Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Midler, Disney Team To Make East Harlem a Bit Greener

    Actress Bette Midler and Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, got their hands dirty in a run-down East Harlem lot yesterday, helping local leaders and volunteers transform the vacant space into a garden and playground for their community.
    The project, the culmination of work by the 8th District council member, Eric Reed; Ms. Midler’s nonprofit New York Restoration Project, and Disney’s outreach program, will revitalize the 18,000-square-foot parcel at 103rd Street and Park Avenue, which has sat dormant and dilapidated for more than a decade.
    “I see whole neighborhoods change, I see whole blocks completely come alive from this kind of work,” Ms. Midler said, explaining her interest in the development. “People see there’s something beautiful outside their doors, people come out and meet each other, property values go up, it’s just common sense.”
    Founded in 1994, her organization has rebuilt 15 gardens around the city and is restoring dozens more that have fallen into dilapidation since their heyday in the 1970s.
    In 1999, Ms. Midler’s organization helped block the city’s attempt to auction 114 lots and community gardens, spending $4.2 million to acquire half that number, while helping another nonprofit, the Trust for Public Land, buy the rest.
    For a decade, the East Harlem lot, which was not included in that sale, had languished in the hands of a failed local trust, attracting weeds, rusted car parts, drug dealers, and the occasional block party.
    In recent years, an activist, Manny Rodriguez, had sought protection for the space, enlisting Mr. Reed and eventually Ms. Midler, who asked for Mr. Eisner’s assistance.
    Standing beneath the mural he helped paint as a boy and that he will soon help restore, Mr. Rodriguez beamed. “This is probably the biggest moment of my life,” he said.“To actually see big names here like Reed’s and Disney assures me that there’s going to be an available presence behind my efforts to keep it as a playground, a garden for the kids.”
    Mr. Eisner, who carried a shovel and wore a yellow Disney T-shirt and khakis, said he was always ready to help Ms. Midler, who used to be under contract with the studio. Disney, which gave financial support and contributed dozens of volunteers for the garden project, is “very involved” in outreach programs in the area, he said.
    “It’s easy to give financial support, writing checks, but actually having your cast of people get involved, get committed in their own communities, that’s important,” said Mr. Eisner, who grew up seven blocks away.
    Elaine Hall,who has lived in the area for 39 years, said she was relieved and delighted at the community’s effort.
    “I have grandchildren and I used to tell them,‘Don’t go over there,stay away from there.’” The new garden, she said, “will bring the people out together.”

GARDEN GROWTH Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, and actress Bette Midler yesterday at the kick-off event for the restoration of a long-neglected community garden and neighborhood park on 103rd Street in East Harlem. ROB BENNETT

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

‘Does Anyone Here Like Chocolate?’

Sweet Day for Young Plaza Ambassadors

    Cooking class in the Plaza’s Le Trianon Suite yesterday had all the trappings of grandeur to be expected at the famous hotel.
    Men in navy vests stood at the ready like U.S. Open ball boys, dutifully waiting to wipe down any errant foods. A swath of protective saran wrap covered the ornate carpet. When the worldclass chef arrived, his class was seated in gold-trimmed chairs, attentive and composed.
    Then the ingredient of the day came up.
    “Does anyone here like chocolate?”Chef Marc Felix demanded in a thick French accent.
    Hands shot up, and some of the students even bounced out of their chairs.
    Their parents, faces beaming too, were helpless to stop them.
    They were there as part of the Young Plaza Ambassadors, a program of etiquette, ballroom dancing, and occasionally veterinary clinics for tri-statearea children and their parents.Yesterday’s scene was the first cooking one, and it was all about indulgence, a sort of anti-Chocoholics Anonymous session for young addicts.
    “I love to cook it,” admitted Yoela Koplow, an 8-year-old from Manhattan, who was staring into a bowl of chocolate butter waiting on one of the 12 tables arranged in the center of the ballroom. “But I really, really love to taste it!”
    Mr. Felix began with a short history lesson on the cacao, the brown, coconut-like plant from which chocolate comes, while he passed one around.
    “Feel it, enjoy it, shake it, hear it, understand it,smell it — this is what we’re dealing with today, people, so we need to know it well,” he said, sounding like a Zen practitioner, albeit with a bit more sugar in his bloodstream.
    Mr. Felix, who occasionally appears on a cooking show on Nickelodeon as “The Mad Chef,” knew his crowd wouldn’t settle for just words. Before long, he was circulating energetically around the room, directing his eager disciples to makeshift cacao nuts by dipping small balloons into white and dark chocolate.
    There was a bit of cheating here and there — mothers helping beat the heavy cream — and sneaky finger-dipping into the bowls of chocolate soup.
    “I really like this stuff too,” the chef whispered to one of his young apprentices, who was caught brown-handed. “Just make sure no one sees you.”
    “The reason we’re successful with the kids is because we’re hands on,” said Mr. Felix, who tries to get the parents involved.
    “I want them to go back home and entertain with the kids,” he said. “A lot of parents just want to cook and get it on the table.”
TOUGH JOB William Brahin, 8, of Cherry Hill, N.J., samples his ‘Chocolate Coconut With Banana Cloud’ recipe after a cooking lesson with Nickelodeon’s ‘Mad Chef,’ Marc Felix, at the Plaza Hotel yesterday. HIROKO MASUIKE

