a tale of two sisters

Christy Turlington-Burns, No Woman No Cry (2010)

Christy Turlington. [Photo by Fortune Live Media]

Stevie ModernFor some, pregnancy can be a death sentence.

Consider for a moment that the number one cause of death for adolescent girls in developing countries today is from pregnancy complications and childbirth, and that in almost all cases, these deaths are preventable.

For Christy Turlington, an American former supermodel, that personal discovery came after serious health issues arose during the birth of her first child. A post-partum haemorage put her in the ‘living’ category of a condition that claims the highest number of deaths among women giving birth worldwide.

What shocked me … was the fact that, of the 358,000 women who die each year, almost all can be saved with adequate medical care. It’s incredible that we know what it takes to save most women’s lives in childbirth, and yet thousands die each year because even the most basic care is out of reach. How can this be?

Turlington-Burns, C. 'No Woman No Cry' [Film Documentary]The answer she says, relies firstly on ‘political will’. Her research in maternal health lead her to produce and direct her own documentary No Woman No Cry.

Since that time, Turlington has been a passionate advocate to save and enhance the lives of mothers around the world.

Every Woman Counts, an organisation she founded, seeks to redress the health of mothers as a modern global priority. Turlington attributes her passion to empathy, what she has called a ‘sisterhood in motherhood’, to develop often simple practical solutions. Through experience working with the CARE organisation, she saw firsthand how significant reductions in maternal mortality can be achieved.

For Turlington’s ‘sister’ Agnes in Tanzania, labor caused both the loss of her baby, and fistula. Fistula, a rupture during childbirth, is an operable condition. Like the estimated two million women the WHO estimates are living with fistula, lack of hospital access meant Agnes was unable to control bodily functions, and remained untreated for ten years. Her condition ostracised her from her community, and lead her to be hounded and labelled as ‘cursed’ by fellow villagers.

Every Mother Counts tells how Agnes instead came to be an educator on fistula to her community in this short 6-minute video segment.

Turlington identifies the cause of avoidably high death rates from pregnancy not only in poverty and restricted healthcare access. Much of the solution she says lies in also identifying root cultural causes and preventing their harmful practice. She blames many maternal fatalities in the developing world on traditional cultures promoting child (and therefore forced) marriage. In sub-Saharan Africa, where 56% of worldwide deaths from pregnancy occur, nearly half of girls are married before the age of 18. The chance of death during childbirth for girls under 15 is five times that of adult women, and twice as likely at this age than girls aged 15-20 years.

Speaking at a recent Trust Women conference, Turlington says,

If we can get girls to be girls as long as possible, then we can delay early marriage and first pregnancies and a lot of the ongoing health implications of those practices.

Consider that: The risk of death is halved in developing countries by ensuring girls ‘remain girls’ beyond 15 years of age. Any future target to reduce maternal death rates, Turlington says, should focus on adolescent girls – these most vulnerable. Pregnancy at an undeveloped age raises terrible health consequences, including fistula and infant death. The World Health Organisation notes obstructed births (where the mother is too young or undeveloped to safely deliver) are responsible for 8% of infant deaths.

Changing the culture of child marriage, and focussing government attention on the social and economic costs of maternal death should form important conditional priorities for wealthy donor countries. Every mother counts. Much of that realisation can be credited to Turlington, who by modern example has shown ‘sisters’ (and brothers) must raise their own voices in making a real difference ♦

If we can recognise our inherent connection to other mothers, we can make saving their lives a priority.

Christy Turlington-Burns

Turlington describes her film motivations in this interview with CARE Pres. Dr. Gayle King. No Woman No Cry (DVD) is available for order here on iTunes.


fairer jacques

the films of jacques demy

Jacques Demy, Film-maker (1931-1990)

Imagine the love story of a shop girl and garage mechanic, where every line of dialogue forms a working-class opera, every frame a coordinated fairer reality of shape and colour, and you may have a hint of the brazen originality in 1964 of Umbrellas of Cherbourg,  France’s first full-colour musical. Among the film-makers of the ‘French New Wave’, director Jacques Demy’s musicals reveal an innovator who enlarged on the new possibilities of cinema to bring important moving themes to life.

Notable for their exuberant use of colour, Demy and set designer Bernard Evein repainted whole real sections of the town of Cherbourg. The effect in film is one of a heightened sense of reality, where song and the movement of characters form controlled elements of a unifying theme. The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) enlarged this visual control to a grand scale; 40,000 square metres of the city’s facades were enlivened and patterned from director Demy’s guiding imagination.

Scene from Jacques Demy’s ‘The Young Girls of Rochefort’ (1967)

Despite early ’60’s filmmaking moving only in its first stages toward a rougher naturalist style, many critics had already dismissed musicals and their heightened reality from any ability to represent serious themes. A 1964 Times review labelled Umbrellas“cinematic confection”,  indulging “a flow of romantic contrivance and sheer decorative artifice…so clearly ingenuous and old-fashioned that it wouldn’t get beyond a reader in Hollywood”.

