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Photo: Rosa Furneaux
Haroon Ebrat reaches for his notepad, where he has written down audience requests. The entrepreneurial immigrant runs Afghan Theatre TV, a Farsi-language variety show, out of his garage in suburban California.

I’m impressed how this immigrant from Afghanistan took it on himself to keep his culture alive by broadcasting a variety show from his garage. Many viewers have responded with gratitude.

Jeremy Lybarger writes at Pacific Standard, “Afghan Theatre TV operates out of a soundproof garage 40 miles east of San Francisco. … It’s an unexpected setting for a studio whose Farsi-language variety shows stream online 24 hours a day to more than a million viewers a month, according to the station. But much about Afghan Theatre TV is unexpected, starting with its credo that politics and show business don’t mix. …

” ‘We entertain,’ says Haroon Ebrat, the network’s 66-year-old founding impresario and star. On most afternoons for the last six years, he’s shuffled out to his garage in house slippers to host the live call-in shows that have made him famous, or at least recognizable to the Muslims who mob him, groupie-like, in restaurants, supermarkets, and parking lots across the Bay Area. The calls — 500 an hour, Ebrat says — come from all over: Canada, Germany, Russia, Australia, and many of the dozens of other countries that make up the Afghan diaspora. …

“Afghanistan has been in a quasi-permanent state of war for over three decades, historically exporting more refugees per year than any nation besides Syria. Most Afghans decamp to neighboring Iran or Pakistan, but approximately 124,000 live in America. …

” ‘He has preserved the culture of Afghanistan,’ says Ebrat’s 36-year-old daughter Shabnam, who hosts a call-in show of her own, often accompanied by a local psychic who counsels callers about work and love. Such preservation has come at a cost, both literal and cultural.

“Afghan Theatre TV is a family business, as are many of the more than 3,000 ethnic media outlets. … In between these segments of original programming, the station airs Afghan music videos and concert footage, and on some nights local musicians perform traditional songs like a live house band (hence the soundproofing). Ebrat, a prolific filmmaker, also screens the movies he’s made, which are ultra-low-budget mash-ups of comedy, action, and music starring him and his family.

“The station boasts a handful of Bay Area advertisers — kebab shops, halal supermarkets, Muslim-owned tax services — but Ebrat relies on his children to keep the lights on. (Shabnam is a real estate agent; [older brother] Burhan works with cars.) …

“Ethnic media, produced by and for immigrants, faces unique challenges. The relatively small niche audiences, for example, can discourage advertisers. … Even large outlets struggle to survive. Channel 18, a multilingual network that broadcast out of Los Angeles for more than 40 years, filed for bankruptcy in 2012 before finally shuttering its international format in 2017. …

“Part [the] experience includes reckoning with cultural disagreements within the same family. Shabnam Ebrat has become a target for older or more traditional Muslims who see her appearance — dyed-blond hair and make-up — as an affront to God. She doesn’t wear a hijab either. On Instagram, where her selfies reach about 23,000 followers, commenters debate whether or not she’s going to hell for posing in miniskirts and bikinis. …

“There’s the added stigma of being outspoken in a society that, to many Western onlookers, muzzles women. In Afghanistan, some women have no public identity of their own. They’re referred to simply as the wife of, daughter of, or sister of. …

“Overall, though, politics are absent from Afghan Theatre TV, where the maxim is that entertainment brings people together and politics drive a wedge. Haroon is more interested in the zombie horror movie he has in production than he is in discussing the White House. His only stated political aspiration, however vague, is to restore peace in Afghanistan.” More.

Seems like a good idea to stick to entertainment. One thing I’ve noticed while working with Afghan refugees, whether their first language is Farsi or Dari, is that individuals are, well, individualistic. Like groups everywhere, Afghans may have attitudes that diverge a good bit.

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In Tanzania, women farmers appearing on a TV show called in English “Female Food Heroes” are bringing attention to the importance of their work and the barriers to expansion.

Oxfam America reporter Coco McCabe writes about contestant Edna Kiogwe, “She grew up in a farming family and knows well the hurdles they face, especially women farmers who, in her country, own only a small fraction of the land. …

“It’s that inequality — and the lost opportunities buried beneath it — to which Kiogwe and 14 other women farmers helped to bring attention this year as contestants in the fifth season of a highly popular reality TV show shot in Tanzania and aired across East Africa. Called Mama ‘Shujaa wa Chakula ,’ or ‘Female Food Heroes,’ the Oxfam-sponsored show celebrates the vital contributions women farmers make in feeding the planet, and highlights the challenges many encounter on a daily basis, including limited access to land, credit, and training opportunities. …

“In the village of Kisanga, where ‘Mama Shujaa wa Chakula’ was filmed [in 2015], the 15 contestants learned a great deal about the struggles local farmers face in feeding their families. Each of the women stayed with a village family for the duration of the three-week shoot, and daily contests included designing tools that could be useful to Kisanga farmers, interviewing them about their agricultural challenges, and putting together skits to help bring attention to those hurdles. …

“Kiogwe [now] spends most of her time in Dar es Salaam, a coastal city about a two-and-a-half hour drive away, where she lives and works as a civil servant. But her city life belies her village roots — and her keen interest in farming. Unlike most women in Tanzania, Kiogwe owns her own land, given to her by her forward-thinking father on her wedding day. She harvests corn, cassava, rice, and sugar cane, carefully aligning her 28 days of annual leave from her city job with peak work times on her small farm in the Morogoro region. …

“ ‘I want to make agriculture like a business,’ says Kiogwe. … With a little effort, greater value can be added to the fruits farmers grow, for instance.

