Water is Life

For years now, Jenny and I have supported Water Is Basic, an organization that drills clean water wells in South Sudan. WIB is an interesting partnership that is making a huge difference there. It’s primarily a South Sudanese organization. They identified clean water as one of their greatest needs. They site, plan, and drill the wells. They use the water. The US partners simply provide most of the funding and some of the leadership. WIB hopes to be self-sufficient within a couple of years. The model works so well, and at such a low cost, that people in other countries see the model’s success and want to replicate it to meet some of their own greatest needs.

To help spread the word about the amazing work of Water is Basic, some supporters produced a 20-minute documentary film called Ru: Water is Life. Jenny and I attended the world premiere Sunday night at Irving Bible Church. Next the producers are entering the film in various film festivals and already got accepted in Florida. The cinematographer was our awesome and talented friend Joel Smith, and the camera work shows his distinctive touch.

RU is a beautiful film that tells the story of a twelve-year-old South Sudanese girl who is the primary caretaker for her family. Three times a day she walks two miles round trip to a muddy, disease-ridden puddle to gather water for her family. She uses a five-gallon jug called a jerrycan that weighs about 40 pounds when full. She must structure her day around these water trips and then hope the water doesn’t make her sick when she drinks it. Despite her difficult situation, she has learned a remarkable resourcefulness that allows her to survive with practically nothing. Even more impressive, she is filled with a remarkable joy that shines through in her beautiful smile. My favorite image waits at the end of the film when the drilling team finally breaks through to the clean water deep beneath the dry Sudanese brush. Like oil from a new well in Texas, the water gushes out at the surface and begins to flow downhill toward the viewer. Nearby villagers watch in wonder. Hope flows like wine at a wedding feast, and a new life begins for thousands.

In addition to the film festival campaign for Ru, the producers and president are also setting up private screenings for individuals, churches, and any other group that wants to learn more about Water is Basic and how they can help change lives in South Sudan. If you or your organization is looking for a way to make a huge impact by providing jobs and clean water for thousands of people half a world away, please visit WaterIsBasic.org.

The Following Movie is Rated R

In the 2006 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, a filmmaker explores the mysterious and frustrating work of the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board. Its members are the ones who assign films a rating of G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17 based on their suitability for minors. The film itself was just OK. My favorite parts involved analyzing and comparing clips from various films and hearing from directors who fought with the MPAA over ratings. While he made some valid points about several different aspects of the rating system and process, the filmmaker focused too heavily on the anonymity of the board, devoting a large chunk of the movie to the private investigators he hired to follow and identify its members. To me, the more interesting questions involve the actual content that produces each rating and what the ratings system says about American values and culture.

The Ratings

If you’ve seen many movies, you probably have a decent idea of how the ratings work even if you haven’t thought much about it. The MPAA claims that its ratings board is made of ordinary parents who make decisions based on how they think a majority of American parents would rate each film. The MPAA website offers a decent explanation of the standards it claims to apply when rating a film. Here’s a brief summary:

  • G – Nothing offensive, safe for all ages
  • PG – Mild language, violence, maternal or tribal nudity, situations that might produce some awkward questions from children
  • PG-13 – More colorful language (including one F-bomb in a certain context), non-gory violence, more extensive nudity in a nonsexual context, some sexual situations, some alcohol and drug use
  • R – More than 1 F-bomb, pervasive profanity, extensive and/or bloody violence, sexual nudity, any full-frontal nudity, hardcore drug use
  • NC-17 – Anything “appropriate only for an adult audience”, but in practice, mainly extreme violence or explicit sex

The higher a film is rated, the smaller its potential audience becomes. Obviously, an R-rated film severely limits the under-17 audience, although it might also attract a somewhat larger adult audience who finds the adult content appealing. On the other hand, an NC-17 is the kiss of death from a revenue perspective. Very few theaters, rental companies, or retailers are willing to carry such films, so an NC-17 must be low-budget or is almost guaranteed to lose money. Filmmakers seeking to reach their audience must walk a difficult line between expressing themselves and paying the bills.

