netflix

Cuba and the Cameraman

cuba.jpg

4.5 out of 5 stars

What better way to kick off the new year than watching a Netflix original documentary, Cuba and the Cameraman?

In short, it's amazing. This guy, Jon Alpert, decided to follow the narratives of 3 human stories for nearly 5 decades. Writer. Director. Actor. And while it's no Hollywood cinematography but a guy with a 50-pound camera in hand who may very well have used Windows Media Player to stitch up the film, it just works. It's raw, authentic, and old-school simple. Throw in 50 years of footage with Fidel Castro revealing his bare chest on camera, and it's almost Oscar-worthy material.

There's just so much amazing in this movie. You literally see a 20 something guy turn into a 60 something guy by the end of the movie. Young Fidel to Old Fidel. The rise and fall of socialist Cuba. 

Moreover, it's a story about the human condition. People striving for better lives. Happiness. There's a woman that Alpert tracks down after first photographing her as a little girl. And then there's Luis, a slum resident who ends up in prison, but later finds success with hard work and determination. And possibly the fan favorites? The Borrego brothers—Cristobal, Gregorio, and Angel—old-time farmers with gregarious laughs that make anyone smile upon seeing them on screen. It's happy and sad and then happy again story with these brothers. But it's heartwarming to see the happiness embodied in these 3-old farmers. It's how I'd like to go down. 

cubadavid.jpg

The film ends in late 2016 right after Fidel's death, which is around the time I visited as well. I also witnessed much of Cuba's angst, joy, and uncertain future during my time there and perhaps that's why the film resonated with me. But the film depicts the essence of the human condition, which relates to all from the West to the far East.

Why we need intuition more than ever

Innsæi — Icelandic for Intuition

Innsæi — Icelandic for Intuition

Intuition has been a big buzzword for me in 2017. From my Myers-Briggs assessment to a societal battle with information overload, how do we balance our lives in the age of digital? It came up again as Netflix recommended me to watch Innsæi (how ironic it is that a Netflix algorithm seems to have replaced my intuitive decision making), a documentary focused on the art of connecting in a world clouded in distraction, stress, and disconnection.

“Innsæi” is the ancient Icelandic word for intuition, and the film pinpoints how distracted we now are with limitless information. To the point where we've lost touch with our human intuition. But what makes intuition important?

moma.png

In the documentary, Marina Abramović is showcased for her 3-month performance of just sitting and staring in NYC's MoMa. Why? Well, the act of connecting with another human being seems to be a lost art. The act seemed to have affected many (it was like a therapy session)...when was the last time you had someone stare into your eyes and connect on a human-to-human level?

 

"My intuition made me work...For it is intuition that improves the world, not just following the trodden path of thought." - Albert Einstein

 

In an age where data and logic play a central role on the grand stage, what kind of role does intuition play? Can we rely solely on data? Well if you think about it, intuition is the awareness that combines both qualitative and quantitative data and gets stronger with the more experiences you obtain. You need data points to connect the dots. And that gut feeling? Intuition is the sister of the gut feeling. It's the bridge between the dots and helps you make a more thoughtful decision.

So why do we need intuition? Well, it's how we've come to survive the past million years, and it'll help us survive the next million.

Preventing Human Elephant Conflict

Update (11/11/17)

It's been over 2 years since I first came into contact with human-elephant conflict in Zambia...and watching Netflix's The Ivory Game (Leonardo DiCaprio) last night just brought back me. And it's great to see the progress that's been made...with China announcing it will shut down its ivory market by the end of 2017.

It felt like yesterday when Sandy saved me from walking into a herd of elephants at night, and that was the start of my appreciation and love for elephants. While I grew up 3 blocks from the San Francisco zoo, it's something else when you see these gigantic mammals roaming in the wild. The last of the dinosaurs. 

And it really is sad to hear that there are only around 350,000 elephants left in Africa (compared with 10 million in 1900) with an annual decline of 27,000...which means that the extinction of the elephant may be possible during our lifetimes.

What many don't know is that human-elephant conflict in villages catalyzes poaching. As long as villagers continue growing up thinking elephants are the enemy, poaching is going to be accepted. There was a scene in the documentary where elephants were raiding a village (for food) at night, and the ravenous, weapon-wielding villagers gathered shouting:

"Today, this elephant, we will kill!"

Luckily, these animals were saved by the crew. The most viable solution right now is electric fences, but that is extremely costly. It will continue to be a long fight to come...but a much needed one. 