Friday, July 23, 2004

Living Between the Exits

Movie Review: Garden State
from the Harvard Crimson


In the era of hype and summer blockbusters, it seems easy to feel impressed by a movie well before one stumbles into the freezing dimness of the theater. If the multiplex happens to be in one of countless depressing shopping malls or on the side of the oppressive expressway, the build-up is even bigger. And if the trailer is any good—these days they’re often very, very good—nothing can increase your enthusiasm, not even cheap popcorn.

Garden State is one of those movies for which the trailer—one of the most lyrical, intriguing and hypnotic short films I’ve ever seen—threatened to outdo the whole thing from the start. But the movie is also graced with another presence that recommends it, and perhaps also endangers it at the same time: the triple threat of New Jerseyite Zach Braff, who wrote, directs and stars.

New York’s veteran auteur Woody Allen can hardly get away with that trick very well, at least lately, and when you bear more resemblance to Woody Allen than Keanu Reeves, with about as much chutzpah as the latter, it’s a mammoth challenge. Not that Braff’s character, Andrew Largeman, requires anything resembling chutzpah: He plays a medicated, reluctant Jew, an aspiring actor returning home for his mother’s funeral. But if his style were any remoter, Braff could almost dissolve into the background of his strangely familiar, familiarly strange scenery. And, in one of his many pictorial feats, Braff as Largeman, wearing a shirt made from the same silk pattern lining the wall behind him, literally does.

The humdrum, confused life of mid-twentysomethings has a ready accomplice in the sprawling shopping malls and freeway-bound office parks of New Jersey, the stuff that nightmares and dreams are made of for the expanse of anonymous, white-housed suburbia that hums between the on-ramps. The staples of quiet, middle-class Garden State living are all here, sans the last PATH train back from the city. Like those who’ve never been, Largeman (we can imagine him telling his L.A. friends he grew up in New York) has no inclination to go back, only an obligation to go, and for no longer than he has to. As his early airplane nightmare and cache of prescription bottles suggests, this is not an easy return, but it’s made easier by that age-old re-encounter with childhood friends, who also happen to be working as grave diggers at his mother’s funeral. They waste no time in inviting him to a party that night.

The writer Braff’s surreal mix of dark and occasionally cheeky humor with generation-lost profundity is perfect for setting the scene, a mood that often feels more real than that of most still-coming-of-age films. And, while Braff the actor manages to justify and even enrich his numb character the more he weaves his way through a maze of “how old are we” house parties, fluorescent-lighting and tentative moments with a new girl, Sam (Natalie Portman ’03), there’s something awkward that still shouldn’t be. The sense that he is playing this exactly right—Braff, as his biography suggests (he was a waiter and, until now, a minor actor), is largely playing himself—can’t be overcome by the feeling that exactly right isn’t exactly convincing.