What Does It Mean?!?

Although the ratings system does give parents a general idea of a film’s content, I’m sure you can see from the descriptions how subjective the ratings must be. For instance, how much blood and gore does it take to push a film from PG-13 to R, or from R to NC-17? Is there a body count threshold? Does a character smoking a joint demand an R for the film, or would a PG-13 suffice if the scene is short? What about a line of cocaine? How many curse words that don’t start with F can the director include while maintaining a PG-13? How explicit can a sex scene be in an R-rated film?

The documentary featured interviews with several directors whose films had been slapped with NC-17 ratings initially. Some edited their films down to an R rating, while others refused and released their films with the NC-17 or unrated. This segment made some fascinating points about how the ratings board treats certain types of sex, nudity, and violence differently from others. I won’t explore those in detail here. (you’re welcome, Lisa!) They were highly frustrated with the lack of firm standards and clear guidance from the ratings board, subjectivity of the rating, and seemingly unfair treatment their films received compared to other films.

I wholeheartedly agree with the directors on these issues. As someone who considered screenwriting as a profession, I think filmmakers need much clearer standards for what constitutes each rating so they’ll know what to expect. As a parent, I want more specific information regarding what’s in a PG film or an R film. In recent years, we’ve seen details included with the rating box, which is helpful. But we’re still a long way from having clear standards regarding content.

American vs. European Ratings

For me, the most interesting point involved the differences between the American perspective and the European perspective on film content. In America, we tolerate huge amounts of violence and gore and hardly blink an eye. They are in our movies, video games, TV shows, and music. Primetime hit show CSI regularly shows graphic crime scenes and re-enactments. The documentary pointed out that James Bond, through his dozens of movies, had killed countless people, yet no Bond film had ever exceeded a PG-13 rating. Killing people is OK from a ratings perspective as long as the deaths aren’t too bloody. Except in very extreme cases, even gory death, dismemberment, war, torture, and other horrible sights only warrant an R in America. Even in many PG movies, violence is perfectly acceptable in film, even though in reality most of us rarely experience violence. However, sex and nudity quickly escalate a film’s rating even though both are completely normal and natural parts of life. A killer can hack people apart with a machete and spray blood over the camera in an R-rated horror film, but show too many private parts or a too-steamy sex scene and the film will get the dreaded NC-17 and go straight to video unless it’s edited.

In Europe and Australia, the perspective is flipped, according to the documentary. Sex and nudity in films and TV are considered less offensive and less “scary” for children because they are seen as normal parts of life. It’s graphic violence that gets their raters worked up because they seen it as harmful to society. They consider us prudes regarding sex and the human body and uncivilized brutes regarding violence. I haven’t been able to verify the filmmaker’s claims on the topic, but they seem reasonable to me given my understanding of the cultures involved. I’m also not surprised to find a greater incidence of violence in an American culture that glorifies violence, nor a greater incidence of teenage pregnancy, STDs, and body image disorders in an American culture that both stigmatizes and obsesses over sex and nudity.

Parenting After Sesame Street

As a parent of young boys, I don’t need to think about film ratings much…yet, but I can certainly see their value. I don’t necessarily want to screen everything they watch before they can see it, so a rating gives me a decent place to start when deciding whether something is appropriate. However, I don’t want to blindly trust the ratings board, either, as I don’t agree with all of its decisions. Receiving a PG or PG-13 doesn’t guarantee that my kids are ready to handle the content of a given film or that it sends the messages that I want them to hear. I’m not advocating censorship by any means, merely wanting to make an informed decision. Plus, I have an annoying little voice that reminds me how much I whined to my mom as a kid when she sometimes limited what I could watch or listen to. (how dare she!!) The voice says I’m a hypocrite for planning to limit what my kids can see. The voice is right, and I’m not very comfortable playing the role of censor for my kids. Bottom line, I’m happy to postpone those types of decisions because I’m not sure how to make them quite yet. When I am forced to make them, I’ll seek out better information than what we find from the MPAA ratings board.