(May 2015)

Issue: 

In Africa, human populations are growing faster than elephant populations, leading to degradation of elephant habitats and increased conflict between elephants and small scale farmers. Elephants are being squeezed into smaller and smaller habitats, while farmers continue to plant crops that elephants like to eat. As a result, elephants have raided and destroyed 100% of the harvests for many subsistence farmers while contributing to increased violence between humans and elephants.

 

Why it matters?

Solving the issue between human elephant conflict can contribute to a resurgence of the African economy by increasing value in agricultural crop yields, while mitigating potential violent encounters between humans and elephants. And because elephants are vital to the ecological landscape, a solution can also yield environmental and wildlife benefits.

 

Background 

Sandy Simpson's electric fences have improved the lives of thousands of Zambians by eliminating conflict between humans and elephants.

When Sandy Simpson read a National Geographic article in the early 2000s that stated the animal population had been decimated by 90% in the past century, he packed his bags, sold his business in Europe, and moved back to his hometown in Kenya to work in animal conservation. 

For the last 2 years, he’s been working to solve the human elephant conflict in Zambia with his NGO, Green Rural African Development (GRAD). If you zoom into where rural African villages are located on Google Earth, you will find that many villages are located on or near the premises of a national park or in other words, humans and animals cohabit. This has resulted in years and years of conflict between humans and elephants, a problem that remains unresolved.

Zambian Wildlife Authority’s (ZAWA) response to this problem? Issue fireworks to local farmers to scare away the elephants. However, this created another set of problems – fireworks were dangerous and only a temporary fix. Thus, Mr. Simpson thought the best solution was prevention. His first project involved a local farmer, Robby, whose farm had been devastated by elephants for the past 10 years, leading to starvation and his family’s departure from farming in Livingstone, leaving him to solely end to the farm. Mr. Simpson started with simple string and reflective tape surrounding Robby’s farm, which provided instant results – elephants saw the reflective tape and string at night and immediately turned back. This is Robby’s story…


Robby’s Story          

Robby (left) and his uncle in front of their new banana tree

Robby’s family started a career in farming 30 years ago in Maloni Village, a community of 6,000 people within Livingstone. The first 10 years proved to be successful with limited conflict between humans and animals – the harvests were successful. Then, the elephants started coming. And for the next 20 years, they raided and destroyed the village crops every night. The maize. The okra. The tomatoes. Everything was gone even before the harvesting season began, forcing farmers to harvest long before crops were ripe for picking.

As a result, Robby’s family and most farmers in Maloni Village, never had a successful harvest in the past 20 years. And because most of these farmers are subsistence farmers, lack of crops also meant starvation at times. Zambian Wildlife Authority (ZAWA) could only do so much as to provide fireworks to scare off the elephants. However, according to Robby, fireworks never solved the problem and only scared off the elephants temporarily. In fact, fireworks were extremely dangerous. Robby’s brother attempt to scare off the elephants one night with fireworks was disastrous – the fireworks blew up in his hand and caused serious injury. In addition, elephants entering human settlement has also caused for serious danger stemming from human elephant conflict. While elephants are peaceful animals at heart, when taunted to an extent, they can become violent and have caused serious injuries and even human deaths.

 This forced Robby’s family to abandon the farming business 7 years ago to find greener pastures elsewhere, leaving Robby to independently take over the farm. He continued to struggle until 2014, when Green Rural African Development (GRAD) Founder, Sandy Simpson, decided the best solution was the prevention of human elephant encounters. Mr. Simpson decided to fence off Robby’s farm with string and lights, which produced immediate results as elephants saw the tape at night as a warning sign. While effective, there was still a big problem – villagers continued to steal the lights. Thus, Mr. Simpson decided it was most effective to install an electric fence system around Maloni Village to block out the elephants. The results were effective and incredible. Elephants would come at night but stop at the sight of the reflector tape and electric fence. So far in 2015, there have been no human elephant encounters in Maloni Village.

 With the elephants gone, Robby’s family decided to move back into the farm. And with newfound confidence, they decided to expand the farm to include a chicken house, pig house, and new varieties of crops. Previously, they had only focused on maize, acra, and tomato. However, they have now expanded to include eggplants, bananas, guavas, and sunflower to name a few. Robbie says the market demand is there but the supply is not, so they even have plans to acquire new farmland to meet the demand. In addition to feeding their family, they are now selling their crops in the village market and town, generating revenues of over $150 per month (vs. $0 same period last year). With newfound confidence now that their crops are safe from elephants, they have a target of $550 per month by year-end.

