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The Handmaid’s Tale: Making a drama out of a crisis

Handmaids act as reproductive surrogates in the fictionalized Republic of Gilead. Photo: Hulu/George Kraychyk

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The Handmaid’s Tale, an award-winning television series, may be about a fictional “alternative reality”, but the show’s creators have gone to great lengths to ensure that references to themes such as climate change, human rights abuses, and refugees, are as real and accurate as possible, by collaborating closely with UN experts.

The TV version of The Handmaid’s Tale is based on the classic 1985 book of the same name by acclaimed author Margaret Atwood, about a dystopian USA, renamed Gilead, ruled by a brutal theocracy in which people, particularly women, have been stripped of their rights.

In the story, an environmental disaster has led to most women becoming infertile, and the small number who are still able to become pregnant are forced to become handmaids, sexual slaves who are raped by the ruling elite in order to provide them with children.

Atwood frequently said in interviews that everything described in the book is happening, or has happened, somewhere in the world. The producers of the TV version, mindful of the status of the book’s legacy, have been careful to take the same approach.

Playwright Dorothy Fortenberry is one of the writers of the show. She told UN news that, whilst the book reflects 1980s concerns about the environmental impact of nuclear incidents, and acid rain pollution, the writing team felt that it was important to make climate change the backdrop to the societal collapse that brings about Gilead.

“We researched how things like higher temperatures and plastic pollution could affect fertility (we’re currently seeing a decline in fertility worldwide), and the emergence of climate-related diseases. We wanted the series to feel as grounded in reality as possible.”

One of the ironies of the show is that the authoritarian rulers of Gilead have successfully dealt with many aspects of climate change, banning fossil fuels, driving in electric vehicles, and ending plastic pollution.

“Climate change is an event, it doesn’t have a politics, and it’s not necessarily the case that accepting and dealing with climate change would lead to progressive  policies: a pro-environment movement could also be fascist, anti-immigrant and repressive”.

Ms. Fortenberry and her colleagues also wanted to ensure that the many human rights issues raised in the show are realistic, frequently discussing the issues with Andi Gitow, who runs the UN’s Creative Community Outreach Initiative (CCOI). Ms. Gitow said that the team took great pains to get the details right.

“We started with open-ended conversations, where the team would ask, for example, what it’s really like to live in a conflict zone, how does international law work in practice. Then I brought in experts, including someone who lived in Aleppo, Syria, and an international human rights lawyer”.

“The team wanted to know what refugees experience emotionally and practically, and how refugee centres operate. For example, when Emily, one of the characters, crosses the border into Canada, she’s met by an all-female team who tell her that she’s safe. And when Hannah (the lead character), is reunited with her daughter, it’s not the usual Hollywood reunion: there’s a mix of fear, anger and misunderstanding, which is what can often happen in the real world”.

The power of drama

The international success of The Handmaid’s Tale has meant that millions of people are now aware of the issues contained within the drama, often for the first time.

“Drama is one of the most powerful mediums”, says Ms. Gitow. “Of course, reports, documents and meetings are very important. But drama give you the ability to reach a mass audience who might not otherwise be exposed to these issues, and might not otherwise seek out information about them”.

However, the writers strive to avoid pushing a particular agenda, and focus on telling strong stories, with complex, three-dimensional characters coping with extraordinary circumstances.

“If you want to get across a certain point of view, it’s better to write an op-ed”, says Ms. Fortenberry. “That said, we consciously show normal, middle-class women in the US going through some of the experiences that are happening right now to women elsewhere in the world. By doing so, we’re bringing specificity and humanity to some of the horrors taking place, from climate change to gender violence. When you see the effects on one person, you can relate to them”.

“With a drama, you see issues lived and played out by a character you connect with”, adds Ms. Gitow. “You think of yourself, your mother, boss, or best friend in that situation, and it becomes very real. You imagine how you would react in that situation. The news can give you detail, but it can’t do that”.

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Arts & Culture

Arguing Over Petty Things: Turkish Pop or Poop Art?

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Selfie-Taking Ottoman Sultan Statue (Photo Credit: Global Voices)

Talking about the relationship between art and politics corresponds to an intellectually provocative action for the vast majority. When we view history, we can see that art in Nazi Germany legitimized the position of high culture and added many symbols and images to the cultural missions of the Nazis. According to Walter Benjamin, fascism can be called as “aestheticized politics“.