Good actors they are, and Portman’s astounding ability to cry aside, the main characters aren’t given much room to breathe, and the heat that grows between Sam and Large couldn’t be called chemistry by any stretch. What one wants most of all is for Large to bare his soul, to show how a kid coping with the “emotional problems” diagnosed and brought on by his psychiatrist father can evolve into someone who is simultaneously awkward and seemingly well-adjusted. Instead he offers sedate monosyllables and musings about house not being home anymore. The template for such characters was established in The Graduate’s Benjamin by the time Wes Anderson pulled it off with Rushmore’s Max, and maybe taken in a new direction by Donnie Darko. Surely there’s no troubled, learning-to-grow-up mold, but in the writing Braff’s protagonist isn’t fully mature.

Largeman’s underdevelopment might be chalked up to the medicated world in which Garden State is set as much to the aspirations of Braff the director. His eye for plaintive, sublime imagery is as impressive as his ear for awkward, funny situations, and smartly, the 27-year-old has used his big shot at Hollywood auteur-dom as an excuse not just to include great music (Iron and Wine, The Shins, Simon and Garfunkel), but to sew it tightly into the film. Indeed, his movie feels like a mix tape writ large, addressed to the thousands of kids like him who want to follow their heart, if they only knew where it was. Apparently, surprisingly, he left his in Trenton, or one of its infinite suburbs.

You gotta go there to know there, the anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote, an imperative never truer than in the case of weird, distant New Jersey and its modern day film paean. Like the place itself, Garden State’s reputation precedes it, the impressive talent of Braff and his beautiful trailer circling coolly underneath the hot summer air. But of course that reputation shouldn’t be a substitute for actually seeing it—and at least it deserves to be seen.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

CLINTON'S LOVE OF CHINA, FOUND IN TRANSLATION

President Clinton’s sprawling memoir is chock-full of personal revelations and political musings, but perhaps none is more surprising than his effusive admiration for Communist Party leader Mao Zedong.
When readers in China opened newly-minted copies of “My Life” this week, they discovered that the American president once blamed for the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade also has a strong penchant for Chinese culture and is given to frequently quoting Chairman Mao.
“I very much appreciated the famous sentence of Mao Zedong, ‘You want to know the taste of the pear, then you have to eat it yourself,’ ” Mr. Clinton writes in the Chinese version. He also recalls that Monica Lewinsky was “very fat. I can never trust my own judgment” and says the affair with Ms. Lewinsky “did not affect” his marriage. Meanwhile, the criticisms of China that Clinton makes in the American version of the book, as well as an account of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, have been excised.
Mr. Clinton’s million-selling memoir isn’t just the victim of liberal translation. It’s one of the latest Western books to become the target of counterfeiters, who are known for taking excessive liberties and fabricating content to make texts more appealing. Mr. Clinton’s representatives said they are in talks to release a legitimate Chinese version of the book next year, as long as it is uncensored.
Other “new” passages include an episode in which a young Clinton begs his uncle to take him to “mysterious and unique” China. In another episode, Mr. Clinton tells his wife to “shut up.” Upon first meeting his wife Hillary, Mr. Clinton says, “She was as beautiful as a princess. I told her my name is Big Watermelon.”
Mr. Clinton’s Chinese fixation is evident from the first sentence of the Mandarin edition: “The town of Hope, where I was born, has very good feng shui.”
A spokesman for the publisher,Alfred Knopf, did not indicate if they would take legal action, but said they take “all necessary steps” to fight piracy.
Beijing has denied any involvement, despite its reputation for censorship and authoritarian control, particularly over Western press. In April, officials cut out references to Taiwan and North Korea, and mentions of “political freedom” from transcripts of a speech delivered by Vice President Cheney in Shanghai.
The first secretary at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Jianhua Li, said he didn’t think his government played a role in revising “My Life.”
“The government wouldn’t do that,” said Mr. Jianhua, the first secretary at the Chinese Embassy in Washington. “Probably the publishing houses want to make money, make the story more sensational and interesting to all the readers.”
Last year, the publisher of Hillary Clinton’s memoir “Living History” cancelled a distribution deal with a Chinese publisher after it cut out references to politically sensitive issues in the Chinese version, including material on Harry Wu, a Chinese-American human rights activist, and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
A lawyer for the Clintons, Robert Bennett, distinguished between the unauthorized censorship of Senator Clinton’s book by a legitimate publisher and the unauthorized publication of President Clinton’s memoirs, which he called “unacceptable.”
“The president’s book will only be published in the People’s Republic of China if it is completely and accurately translated and we have an opportunity to review and approve the translation before the book is published,” he said.
Pirating of CDs and books,with occasional alterations, is a pervasive phenomenon in China, Mr. Jianhua acknowledged. “People want to make money, so they make up stories. It happens everywhere,” he said. The paperback, with Mr. Clinton’s name and photo on the cover, purports to be printed by Yilin Press, the publishing house that printed the censored version of Senator Clinton’s book. The dean of the school of journalism at Berkeley and an expert on Chinese culture, Orville Schell, said that the changes to the book seemed more like the work of a “quasi-official” publisher who had purchased a requisite book registration number, than just a pirate. “Maybe some pirate would have nice Mao sensitivities, but the fact they have edited and censored it and put it out so quickly makes me think it’s not a pirated version,” he said. “If it’s pirated, [the counterfeiters] would get shut down for having no copyright, so what’s the point of censoring it?” Publishers, even illegitimate ones, one expert noted, often self-censor in order to prevent crackdowns by the Communist Party, often making it hard to measure the extent of the government’s censorship role. “Most people in China like Bill Clinton, and he has been there several times,” Mr. Jianhua said.“When he was in power,everything went very well,the economy did very well.” All references to Mr. Clinton’s visits to China, as well as his musing that “China would be forced by the imperatives of modern society to become more open,” are missing from the new edition.