Despite this contemporary cynicism, Demy’s use of art is in fact truly avante-garde. If the benevolent atmosphere of his films’ witty dialgoue, musical scores by Michel LeGrand, and colour schemes are “lighter than air“, they also hint at weightier issues beneath the surface. The Young Girls of Rochefort show young lovers walking the street, crossed in the foreground by a long line of marching soldiers. It is a motif that echoes the fate of Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), whose romance with Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve) is cut short in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg by being drafted to war.

Demy’s powerful use of colour forms an emotional backdrop for the young love between Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Genevieve (Catherine Deneuve).

Demy’s films also turn to critique seriously the stultifying conventions of ‘bourgoise’ society, especially as symbolised by traditional marriage. The riotous colours that backdrop Genevieve’s young love for Guy drain to pastels as they separate in a station cafe. Scenes successively shed their colour and emotional vibrancy. As she strikes a ‘mature’ bargain to marry the middle-class Roland, she covers her coloured dress in white; he in turn wears a beige suit. In the final exchange between her and Guy, Genevieve arrives in Roland’s black car which is blanketed under a covering of white snow. Her young daughter, contrasted in red, is seen playfully clearing this white from the surface beneath. Demy’s stylistic use of colour should therefore be as much enjoyed for its splendour and “dogged unity“, as also viewed seriously for these powerful devices. They effectively dramatise important themes like truth, innocence and the compromises society impose on the individual. These films ‘seduce’ us to understanding rather than by instruction.

Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum suggests Demy’s sexuality may have heightened his awareness of how society’s ‘roles’ fetter the innocent passions of youth, the banal gestures to ordinary life existing side-by-side against characters’ passionate inner world of song and ideal.  Characters in The Young Girls of Rochefort are almost all separated from love by small barriers. There is Maxence, the soldier who paints artworks in secret. He keeps unknowingly missing Delphine, his ‘feminine ideal’  in near-coincidences, clashing despair with optimism, song with gesture.

Demy’s films strain to break free from their confines. Characters break film convention and at times sing directly to the camera until ‘real life’ intrudes. In Lola (1961) a musical number is broken off with an abrupt, “Oh – what time is it? What is the time?” before Lola rushes to an appointment.

Another of Demy’s innovations are the way characters extend out from the confines of the plot, resurfacing and linking to his other films. Character ‘Roland Cassard’ appears as a young man in Lola and as a middle-aged businessman in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Michel Legrand’s score from Lola is also reprised and given lyrics in this later film. Lola‘s title character reappears in Model Shop (1969) and is also spoken about by characters in The Young Girls of Rochefort. Even in his modernist fairytale Donkey Skin (1970) the love-struck prince is heard scatting “lola-lola” at the end of a song-line. These crossings serve no major plot points, but Demy’s modern linking of fictions and the reality between them are as much a personal exuberance as perhaps an attempt to embed his film career within the stylized, benevolent universe of his own creation. As innovation, it appears as if he’s holding a vision alive for an audience both before and beyond the closed form of any single film. Here too, real world and brilliantly-styled imagination mix together.

Demy’s bright film imagery blazes in memory long after the pleasures of inhabiting his world in film, infecting our everyday vision with optimism. Many contemporary critics continue to rail against the overtly stylized film-making of auteurs like Baz Luhrmann, and before him, cinematic trailblazers like Jacques Demy. Yet the gritty realism of today’s cinema is no longer an innovation; Its own modes and acclaim have become entrenched. Modernity requires something else besides, and in Demy, it was his vision ♦

the macho paradox: jackson katz

Jackson Katz, Anti-sexist activist, Speaker, Author Filmaker. Photo from Jackson Katz website

Think you’re an innocent bystander? Think again. According to renowned anti-sexist campaigner Jackson Katz, sexism and violence fuels the ‘tough guys’ image that culture projects on men in all cultures. This tough guise leads men to assert themselves on women and weaker males in order to be ‘masculine’.

The dangers of ‘masculinity’ in this form to society should not be underestimated. As Katz notes,

In the US alone, over 85% of people who commit murder are men…90% of people who commit violent physical assault are men, 95% of serious domestic violence is perpetrated by males, and it’s been estimated that nearly 1 in 4 men will use violence against a partner in their lifetime.

Violence is only the most extreme outgrowth of a pervasive culture that projects the aggressive physical dominance of the male, Katz’ research suggests. Learnt early in development by boys through family and community, the ‘tough guise’ of the male is over-represented in all major media forms.

