and prevent harm to animals. They have requested help from the U.S. in the form of light attack helicopters, night-vision goggles, and infrared scanners. Another suggestion is to coordinate cooperation between countries. Not only do animals often cross borders which can complicate matters, but countries such as Botswana have developed effective policies that can serve as a model. Additionally, the demand side, which largely falls in China, needs to be mitigated.

Photo by Thomas Hawk, licensed under Creative Commons.

The People’s Climate March


Preparations are underway for what is expected to be the largest climate march the world has yet seen.

This September, the United Nations will be meeting to engage in climate negotiations. Delegates to the summit will be met by what is being deemed the “largest climate march in history,” to take place on September 21st in New York City. The call was originally raised by Bill McKibben in May who wrote that the event is, “An invitation to anyone who'd like to prove to themselves, and to their children, that they give a damn about the biggest crisis our civilization has ever faced.”

Since then, over 550 environmental, religious, and labor organizations have signed on as participants as have individuals such as Jill Stein and Vandana Shiva. Activists hope that linking climate change to issues such as racism and the economy will result in diversity and inclusivity. The event is being planned using a participatory, open-source framework and organizers are working on solidifying actions and teach-ins that will further activate people to get involved. In doing so, they hope that a large yet collective group of voices will be heard and that real political action will be taken to curb damage to the air, land, and oceans. Some ideas to realize this include boosting initiatives that support renewable energy and public transportation, fossil fuel divestment, continued pressure to block the Keystone XL pipeline, and supporting climate-friendly farming.      

Currently transportation and accommodation logistics are being set up so that people from coast to coast can attend. Local protests are also being planned. Stay tuned to Utne Reader as we’ll be on hand for the hopefully-historic NYC march.

Photo by Light Brigading, licensed under Creative Commons.

It’s a Sign


An art project collecting signs from homeless people raises awareness.

Willie Baronet has been collecting signs made by homeless people for over two decades and the purpose has evolved over the years. Baronet said, “When I first started doing this, it came out of my discomfort out of seeing people who are homeless …  It shed a light on the fact that I made up stories about the homeless in my head, without knowing one thing about them.” In making conversation with homeless people and negotiating the exchange of the signs (for an average of $10.50 per sign) he became more comfortable and learned many people’s stories. Eventually he used the signs for flashmobs in which volunteers held up the signs at intersections in order to raise awareness of homelessness and the many factors which cause it. As an MFA student he also organized a show called ‘Home?’ that featured the signs and an examination of the meaning of home

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Now Baronet is on the road, spending a month buying the signs of homeless people from Seattle to New York City. He wants to see what variations exist in the signs and experiences of the homeless across the country. In Dallas, where Baronet lives, he’s already noticed that the signs are smaller than those in Austin, where panhandling ordinances are more lenient. As an artist, it’s also interesting to Baronet to consider the various designs of the signs. He often wondersabout the choices made by each person in the way they wrote, the size and legibility of the letters, the words they decided mattered enough to be on the signs. And occasionally the drawings, the humor, the typos.” The month-long journey will eventually be made into a book and a documentary.

Photo by Curtis Cronn, licensed under Creative Commons.

A Dangerous Diet


A slightly extreme campaign wants to bring attention to the plight of refugees.

How can we get people to notice and care about issues that are thousands of miles away? The 850 Calorie Challenge wants to bring it closer to home, all the way to your dinner plate. The background is this: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Programme have had to cut food rations for almost 800,000 refugees due to lack of funding and donations. The premise of the campaign is this: try to live on 850 calories, the amount of food that some refugees are now receiving, even for just a day.

The reduced rations are affecting refugees in Chad, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, and South Sudan among other sub-Saharan Africa countries. The consequences for refugees, many of whom are already undernourished, can go beyond hunger and feed into “negative coping strategies” which include early marriage, domestic violence, and prostitution. António Guterres heads the UNHCR and said, "The number of crises around the world is far outpacing the level of funding for humanitarian operations, and vulnerable refugees in critical operations are falling through the cracks. It is unacceptable in today's world of plenty for refugees to face chronic hunger or that their children drop out of school to help families survive."

The 850 Calorie Challenge hopes to increase awareness and involvement on the issue. By thinking about our food intake, the campaign is aiming to expand our empathy so that it reaches back across those thousands of miles and ultimately can make a difference. 

Photo by UNAMID, licensed under Creative Commons.

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