Tuesday, July 20, 2004

RIGHTS REPORTS TIE KHARTOUM TO KILLINGS

Government Memos Show Death Directives

Arab militias that use systematic rape to intimidate African women in the war-torn Darfur region have been backed, protected, and recruited by the Sudanese government, documents and testimony collected by human rights groups showed yesterday.
Two days ahead of a U.N. Security Council vote on sanctions against militia leaders,confidential memos obtained by Human Rights Watch provided evidence of a governmental policy of protection, support, and recruitment of militiamen known as Janjaweed, despite continued denials by officials in Khartoum.
“I really don’t know anything about that as such,” the deputy chief of mission at the Sudanese Embassy, Abdel Kabeir, told The New York Sun. “Common sense would tell you that there is no connection, and I think it’s too na├»ve to take that direction.” He added that groups such as Amnesty “are always against the authority in any country, whether it be Russia or Sudan.”
Accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity,released in a separate Amnesty International report entitled “Rape as a Weapon of War,” include the widespread rape and torture of women, the keeping of sexual slaves, and the beating of women’s legs to prevent women from escaping sexual abuse.
While diplomats and humanitarian groups have long known of both rampant sexual violence and militia-government ties, such claims have not previously been widely or publicly documented, said the director of the New York office of the U.N.’s High Commission for Human Rights, Bacre Ndiye.
He added that resistance by the Sudanese government has prevented investigators from his office from entering the region. “What exactly is the degree of control [over the Janjaweed] is not always clear,” he said. “What is clear is that what they are doing could not have been done without the support of the government.”
Despite a public declaration on February 9 by President el-Bashir that the war was over and there would be an “end of all military operations in Darfur,” one “highly confidential” directive from the office of the Commissioner of Kutum Province in North Darfur and dated that month urges the support and conscription of the Janjaweed, who are responsible for pervasive torture and killing of non-Arabs in the region.
Addressed to those in charge of “mobilization” or “recruitment” in the provincial localities, the memo calls for an “increase in the process of mobilizing loyalist tribes, and providing them with sufficient armory to secure the areas.”
Another memo, dated February 13, advises its recipients to “allow the activities of the mujahedeen and the volunteers under the command of [Janjaweed comannder] Sheikh Musa Hilal to proceed in the areas of [North Darfur] and to secure their vital needs.”
“This was an unacceptable way of conducting war, especially when you know the civilians will be the first and often the only victims,” Mr. Ndiaye said.
While Mr. Kabeir acknowledged that more humanitarian work was necessary in Darfur, he said that rebel groups should be held responsible for the continuing violence in the area.
Despite pledges by the Sudanese government to protect displaced persons in the Darfur region, militia violence against civilians continued unabated there, the Human Rights Watch report said. A new round of peace talks between the government and rebel groups fell through on Saturday after officials rejected demands to disarm the Janjaweed and to investigate charges of genocide. So far, the U.S. Agency for International Development has warned that the death toll in the Darfur region could rise from 30,000 to 1 million.
After meeting with Secretary of State Powell two weeks ago, Mr. el-Bashir had pledged to send troops to Darfur to end militia violence and to remove all obstacles to delivery of relief supplies. Though the Sudanese yesterday invited a group of eight U.N. monitors to Darfur after months of visa wrangling, Mr. Ndiaye said there was still little indication that the government was encouraging humanitarian assistance.
The difficulty of obtaining visas has prevented many humanitarian groups from entering the region, including Amnesty, which conducted much of its research by phone and in displacedpersons camps in Chad.
Interviewees told of beatings, gang rapes, and sexual violence against pregnant women by the militiamen. One woman, identified only as A., was abducted from the town of Mukjar.
“When we tried to escape they shot more children. They raped women; I saw many cases of Janjaweed raping women and girls,” the 37-year-old said. “They are happy when they rape. They sing when they rape and they tell that we are just slaves and that they can do with us how they wish.”
Last week, senators presented a bipartisan resolution that would declare the killing of non-Arab civilians in Darfur genocide, keeping in mind the longdelayed humanitarian assistance during Rwanda’s genocide in 1994.