Katz, author of The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help served as the Secretary of the US Defense Task Force on Domestic Violence from 2000-03.  Through co-founding the Mentors in Violence Prevention Program (MVP) Katz has become the leading internationally recognised educator in preventing gender violence, especially through his work addressing sporting and religious groups as well as the military. He is also a regular columnist for online news site The Huffington Post.

Katz, J. (2006) The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men hurt Women and How All Men Can Help

The title of his book however, points not only to the perpetrators and victims of violence. The key innovation of Katz’s approach to addressing male violence is in using what he refers to as the ‘bystander approach’. Katz’s lectures, films and book aims to empower you as a bystander to take part in preventing sexism and violence.

This approach gives cause for re-examining the role many of us unwittingly play; tolerating the sexist joke, standing mute in the diminishing of women, not seeking to help defend a male abused because they aren’t perceived as ‘masculine’.  It is also a practical guide to action, a role all can play in becoming  modern activists.

Most believe that in order to intervene in a potentially violent situation, you have to choose between doing nothing, or in physically intervening at personal risk. 

Positively, there are multiple points between these poles: Jackson Katz lists 10 important steps we, and particularly male peers- a powerful influence- can take. They are freely available at jacksonkatz.com and form an important modern resource for helping end culturally sanctioned abuses. Among them; the invocation to NOT be silent when abuse appears likely or indicated, and address the issue either by talking with the abuser or someone empowered to talk with him.

A bystander can also gently and privately ask the victim if there is a way to help.

Men need to read [Katz’s] book. Not only because it will make the world safer for women, but because it will free men to be their true selves.

Eve Ensler, Author, ‘The Vagina Monologues’

Katz asks us to no longer fund sexism by purchasing sexist media (some mens’ magazines for example), and to defend others against sexism, homophobia or discrimination. By “raising the cost” of prejudice and violence, Katz says, we make it that much harder for physical dominance to enforce its culture in your society.♦

The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help (2006) is available from Source Books. The short film Tough Guise (approx. 7 mins) explains the connection between popular culture and male aggression. Jackson Katz’s 10 steps ‘What Men Can Do’ can be found here.

eames: the architect and the painter

They gave shape to the American 20th century.

It began with a plywood chair. After successive failures at pushing materials to their limits, Charles and Ray Eames began a stint producing leg splints from their small home apartment during WWII. Using their very own gerry-rigged machine (made from a few heating coils and a bicycle pump) they eventually produced a successful new lightweight chair by moulding ply. They were not to know how successful they would become.

Under the motto “the best, for the most, from the least” they had created the icon of the modern postwar chair. Beautiful yet comfortable to use, adopting functional materials molded in two directions, Eames’ chairs would be able to negate the need for expensive upholstery. Today over 50 Charles and Ray Eames designs have remained in production, many synonymous with the modern design age.

LCW Chair, 1945. By Charles and Ray Eames

The Eames’ creativity would spread in bursts to countless areas, from furniture, to film projects, exhibitions, architecture, and painting. Their story is retold in an inspiring new biopic, filmed with a matching graphic and musical creativity from documentary film-makers Jason Cohn and Bill Jersey.

As its trailer shows, EAMES: the architect and the painter, narrated by actor James Franco, explores the lives and work of an extraordinarily talented and eccentric couple.

Modern design was born from a marriage of Art and Industry. The Eames office was born from the marriage of Ray Kaiser, a painter who rarely painted, and Charles Eames, an architecture school drop-out who never got his license.

As the couple’s fame grew, their design studio Studio 901, Los Angeles, drew in four decades of talented artists and designers, working to the vision of their married bosses. TIME referred to one of their chair designs as “the greatest of the 20th century”.

“Never delegate understanding,” Charles Eames had said. Their practise consisted of solving design problems through measurement of the human body and by constant experiment.

Eames Stamps. Photo by brandon shigeta

Much of the colour, artistry and aesthetic sensibility of their work has later been credited to Ray Eames. In the sexual politics of the 1950’s and ’60’s, it was unusual for a married couple to share in business decision making. Eames: the architect and the painter highlights the Eames’ modern example of the productive career-focussed team. Their very image together formed “perhaps their best work of design”, the couple featuring in shared appearances on television and in magazines. While much of the critical attention was focussed on Charles, he could also generously defer to his wife Ray, saying,  “Anything I can do, she can do better.”

Eames Home and Studio, 203 Nth Chautauqua Blvd (Pacific Palisades)       Photo: B. Shigeta

Working from an initial design by architect Eero Saarinen, Ray and Charles Eames designed their modernist home and studio. With material shortages during WWII, they had hit upon the idea of a modern architecture made entirely from pre-fabricated factory materials. Far from austere, the home became a famous architectural symbol of open plan freedom and postwar sophistication.

Today, Sam Grawe, Editor in Chief at Dwell Magazine, cannot recall a magazine issue not featuring Eames furniture.

