Thursday, January 25, 2007

Abbé Pierre

France is mourning the passing of one of it’s most well loved, if not sometimes controversial, figures. L’Abbé Pierre est mort… Abbé Pierre, a Catholic priest who devoted much of his life to the care of the homeless poor, died on Monday, Jan. 22. He was 94.

France is probably neck and neck with Italy in the saints department. Despite France’s secularized society it has continued to produce saintly icon to this day. The much-loved Brother Roger of Taize, also in his 90s, died last year in the hands of a knife-wielding deranged devotee. These modern-day saintly Frenchmen died really old while some of France’s popular saintly women died very young, like Therese of Lisieux and Joan of Arc.

French President Jacques Chirac himself announced Abbé Pierre’s death and called him “an immense figure, a conscience, a man who personified goodness.” What a tribute. Abbé Pierre, Chirac said, “represented the spirit of rebellion against misery, suffering, injustice and the strength of solidarity.” Abbé Pierre raged against the dying of the light in the hearts of men and women.

In popular polls over the years, Abbé Pierre topped the list more than 17 times as France’s favorite personality. At one time, he even edged out football superstar Zinedine Zidane. Would such “an immense figure” make it to the bottom of a list in perpetually star-struck Philippines? France, producer of great classic films and movie and fashion icons, just had to give way to a non-star. Sure, Abbé Pierre was an icon in his own right, a star in a way, but in a different firmament.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

An inconvenient truth

All the Asean heads of state and their ministers who came for the recent Asean summit in Cebu were all gathered in one dark room for 100 minutes, listening to former US Vice President Al Gore in the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”. Each one had a bucket of popcorn. And when it was over they all stood up, their faces flushed because they all felt a sudden energy surge. They all went out the door, walking briskly, ready to take on the world with great resolve.

Wishful thinking. That was a what-if scenario that was running like a sidebar frame in my mind while I was watching the movie-docu the other day. (They did sign something on promoting non-polluting sources of energy.)

Documentaries are going mainstream—“The March of the Penguins” among the latest—and are relatively well received. Is this a shift? There have been too many big-budget fantasies in the last few years and their success could mean more are coming. They portray the good-versus-evil themes of real life but because they’re fantasy, we know for sure that good will triumph over evil after we’ve sat it out for three sensurround hours or after three years of waiting for a trilogy to run its course. And then we say that everything will be all right.

Not if you watch “An Inconvenient Truth” (directed by Davis Guggenheim). Everything will not be all right if we do not do something to reverse global warming. The movie is a global warning. It’s not doomsday reel fiction like “Soylent Green”, it’s real life on Planet Earth right now. And we, its inhabitants, are to blame for what’s happening.

But do enjoy your popcorn.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Oprah’s $40-million school for girls

I made a mistake last week. Instead of writing $40 million, I wrote $40,000. That’s minus three zeroes or a staggering difference of $39,960,000. I wanted to show how big $40 million was so I wrote the numbers—zeroes and all—(instead of the word million) but was short of three zeroes.

So how does $40,000,000 look now? That was how much US TV giant Oprah Winfrey spent to build a school for poor girls in South Africa. The Opra Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls opened last Jan. 2 with the first 75 students whom Opra herself had handpicked.

I promised Edna Zapanta Manlapaz, one of those who pointed out the error and who sent me the Jan. 2007 issue of the Oprah magazine, that I would write a longer piece on the “academy”. The latest issue has the story about now the school came to be, what it is like and the process of choosing the first students. The story, “Building a Dream” is by Pamela Gien and the photographs by Graham Abbott.

Five years and $40 million were not all that it took to build, for the building of this dream had begun much earlier. That is, in the heart of a woman who had known what it was to be poor, black and sexually abused—and who rose to become one of the world’s richest, most popular and loved media giant.

Friday, January 5, 2007

‘Babaylan’ crossings

You have tampered with the women/ You have struck a rock/ You have dislodged a boulder/ You will be crushed. – from an Afrikaan freedom song

That is a line from an Afrikaan freedom song sung at the historic women’s freedom march in 1956 in South Africa. The minister of education recalled those lines during the 2002 ground breaking of the Opra Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Soweto. The academy opened as 2007 was being ushered in and was ready to take in its first batch of girls.

That school was Oprah’s promise to the revered former South African Pres. Nelson Mandela when she visited in 2002. Her initial promise of $10,000 became $40,000. Oprah’s choice of place was Soweto. Her choice of students were girls from underprivileged background whom she herself had interviewed and handpicked.

Now the academy has opened. Many girl children who will go there will be trained to be future leaders and achievers in their chosen fields, compassionate, strong, giving. And beautiful, of course, inside and out.

In an article, a girl who was interviewed recounted the “phenomenal few minutes” with Oprah: “(She) asked me three questions. What I want to become. Why? And what good advice I’ve given anyone.”

Oprah has shown a great example to the rich, famous and influential. This bright and influential woman of US television and one of the world’s richest came from a difficult childhood (she was black, poor and abused) has moved on to great heights and expanded her embrace.