 

Why Is It Important?

Her house was constantly under attack by elephants due to her mango trees. With Mr. Simpson's help, she no longer has to worry about elephants raiding her crops.

Her house was constantly under attack by elephants due to her mango trees. With Mr. Simpson's help, she no longer has to worry about elephants raiding her crops.

Mr. Simpson’s work in human elephant conflict has directly and indirectly helped and benefitted thousands of people in Livingstone. Subsistence farmers are now not only able to feed and support their families but create a living off selling their crops, resulting in a boost to the local economy.  

Who else benefits? Large supermarkets no longer have to import vegetables and fruits from hundreds of miles away, potentially saving them thousands of dollars in transportation costs – they can now buy directly from the local farmers for a cheaper price in addition to fresher produce. Buying locally also mitigates the risk of potential losses or lag time from transportation. Locals and tourists also benefit – supermarkets may pass on the savings in lower produce costs and fresher produce. Finally, a reduction in human elephant conflict means less potential violence, which may lead to a revival of the elephant population stemming from a better relationship amongst humans and elephants.

 

What are the Challenges?

Mr. Simpson is currently a one-man team with the help of several volunteers. While human elephant conflict is a major problem in Africa, efforts to resolve the problem are minimal; Mr. Simpson is currently the only known person in Africa fully dedicated at resolving the problem.

“It’s a very simple solution, anyone can do this. But we need money and support.” 

Mr. Simpson has been currently funding the project with his personal savings, having spent over an estimated $250,000 in personal savings in the past several years. What are the costs? It takes an estimated $1,000 per kilometer of electric fence. Take into account the thousands of kilometers surrounding conflict farms, and you will get an amount surpassing the millions.

 

Final Thoughts

The problem between humans and elephants in Africa is clear and a big one. However, it is a big problem with a simple solution. While educating the public about the importance of ecological sustainability is a much bigger issue, a practical and implementable solution right now is prevention as there is no barrier separating elephants and farms. One risk is the possibility of snaring, but it is trivial in the overarching problem between humans and elephants. Furthermore, electric fence voltage is only high enough to shock the elephants from entering and is not lethal; elephants are also trained to steer away from fences.

Solutions in Africa have to be simple. Mr. Simpson has proved this to be true and has effectively improved the lives of thousands of people in Zambia. He has plans to develop additional preventative measures, such as buzzing infrasound devices on the fences (elephants hate bees). But he needs money and more importantly, support. This is a problem that affects thousands of farmers directly and millions of people indirectly. The perfect solution may not exist but the best solution at the moment is prevention.

If you would like to find out more about Mr. Simpson and GRAD’s efforts, please visit www.gradinternational.org

Netflix's Abstract and the Power of Photography

Platon

You’re looking for a moment when you feel you’re as close to the soul as possible. That’s what good design is, when it liberates you, and it allows you to do that, to help you feel something very powerful.
— Platon

Who would've thought binge-watching Netflix on a Saturday night could produce enough dopamine and creativity for me to write a blog post at the late hour of 10PM? But that's what happened after watching two episodes of Netflix's new documentary series, Abstract.

Especially inspiring was the episode documenting the illustrious photographer and storyteller - Platon. It struck a chord that reinvigorated my creative juices because his portraits evoke such strong emotions that you feel like you are right there in the studio with them. What's especially powerful is his sense of purpose in his photographic element...by starting with empathy, he's able to put himself adjacent with the subject's soul as a means to build a bridge to connect the world.

I truly believe in the power of photography. 1/500th of a second has the power to induce empathy in people to break down preconceived stereotypes. The camera acts as a bridge to turn strangers into friends. And it's because of my own personal experiences that I can truly confirm the power of photography.

Many times in my life, I was invited into a stranger's life simply by having a camera dangling from my neck. From rural Africa to exotic Asia, the camera was my best friend when I had none. It was the friend that introduced me to new friends in new territories. It gave me the confidence to break out of my shell to allow a stranger from a foreign land into my own personal comfort zone and through that, it changed my entire perspective on life.

In an age of excessive selfies and Photoshop, one cannot forget that a true picture remains one of the most powerful forms of design, one that still holds the enormous power to change the world.