Wednesday 30 November 2011


Director Luc Besson with Michelle Yeoh.
Photo Magali Bragard
 © 2011 EuropaCorp – Left Bank Pictures – France 2 Cinéma
A poignant film about Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi opened in cinemas across France today. “The Lady”, by French director Luc Besson, comes 20 years after Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize and 12 months after she was released from house arrest. She had spent most of the last 21 years in detention.

With Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh in the lead, the film is a love story as well as a true political account. It focuses on the huge personal sacrifices Suu Kyi has had to make, and especially shows the impact on her husband and her two sons.

Suu Kyi’s husband Michael Aris, played by English actor David Thewlis, was a professor at Oxford, and he supported her tirelessly in her fight against the Burmese regime. But he died of cancer without having seen her for three years because he was repeatedly refused a visa to visit her in Burma (Myanmar).

This is just one aspect of the lesser-known parts of Suu Kyi’s story that Besson has brought to light. The director (The Fifth Element, Yamakasi) sat down with SWAN’s editor Alecia McKenzie to discuss the movie, which was shot in Thailand and London. Below are excerpts from the interview.

The poster for "The Lady"
McKenzie: Why did you make this film?
Besson: When I read the script, I was in tears. I didn’t know the story so well. I knew just a little bit about her, and I was amazed to see that love can bring you so far, and can achieve so many things. We always think that the only way to achieve things is through money, or power or weapons. But actually, a 50-kilo woman by herself can confront 300,000 military people for 30 years and win, in a way. She still needs us, but she is about to win her fight. It’s pretty amazing to see that, and I just want to share that with people, to say: peaceful ways can also be good, and we should remember that.

M: What was the hardest thing for you as a filmmaker with this movie?
B: The hardest thing was to be honest and to not betray her. I have so much love and respect for her, and she’s still alive and she’s still fighting. It’s not the kind of film to show yourself as a director, showing how brilliant you are or anything like that. You really have to be humble and put yourself at the service of the story, not in front all the time. That was the biggest thing – to fight against my own ego, and be more modest, to work in her service.

M: I think that comes across in the film because the focus is really on her and her story …
B: I tried!

M: Do you think this film will contribute to democratic reforms in Burma?
B: I think that a film by itself cannot achieve anything, but working together we can. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the U.N., Hillary Clinton - there are lots of people who have been working for many years, helping her. The tools they have are laws, reports, numbers. But artists can bring in emotion. That’s what we try to contribute. Through emotion, you touch people and when people are touched, they are more aware, they want to know more, and they want to help. So that was our task - to bring a new tool to this big toolbox. We’ve been working on this for two years, but all the others, the real fighters, have been working for 30 years. I’m very proud that Amnesty International has endorsed the film because it shows that it’s a peaceful weapon but it’s one more tool.

Michelle Yeoh as Suu Kyi.
Photo Magali Bragard.
© 2011 EuropaCorp – Left Bank Pictures – France 2 Cinéma
M: Have you met Suu Kyi?
B: I met her after the film was made.

M: You were allowed into Burma?
B: Yes, I have a tourist visa. I don’t know how I got it actually because it was refused a few times. Sometimes they move in strange ways. You never know why they say yes or no.

M: You’ve said she didn’t want to be involved in the film. Tell us more about that.
B:  She does not want to be involved at all. She didn’t read the script and she hasn’t watched the film. We make it clear that it’s my responsibility and she has nothing to do with the film because we don’t want the government at any moment to use the film against her. She was and is aware of the film, but she has no involvement.

M: What was it like working with Michelle Yeoh?
B: A dream. You know when you have the pleasure of working with an actress so devoted … I mean she loves Aung San Suu Kyi, she respects her. And she knew from the beginning that this is the role of her life. She was so focused that I had almost nothing to do, just follow her, because day and night she was living through her. Even every night she was going back to the hotel with a Gandhi book or a Mandela book, and she didn’t get out of her character for almost a year. She made it easy for me.

M: And is this also the  film of your life?
B:  I think it’s a turn. It’s a different type of film, and I’m very proud of it. It’s the type of film that changes you. You can’t be close to this woman and stay the same. She’s just too powerful. I’m sure that it’s the same for people who met Gandhi or who’ve met Mandela. You see life differently after that.