Monday, July 19, 2004

U.N. Peacekeepers In Africa Accused Of Sexual Abuse

PROBE: OFFICERS IN THE CONGO RAN CHILD PROSTITUTION RING

The United Nations is investigating dozens of allegations that members of its peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have been sexually exploiting and abusing young girls, most of whom have spent years fleeing the rape and violence of local militias.
But the investigation, focusing on officers stationed in the city of Bunia,may result in only modest punishments, if any, for those involved, many of them troops from South Africa, Morocco, and Uruguay, a U.N. spokesperson said.
The investigation kicked into high gear after an urgent message, sent on June 8 to U.N.headquarters in New York from the U.N. mission to the Congo, or Monuc, office in Kinshasa, detailed 50 abuse cases carried out over the past year by troops in Bunia, a town in the northeast of the Congo.
A week later, other allegations were included in a second message, which also singled out peacekeepers from Pakistan and Nepal.
On June 14, after a month of preliminary investigation and claims that the issue revolved around what the U.N.called “a few incidents,” the U.N.’s Office of Internal and Oversight Services sent investigators to Bunia to examine the allegations, which have grown to 68, according to London’s Independent newspaper.
The allegations include the running of a child prostitution ring out of a U.N. airport in Bunia, the frequent trading of food for sex by Pakistani, Moroccan, and Uruguayan troops, and the rape of minors by Nepalese troops in a displaced-persons camp in March.
The recent probe comes one year after an alert was sent to Monuc headquarters in Kinshasa from a child-protection office near Bunia, where whispers about sexual abuse were spreading.
Other warnings sent to the U.N. at the start of this year — detailing reports from Bunia of child pornography, organized sex shows, and the rape of babies — prompted an investigation that was soon dropped due to a lack of evidence and lukewarm support from local commanders.
“We take this very seriously, and we’re investigating,” a spokesman for the United Nations in Kinshasa, Hamadoun Toure, told The New York Sun. “We act on the zero tolerance policy and as soon as we get something from this, we’ll take the necessary action.”
A spokesperson for the South African mission to the U.N., Bongi Qwabe, said her government had sent an official inquiry to the U.N. on Friday requesting details on any allegations against their troops.
“What we want to know is whether the incidents happened at all. Then we will decide where to go from there.”
When reports of sexual abuses by U.N. troops in West Africa emerged in 2002, Secretary-General Annan issued a statement of zero-tolerance for staff sexual misconduct. When the current investigation began in May, a U.N. spokesman, Fred Eckhard, said that Monuc was committed “to applying all available sanctions against any of its personnel found responsible.”