What are your thoughts on our current film rating system? If you’re a parent, how much do you rely on content ratings when deciding what films, TV shows, and video games your children can see?

Titanic 3D – Is It Worth It?

In honor of the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s sole voyage, James Cameron and some clever visual effects people found a way to convert a 2D movie into 3D. Normally, I’m not a big fan of 3D, seeing it as a gimmick that often distracts me from the movie rather than enhancing it. The story is key to any movie, so I’d rather not sit there marveling at the technology rather than being lost in what’s happening to the characters.

Much to the chagrin of my friend James, whose valid objections are duly noted, I love Titanic. It’s probably the most moving film I’ve ever seen. (at age 33, married, and a father of two boys, I feel little need to prove to anyone how masculine I am, so Mark Driscoll can kiss my butt)

About a year ago, I discussed some of the emotional aspects of the film and whether it was unfairly manipulatively. But since I hadn’t seen it in maybe a decade, I decided to see it one more time on the big screen, this time through those weird 3D glasses. It was a different experience this time for two main reasons.

3D Update

As in the excellent Avatar, Cameron and his visual effect team struck the right balance in using the 3D effect appropriately, letting it enhance the film without becoming the focus. The ship itself received most of the 3D enhancement. The opening exploration sequence with the deep-water submersibles and cameras played much better in 3D, making it feel like you were there in the rusty, dark wreckage trying to find Rose’s room and trying not to bump into the 85-year-old hull. The 1912 sequences of the ship before it sank gave a greater sense of its size and grandeur with the addition of 3D, and the actual sinking became that much more horrifying. Thanks to several 3D previews and Cameron’s restraint with the effect, I soon forgot that I was watching a 3D movie and simply dissolved into it. Don’t ask me how they made it 3D when it wasn’t shot that way, but it works quite well. For the record, as one commentator wondered about, Kate Winslet’s prominently featured left breast is not 3D. Sorry.

Overall, although I rarely pay the extra $3 to see a 3D movie, I didn’t regret it here.

A Different Perspective

The other interesting aspect of this viewing, over 14 years and several life changes later, was how my perspective on certain elements changed. Different parts moved me more than they did as a 19-year-old. I was familiar with love back then, but had little experience in some other areas. For example:

  • One of the most painful scenes for me this time showed a father telling his wife and children goodbye as they climbed aboard a lifeboat. “It’s OK, this boat is just for the mommies and children. There’s another boat later for the daddies.” I can hardly imagine how it would feel to lie to my boys and let go of them as my last act as their father, knowing I would almost certainly die and hoping that they would somehow survive, albeit without their daddy.
  • I have a new appreciation for the nobility of having a profession and doing it honorably in the midst of chaos and despair. The string quartet that played on deck almost until the very end…the servant who stood beside his boss near the Grand Staircase while he sipped his final glass of brandy…the lifeboat captain who chose to return to the wreckage and look for survivors…all these people inspire me in my own work. Each person had a role, some more glamorous than others but all important, and each played his role well. I am reminded of my own office during tornado warnings like we had on Tuesday. I was home with my family, but dozens of my coworkers were on the job when the sirens went off and the building managers ordered everyone in headquarters to retreat to designated safe areas. The airline can run for a while without accountants, programmers, HR people, and other support groups, but Dispatch is the nerve center for the airline. We stay right in our seats in case our flights need anything. No, it doesn’t put my mother at ease, but there is honor in doing something well even when you’re tempted to bail out.
  • On a related note, I could sympathize more this time with the captain who buckles under his feelings of guilt and remorse in light of the tragedy unfolding around him. Thank God I’ve never been involved in an aircraft accident while on duty, but it’s a possibility every time I go to work. If one of my flights ever did have an accident, and I were in any way responsible (maybe I failed to pass on some information to the crew, or I convinced them to act in a certain way that was unwise), I would probably feel the same soul-crushing numbness that the Titanic captain felt.
  • This film was released in December 1997. About 3 1/2 years later, a few months after I graduated from college, four planes were hijacked in the northeast. Two hit the World Trade Center in New York, one hit the Pentagon, and one was brought down by the passengers in a field in Pennsylvania. I remember watching the footage in a training room at work with a coworker, our jaws hanging open, unable and unwilling to speak, overcome by shock and horror and emptiness. I saw that same vacant look in Ruth Bukater (Rose’s mom) and Molly Brown as they floated in the lifeboat a few hundred yards away, watching their boat break apart and their fellow passengers drown in the icy water.