David Thewlis as husband Michael Aris
 Photo Magali Bragard.
© 2011 EuropaCorp – Left Bank Pictures – France 2 Cinéma
M: Looking at your earlier films, would you say that you’re attracted by the story of outsiders, people who fight against conventions?
B: I think I’m attracted by the human story of people like Suu Kyi, when something touches me and can touch everyone. I’m not very specific on things. I try to be a simple movie-goer and when a film hits me, when I’m crying so much, or when I’m excited by it – that’s the one I want to make.

M: There have been several special screenings of “The Lady”. What response have you got from ordinary people and from people in your profession?
B: I think the film is touching for normal people, and they’ve told me so. For professionals, I think they are proud of me in a way because they’ve said it was courageous to do the film. They’ve been very kind. The third reaction has been from the press, and that’s always a little bit more difficult. Some like the film, but some think that it’s their subject and they’re confused because it’s the first time I come onto their field, and I decide to talk about her personal life and the love story, rather than about the political side. Some journalists are disappointed that I’ve talked about “heart” rather than politics. I understand that, but I have nothing to teach people about politics. Just go on the Internet, and everything is there. What I can bring is not news, but I can show that the wall of love in the story is so important. That was what I chose to do, and it disappoints some people who wanted a political film. But it is the press’ role to talk about politics, and it’s my role to talk about emotion.
(© 2011 - SWAN)  

Tuesday 29 November 2011


Designer Tilmann Grawe with his doll
Despite the global economic crisis, top fashion designers such as Giorgio Armani, Prada and Sonia Rykiel have again contributed their time to creating attention-grabbing costumes for rag dolls that will be sold to help fund a vaccination programme in war-ravaged Darfur, Sudan.

Now in its ninth year, the "Frimousses de Créateurs" (Designers’ Dolls) venture is coordinated by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). In 2010, sales of the dolls raised a record 286,500 euros, which enabled UNICEF to vaccinate more than two million children in Darfur against measles.

"I’ve been taking part in this project for five years, and it’s very important to me,” Paris-based designer Tilmann Grawe told SWAN, as he showed off a look-alike orange doll. “The money raised helps to save children’s lives and that’s the reason we’re all involved.”

The designers’ dolls went on public display at the Petit Palais fine arts museum in Paris, France, on Nov. 28, attracting hundreds of viewers on opening night. Grawe, whose designs have been worn by American singer Lady Gaga and Indian actress Aishwarya Rai, turned up covered in glitter to talk about his doll and to pose with it for fashion-lovers and UNICEF-supporters. Other designers also wore eye-catching costumes to complement those of their “frimousses”.

A doll by Prada
The dolls will be exhibited free to the public until Dec. 4, after which a certain number will be sold via online auction until Dec. 12.  Auction house Drouot Montaigne will conduct the final sale on Dec. 13 in Paris.

The most expensive doll sold so far was designed by Chanel and raised 23,000 euros, UNICEF said. That sum contributed to the total of 227,000 euros raised in 2008 - which itself was a nearly six-fold increase from 2003, when the project began.

For the first time this year, the “Frimousses” exhibition also includes rag dolls made by schoolchildren. To help fund vaccinations in other countries besides Sudan, thousands of schoolchildren in France take part in a similar but separate venture. They make rag dolls which adults then buy for 20 euros each.

Last year, these dolls raised 64,000 euros, and the amount is expected to be higher in 2011. The sum is enough for a full cycle of childhood vaccinations, says Valerie Metzger, a UNICEF projects coordinator who started the scheme in France, following a similar venture in Italy known as "Pigotta". 

Metzger (right) and intern Nathalie
Metzger says UNICEF provides the body of the doll, and the children bring in bits of fabric, old clothing and other material to create costumes.

Before they start, they are told about children's rights and some of the problems still facing children worldwide. They learn, for instance, that 50 million children are not registered at birth and that some two million die each year because of lack of essential vaccinations.   (Text and photos: A.M.)

