Recommendation Dump, April 2017

It’s been a while since I did one of these, huh? Well, I’ve got some stuff to recommend, so I’m doing another one—here we go!

Democrats — Democrats is a documentary detailing the creation a new Zimbabwean constitution from 2009-2013, and especially the negotiations between the chief negotiators for the incumbent and the opposition party—Paul Mangwana and Douglas Mwonzora respectively. The film is phenomenal.

The documentary is presented with little editorializing, no retrospective interviews, and only occasional clips from news broadcasts to provide summary. The meat of it is incredibly candid interactions between party members and footage of the actual negotiation process. When I say incredibly candid, I mean that at one point Mangwana and another party official are openly talking about the fact that ZANU-PF—their party, the party of President Mugabe—has been bussing in party supporters to local meetings that they shouldn’t be a part of. The two are laughing, the official saying, “We can’t control that,” and Mangwana saying, “No, that’s ZANU-PF at work.”

So this would be enough, right here—it’s a fascinating, tense moment in Zimbabwe, the documentary gives an inside look at the struggle to draft a new constitution, starting with local hearings to determine the wishes of the Zimbabwean people, all the way through to the signing of the document. But what starts to unfold throughout the film, and what really hooked me, and the reason I’m practically drooling as I type this, is the relationship between Mwonzora and Mangwana, and especially the complexity of Mangwana’s situation. At first glance Mangwana seems to be a sleazy, smug politician—especially being associated with Mugabe, the authoritarian president of Zimbabwe who’s been in power since 1987. Members of ZANU-PF, Mangwana included, are constantly laughing about their own misconduct, and seem to not take the drafting of the new constitution seriously. But once it becomes clear that ZANU-PF and MDC-T (the opposition) are on even footing in this process, we start to see more sides of Mangwana. In one scene he confides in Mwonzora that he told members of his party to not try and disrupt the hearing process, that it’s “not necessary.” Later, he says to the camera, “The system is armed. The system has prisons. And what do you have? Your bare hands? Your legal knowledge? I’m in the system and I know how lethal it is. And you can’t fight it. You’re kidding yourself.” He doesn’t say it boastfully, but matter-of-factly, maybe dejectedly. The film is full of moments like this, where you realize what a complicated position Mangwana is in, caught between his own party wanting everything to stay the same, and the demands of the country that some progress be made.

Equally fascinating is the relationship between Mwonzora and Mangwana. It seems that in a lot of documentaries, the opposing forces never actually meet—or if they do, it’s undocumented—so the conflict and compromise is abstract. They only engage with each other in an ideological way, not in a real dialogue. However, this is not the case in Democrats. From the beginning, there are scenes of Mwonzora and Mangwana sitting in on hearings, making passive aggressive jokes to one another. By the end, they seem like old friends, simply by the fact that the two of them survived this high-pressure ordeal of putting together a constitution. It’s certainly not saccharine, but there is an undeniable, compelling connection between the two.

It’s on Netflix, so if you have an account, you should absolutely watch it. If you don’t, there’s nowhere else (that’s legal) to watch it, so you should get a free Netflix trial to watch it. It’s worth it.

Skate Hooligans — Skate Hooligans is an HTML5 3D runner game. You play as a skateboarder going the wrong way down a three-lane, one-way street, jumping cars, sliding under barricades, hopping from the roof of one semi-truck to another. The art style is bright and cartoony, almost like it’s all part of a toy set. Although the jump control is a bit unresponsive at times, overall the game nails the sense of flow that is essential to an endless runners. For the past few weeks, whenever I want to listen to some music or a podcast and just zone out, I’ve gone to Skate Hooligans. Currently it’s only got one area, but more areas will be added later. Regardless, the endless movement and recombination of the same obstacles in new ways strikes the perfect balance of challenge and mindlessness, and I’m sure I’ll get a lot more mileage out of just the first area before I get tired of it.

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The game also does a good job of incorporating ads—the first time you die on a run, you get the opportunity to continue if you watch a 15-30 second ad. When you die the second time, you get the chance to double the gold you got if you view an ad. So you can ignore the ads, or use them to your advantage.

“Women’s Health and the Environment: Going Up in Smoke” by H.S. Udaykumar and Jerry Anthony — This was a lecture I attended, hosted by the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council. ICFRC hosts a ton of great lectures, and I’d actually recommend almost any of them, all available to watch online or download the audio of here—but this lecture was especially excellent.

Almost instantly, I was captivated. Udaykumar opened by explaining that, 10,000 women die every day due to inhaling smoke from wood fire stoves—4 million a year. Not only are these types of stoves, prevalent in rural India, a health hazard, they also cause forest degradation and global warming because of all the wood they consume. The reason this so grabbed my attention is that it was an issue that I’d had no idea about, and which seemed like a pretty big deal. But I became even more captivated when Udaykumar and Anthony started talking about their failed solution to the problem. The two, as well as several UI professors, have been doing multidisciplinary research into developing less hazardous, more environmentally friendly stoves for these women. Their first attempt was to use solar cookers. The failure came because the women didn’t use them—the solar cookers had to be operated in the middle of the day, though cooking is usually done in the morning and at night. From this point on, while Udaykumar and Anthony continued to give information about the wood-burning stoves and the challenge in replacing them, the lecture became just as much a self-reflective, incredibly honest examination of these kinds of projects.

I was really blown away by how truthful, and systematically challenging, the two were, bringing up questions like, Do we really care about these women? Are wood-burning stoves the biggest challenge to the environment? Are these women actually technology averse, or is that just a convenient narrative? I’ve really never seen anything like this lecture. I’ve seen people talk about these kinds of projects, and I’ve heard people criticize the god complex that people have going into these projects, but I’ve never seen the two things simultaneously. I guess what I find so appealing about the lecture is the clarity of the message. There’s no self-aggrandizement that you might normally find, either from people with a god complex or from people criticizing people with a god complex. There was no moment where it felt like they were putting themselves above anyone. What they emphasized over and over again was that the same issues that these women are facing are the issues that we are facing in the US—they don’t want to adopt cleaner cooking methods for the same reason most Americans don’t want to adopt more energy efficient diets.

It’s the best lecture I’ve ever seen at the ICFRC, and I’m sure I’ll be going back to it for years and years.

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