So even though I’ve now seen the film at least six times, enjoying it in 3D and with a few more years under my belt made it worth three more hours of my time. Entertainment Weekly posted an interesting review of the 3D version, how great both are, and the added relevance certain elements of the film still have in light of recent events such as the Occupy movement and 9/11.

Haiku Tuesday 27 – The Princess Bride

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone! To celebrate, I dedicate this week’s Haiku Tuesday to one of my all-time favorite movies, The Princess Bride. If you haven’t seen The Princess Bride, you need to fix that as soon as possible.

Liar! Get back, witch!
I’m not a witch, I’m your wife!
Max, he said “true love”!

Mawage is what bwings
Us togethah today. Now
Do you have the wing?

A battle of wits
For the princess? To the death?
I accept. You fool!

Your turn.


I shouldn’t have been surprised when I saw the “STORE CLOSING” signs at our neighborhood Blockbuster, but I was.

Back when Jenny and I first got married in 2003 and lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Euless, we paid many visits to that Blockbuster store for DVDs and PS2 games. Pizza and a $5 movie or game rental made a perfect date night. Blu-Ray hadn’t been released yet. I don’t think the whole streaming-video thing was popular yet. (for context, I also didn’t text, Cingular – remember them? – was our cell phone provider, and I still hard-coded my blog in HTML) We spent a lot of time in that Blockbuster trying to decide what to rent.

Even though we never went there anymore, it’s still weird to think the store will soon be gone. But times change, and Blockbuster didn’t keep up.

As a society, our movie watching preferences have changed significantly. After completely taking over the video-rental market not too many years ago, Blockbuster is currently in bankruptcy protection and looking for a buyer. The Blockbuster model of large neighborhood video and game rental stores is dying out, made obsolete by two new models. One is RedBox, the movie vending machines you can find at Wal-Mart, gas stations, and other locations. For $1/day, you can pick up a movie while doing another errand and then keep it as long as you please. I’ve never tried RedBox, but Jenny’s parents really like it.

The other model is Netflix, a hybrid of mail-order and streaming media. It began by shipping out movies and TV shows on DVD. As bandwidth became cheaper and high-speed internet connections because common, it added the ability to stream video to a computer or advanced gaming system such as a Wii or Playstation 3. Blockbuster tried to catch up to Netflix with its own mail-order service called Blockbuster Online, but Netflix just did it better. Its operating costs are lower, largely due to its lack of stores, its website is better, and the service is more reliable.

We used Blockbuster Online for a while and switched to Netflix perhaps two years ago. Now that we have kids, we mainly stream cartoons through the Wii to keep Brenden still during his breathing treatments. It works extremely well. Sometimes we stream movies for ourselves as well as workout videos or TV shows. We also get 1 DVD at a time through the mail, which I generally watch at night while the family is asleep. One thing Netflix doesn’t offer is game rentals, but the rest of the service is so great, I’ll give them a pass. For us, it’s about $10/month, the cost of two old-school Blockbuster rentals with much less hassle. If you’re on the fence, I strongly recommend giving it a try.

Any of you use Netflix?

Haiku Tuesday 19 – Favorite Movie

In honor of the Oscars, pick one of your favorite movies and write a haiku about it.

“I need your clothes, your
Boots, and your motorcycle.”
“Forgot to say ‘please’.”

“Have you seen this boy?”
Creepy liquid metal dude
Got to melt him down.

Grab your minigun
Skynet watches over all
Hasta la vista.

(Terminator 2: Judgment Day)

You’re up.