Monday 7 November 2011


Nigerian soprano Omo Bello on stage
“Someone like her comes along every 20 years.”

That’s what one of Omo Bello’s singing teachers said about her when she first heard Bello perform. Since then, the young soprano from Nigeria has been winning prizes and enthralling audiences in Italy, France and other countries.

Bello, 27 years old and based in Paris, won first place in the prestigious Anselmo Colzani international singing competition in Budrio, Italy, earlier this year, in addition to three other prizes in Europe (most importantly first prize in the 2010 Luciano Pavarotti Giovani competition in Vercelli).

Her latest award is the 2011 Cziffra Foundation prize for exceptionally talented young musicians. She will be giving recitals in several French cities throughout November, and recording her first album in 2012.

Bello stands out not only for the purity of her voice but for the “naturalness” of her stage presence. She makes audiences believe in the joy, sadness, confusion or whatever other emotion her character is portraying, because she herself seems to believe in it. Her facial expressions and hand movements are those of a good actress who makes acting look easy.

During a recent concert at the ornate Châtelet theatre in Paris, the audience seemed delighted as she sang the aria ‘Glitter and be Gay’ from Leonard Bernstein’s opera Candide.

“You always have to go the extra mile to make it seem effortless,” she told SWAN in an interview at a noisy café in northern Paris a few days later. “On stage, you have to let go of yourself, but there’s still a part of you in every role you play.”

Bello was studying cell biology and genetics at the University of Lagos when she was invited to sing at a concert organized by the French cultural centre there. When he heard her, the cultural attaché to Nigeria, Jean-Yves Gillon, felt that her talent had to be nurtured, and he quickly arranged for a scholarship in France, although he later admitted he had little knowledge of opera. Like many others who have heard Bello sing, however, Gillon said he was touched, moved to tears.

“I had to come to France to do auditions to find out if there was a talent, and if I could continue with this,” Bello recalls.   
Bello stands in front of a hip-hop poster in Paris

She didn’t have the “level or technique” to get into the Conservatoire National de Musique et de Danse de Paris (CNSMDP) straight away, but there was no doubt that the voice was there, according to singing teacher Peggy Bouveret.

“When I first met her I could see that there was promise but I wasn’t at all sure she could do it, but she was very brave and she had determination,” Bouveret said. “She did have the beginnings of a voice although it was far away from what she needed for a career. Still, she had promise in every way.”
With this knowledge, Bello decided to embark on her new adventure, but first she wanted to complete her bachelor’s degree in cell biology and genetics. At the end, it all became a bit of a race - she graduated from the University of Lagos on a Friday and travelled to France the following Sunday, back in 2005. 

She began her opera classes at the regional conservatory in Toulouse, and after two years moved to Paris to the Conservatoire National. Her scholarship covered work with singing teacher Bouveret, who is known for developing talent. Bouveret stressed that Bello should try to maintain her natural approach to singing. 

With courses in piano, vocal technique, theatre, dramatic arts and languages (French, Italian, German and Russian) under her belt, Bello graduated from the conservatory last June, giving a 50-minute recital of music by Handel, Schumann, Mozart and other composers as part of the ceremony.

“These past four years have been so intense,” she told SWAN. “Opera is an art form that teaches you immense discipline.”

Asked how she feels when she sings, Bello responded: “Singing does a lot for me. I’m not necessarily a very extroverted person, but singing gives me pleasure, and I want to take pleasure in what I’m doing. God made the human voice into the most complete instrument, and it’s very gratifying.”

Her audiences tend to feel the same way. Paris resident Clarisse Deletre who knows Bello both personally and as a singer says the Nigerian touches people because of her belief in what she does and because of her great will to work.

Deletre’s daughter Cecile, an ethno-musicologist, had met Bello in Nigeria, and the family welcomed Bello into their home when the singer arrived in Paris.

“Omo quickly learned French, which she writes almost faultlessly now, and she got used to the cold, the customs and accepted the difficult life of Parisians who don’t have a lot of money,” Deletre told SWAN.

“She has effectively become a part of the family. We all believed in her from the beginning,” she added.

Deletre’s 85-year-old mother told Bello that one day she would be singing at the MET in New York and that the family would all make the trip to applaud her.