I think you see that optimism of the American spirit in their designs, a blue-print for how we could live our lives… Every designer owes them some amount of debt.

Lounge Chair 670 and Ottoman 671. By Charles and Ray Eames

In their personal story and the quality of their work through measurement and problem-solving, the film demonstrates Eames’ particular sensibilities of Modernism, and the drive that animated their projects.

Eames’ furniture and artworks are much copied, with originals fetching high prices at auction. Despite this deserved appreciation their legacy is perhaps best paid tribute by looking as they did, to the next stage of design, and with that same forward-thinking optimism ♦

EAMES: the architect and the painter, is available on DVD from Bread and Butter Films.

genesis and the genius

This series is about perhaps the most powerful idea ever to occur to  a human mind. The idea is Evolution-by-Natural-Selection, and the genius who thought of it was Charles Darwin.

Richard Dawkins

The Genius of Charles Darwin, Channel 4 series presented by Richard Dawkins

Incredible though it may seem, with the weight of evidence accumulated since Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species over 150 years ago, 4 out of every 10 British people still believe a god created every species as you see them today. It is with this daunting task of re-education that popular biologist Richard Dawkins presents a modern and exciting first hand look into Charles Darwin’s discovery in the Channel 4, 3-part TV series The Genius of Charles Darwin. 

Richard Dawkins, Presenter. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and author of ‘The Selfish Gene’ and most most recently, ‘The Magic of Reality’.

Author of The Selfish Gene, which built on Darwin’s theory with more recent discoveries and proof of genetic evolution, Dawkins is a uniquely credible source of certainty. More than a theory, “Evolution is a fact.” The viewer is transported with Dawkins as he travels around the world, from the modern English classroom, to the Galapagos and Kenya, in search of the same clues and evidence by which Darwin discovered Evolution.

Galapagos marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) Photo by Laura Nunes.

It is, in Dawkins’ words, “nothing less than a complete explanation of the complexity and diversity of human life”.

The series offers fascinating insight into Darwin’s personal life, the genius’ personal struggles and reluctance to spread a knowledge that would undo centuries of belief in a supernatural order. Born in 1809, science could not as yet supply Darwin the proof we have today, the genetic coding of our species’ ancestors and relations. By naked observation however, Darwin’s five year round-the-world voyage yielded  samples of hundreds of species, where tiny differences among sub-species in neighbouring islands yielded huge heretical questions. Lifeforms were not fixed, but changed over Time and circumstance. On the Origin of Species was the result of 20 years’ research, combining the best scientific opinion from geologists such as Charles Lyle, and the study of fossils dating specie developments over millions of years.

Dawkins takes us through the historic collections of Darwin’s studies. A ‘pigeon fancier’ Darwin could observe first-hand how characteristics in the species could be bred out or encouraged, demonstrating the ‘plasticity’ of a species over generations. Similarly, chance cycles of variation occurred in Nature over an extended period, and favoured those variations most successful in being reproduced.

In Kenya, Richard Dawkin’s birthplace, Dawkins shows that there is “nothing orderly about the relations between predator and prey”. Nature leads animals in a generational “arms race” to greater speed and physical weaponry in the pursuit of finite resources. As Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species,

Natural Selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing the world every variation and even the slightest, neglecting that which is bad and preserving all that is good, silently and insensibly working. We see nothing of these slow changes in progress until the hand of Time has marked the lapse of Ages.


In 1859, the possibility another biologist named Wallace might ‘scoop’ his discovery finally encouraged Darwin to publish his findings and its explosive implications. Still timidly afraid of presenting the mountain of evidence gathered, observed and deliberated before him, Darwin’s book was finally released to the public, selling out in its first two days of release. 152 years later, it has never again been out of print.

The genius of Charles Darwin, his personal struggles and domestic losses, are presented against a viewer backdrop of Darwin’s own home and grounds, lending elegant and historic setting to Darwin’s step by step development as biologist and author. Dawkins’ own genius has been to present the soundness of this at once complex and “elegantly simple” solution to the origin and diversity of lifeforms inductively. That is, we are lead through each stage to observe as Darwin did, the sameness and variety by which variation led from prehistory to the present.

Popularly conceived as a dry theory devoid of moral import, Dawkins’ feat of genius is to present to the layperson the grandeur of the evolutionary world view. We humans are the result of a long line of millions of the most successful pairings of gene and generation, developing brains that can examine our self origin like no other species can. We are a ‘nervous system’ for a planet at last waking up. Over 150 years old, evolution-by-natural-selection represents the most modern and genius of ideas. What’s more, Dawkins shows, it’s true ♦

[Charles Darwin’s complete works are now available online. imodernreview has previously reviewed Richard Dawkin’s editorship of The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing in a new ‘turing test’. The TV series The Genius of Charles Darwin is available to order on DVD]