“ ‘Change it from fruit to juice, we can sell it … We can add value to maize — maize flour for porridge — and you can have a good label and good packaging and compete with international businesses. That is my dream.’ ” More here.

According to OXFAMCloseup, the nonprofit’s quarterly magazine, the episodes shot in Kisanga, Tanzania, aired in five countries and had 14 million people tune in. The magazine adds, “Versions of the program are now being produced in Ethiopia and Nigeria, and some finalists have become involved in local, national, and even global farmer advocacy.”

Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America
Edna Kiogwe helps her host family with the morning chores in Kisanga, where the TV show “Female Food Heroes” was filmed in 2015.

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When I was growing up in Rockland County, New York, my parents liked to buy art from artist friends and, when possible, offer other kinds of support. They hired the Hungarian-American artist André Dugo, for example, to paint a portrait of my brother Bo and me sitting in an armchair and reading one of the artist’s children’s books. We often read his book Pete the Crow or the books featuring a cardinal and a blue jay, or the one about the calf that ate the wrong kind of grass and puffed up like a balloon.

One day, Mr. Dugo came to our house to watch television with us. (We had one of the first TVs because my father was writing a story on Dumont for Fortune magazine.) We kept asking Mr. Dugo what he would like to see, and he kept saying he just wanted to see whatever we ordinarily watched.

As we worked our way through several programs, Mr. Dugo noted our reactions, sometimes asking questions.

Not many months after, a children’s book came out. It was called Tom’s Magic TV, and its premise was that a boy traveled through the TV screen and into adventures with sharks, circus clowns, puppets, cowboys and spacemen. Bo and I were not mentioned. The mother didn’t look like my mother. This was an early exposure to children’s-literature research — or poetic license.

I’m pretty sure that Gene Autry was the model for the cowboy adventure.

030916-Toms-Magic-TV-Dugo

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Even if, like me, you never got into the TV show “The Wire,” you may know that it was about a troubled section of Baltimore. You also may be interested in a new school there, intended to serve as a real community gathering place.

New York Times design critic Michael Kimmelman has the story.

“In many ways, public schools are gated communities, dead zones,” writes Kimmelman. “They’re shuttered after dark and during the summer, open to parents and students while in session but not to the larger community.

“A new public school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in East Baltimore wants to challenge the blueprint. Designed by Rob Rogers, of Rogers Partners in New York, Henderson-Hopkins, as it’s called, aspires to be a campus for the whole area — with a community center, library, auditorium and gym — as well as a hub for economic renewal.

“This is the neighborhood where parts of ‘The Wire’ were filmed. In 2000, when the city’s mayor convened local business leaders, the vacancy rate was 70 percent. Poverty was twice the city average. Crime, infant mortality and unemployment were all through the roof.

“The idea that emerged — of making the school the centerpiece of a major redevelopment project — is a grand urban experiment. Operated by Johns Hopkins University in collaboration with Morgan State University, the school, which opened in January, belongs to a $1.8 billion plan that also includes new science and technology buildings, a park, retail development and mixed-income housing. While gentrification might threaten to displace the poor, the school is to be the glue that helps bind the district together.” Read more here.

Photo: Matt Roth for The New York Times
Henderson-Hopkins, which shares its library, gym, auditorium, and other features with the surrounding area, is designed to catalyze change in a blighted section of Baltimore.
 

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I have always loved theater, and even when I have been in a play and felt stage fright, I have been able to make it work as a springboard for the lines I have to say. But when I have to do a presentation as myself and not a character, I freeze up.

Which is why I keep taking classes in how to give presentations, to no avail. But the class that I took last week may finally help me. And I think the secret of it was that the instructor, though an experienced corporate coach and adviser, is also a practicing actor and playwright.

He was very good at paring down the words participants wanted to use and helping choose the most effective ones. And his ideas about how to make an entrance, how to stand, natural gestures to use, tone of voice, and eye contact seemed to have roots in the stage. Even the freshness of his own presentation to the class seemed the result of having to say the same lines night after night in a show and make them seem new.

Of course, no class is magic, so we have to wait and see how it goes when I do my work presentation in late March. But I am definitely going to try harder to apply what I heard than when I took presentation classes in the past full of jargon, phony jokes, and gimmicks that are supposed to work but don’t seem to have a lot underpinning them.

The teacher was Brandt Johnson. See the actor here. See the corporate consultant here. Another one of these people who lead several lives simultaneously.

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