That day hasn’t arrived yet, but Bello did audition for the MET in April. She was told that she needed to do more work, which she says she looks forward to completing.

“The growing process never stops,” Bello says. “The day you stop growing is the day you start sinking.”

Meanwhile, she is “giving back” to Nigeria, where she grew up in a family that listened to classics such as The Sound of Music and to African-American opera star Leontyne Price.

Bello has returned to sing in Abuja each year since 2007 and is lending her support to the construction of a conservatory of music and an opera house. Her parents –an architect and a lawyer – were initially skeptical of her career choice, but they now believe she did the right thing in coming to Europe.

“I was destined for the sciences, and my father (the architect) couldn’t understand this singing business,” Bello laughs. “But you have to do what makes you happy, don’t you?” A.M.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Sunday 6 November 2011


Transnational Poetics: Asian Canadian Women’s Fiction of the 1990s is a scholarly work that aims to determine to what extent the new generation of Asian-Canadian women writers who started publishing in the 1990s feels at ease or at odds with a cultural climate that markets their writing as being exotic. It also examines in what ways they relate to the poetics and politics of their predecessors.
The authors of Transnational Poetics (professors P. Cuder-Domínguez, B. Martín-Lucas, and S. Villegas-López) discuss the work of writers such as Yasmin Ladha, Rachna Mara, Shauna Singh Baldwin, Lydia Kwa, Hiromi Goto and Kerri Sakamoto. They also pay attention to these writers’ contributions to new developments in the field of race and writing in Canada, and to how they challenge dominant conceptions of identity, not only in terms of race and gender, but also of sexual orientation.
Racial identity has in fact been the subject of much scrutiny in Canada in the second half of the twentieth century, particularly in connection with the definition of a national identity. During the 1960s and 1970s Canada severed its last colonial ties with Britain while it engaged in the construction of a coherent national image (flag, anthem, and related symbols) that was distinctive from both their old imperial centre (the United Kingdom) and their powerful neighbour (the United States).
There emerged then the notion of the “Canadian mosaic,” a symbol of inter-ethnic and inter-racial cooperation that gave the lie to the “American melting-pot” by reconciling differences instead of fostering assimilation into a normative white European identity.
 Although the idea of the ‘two founding nations’ has proved extremely resilient and quite impossible to debunk, the mosaic framework was also open to other races and ethnic groups during the 1980s. In that decade, the writing of “visible minorities” in Canada attracted major media and academic attention for the first time. They became central to the project of displaying the pluralist makeup of Canadian society and culture as articulated in the Multiculturalism Act of 1988 and promoted from most cultural institutions.
By the late 1980s, however, critics and writers both expressed reservations about an official policy of multiculturalism that unproblematically celebrated “difference” without undertaking to analyze the unequal access to power that these social groups had. Out of these debates there rises throughout the 1990s a new conceptualization of racial identity that starts by re-examining the very terms used for it, like “visible minority” or “woman of colour.” 
The volume is published by Tsar Publications.: - PC-D 

Thursday 3 November 2011


PARIS - Certain international education and arts programmes will be hurt by the United States' decision to cut funding for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, following  a vote by UNESCO's member states to grant Palestine full membership in the organisation.

Announcing the vote at UNESCO. Photo: A. McKenzie
"The withholding of U.S. dues and other financial contributions – required by U.S. law – will weaken UNESCO’s effectiveness and undermine its ability to build free and open societies,” the agency’s director-general Irina Bokova stated this week.

U.S. funding helps UNESCO to develop and sustain free and competitive media in Iraq, Tunisia and Egypt,” she said. “In Afghanistan, U.S. support is helping UNESCO to teach thousands of police officers to read and write.”

Bokova said that UNESCO literacy programmes in other areas of conflict “give people the critical thinking skills and confidence they need to fight violent extremism”.  She added that UNESCO was also training journalists to cover elections objectively “to sustain the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring”.

The agency has made the safeguarding of cultural heritage a priority in countries such as Egypt and Libya. It also supports a range of international artistic and cultural initiatives, such as World Theatre Day.