Art in Turkish context has been instrumentalized by the ruling elites most of the time so far however this time it also seems that art is also used as a tool by the unaudited local governments. This article is an attempt to address the current debates around controversial sculptures dominating Turkish social media.  The headline of this article has been given as an inspiration from the recent debates circulated on Twitter.

Turkey is famous for its plethora of historical places and impressive monuments. However the controversial sculptures built in some cities raised debates. A prominent Turkish artist Gürkan Coşkun has defended sculptures and statues that mostly stand at the entrances of the cities depicting things those cities are known for, saying that they were “examples of Turkish pop art.” According to Coşkun, “these artistic works are popular and absolutely creative,” and “Turkish contemporary art must follow these works’ steps. These are the symbols of the people of this region expressing themselves in their own ways.”

Some people reacted on social media over the artist’s evaluation and called these sculptures and statues as “poop art”. There are quite bizarre sculptures and statues built in some particular cities. For instance, in capital Ankara there is a T-Rex dinosaur statue and researcher Mete Sohtaoğlu in an ironic way says that it replaces ‘Transformers’ robot.

A statue of “boy in watermelon” erected by the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality (Photo Credit: Hurriyet Daily News)

Journalist Arzu Geybulleva argues that Turkey’s spectacular city statues raise questions about art and corruption. In a detailed news-analysis she wrote, she said that “The watermelon statue in Diyarbakir reportedly cost 4.4 million Turkish Lira (517,000 US dollars)… The budget for these statues is not transparent and is often associated with corruption at the local government level.”

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UNESCO open exhibition “The World in Faces” at its Paris headquarters

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On Thursday, July 8, at the headquarters of UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in Paris, the exhibition “The World in Faces” of the famous Russian photographer Alexander Khimushin opened. The author personally presented a collection of more than 170 artistic photographic portraits of representatives of different peoples of the world, shot in authentic national dress in places of residence. The exhibition is dedicated to the upcoming International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and Their Languages. It is a celebration of multiculturalism and our incredible ethnic diversity at its best.

“In the photographs from the project “The World in Faces” I express my philosophy of life, which has been formed over the years of travel. It was through meetings with representatives of different nationalities, contact with their cultures, that I came to understand that all of them – with an incredible ethnic diversity – are people just like you and me. They are simply trying to artificially divide us by borders and ideologies,” explains Khimushin.

The exhibition is a great way to tell the world about indigenous peoples and draw attention to their problems.

The people in Khimushin’s portraits managed to preserve their originality, traditions and former way of life. But it is more and more difficult for them to do this – small peoples are rapidly approaching complete extinction, the languages ​​and traditions of their ancestors are forgotten. “The world in Faces” reminds how important it is not to let them disappear without a trace.

The idea to create a collection of photographic portraits of indigenous peoples in national dress and in their native environment was born in 2014, when Alexander had already accumulated a considerable amount of work done in the most exotic locations – from Samoa and Fiji to Swaziland. Since then, he has never stopped traveling around the world, and his project is growing and becoming a phenomenon.

“Initially, when I started working on the project, I had a dream – to exhibit at the UN. UNESCO is a UN structure that deals specifically with cultural issues and, accordingly, since I am engaged in the preservation of cultures, traditions, languages ​​that are disappearing today – it was important and honorable for me to exhibit my works at UNESCO. I don’t know what will happen next. In principle, I think that these should be large international platforms, since the project goes beyond Russia. The project is worldwide. I’m not going to complete the project. I plan to travel and collect stories, photographs, from all over the world – and I will be glad to consider proposals for global exhibitions that would show us – humanity – that we live in this world are different, each has its own culture, traditions, we must respect people who belong to other cultures. At the same time, the general humanistic component is that the whole world is one and all people are brothers,” notes Khimushin.

In 2018, Khimushin went to the Russian Arctic – Taimyr. The result was a series of portraits of the region’s indigenous inhabitants – Dolgans, Nganasans, Enets, Nenets, Evenks.

“Taimyr is unique in that it is a distant, cold place. For me, this was not something new, since I grew up in Yakutia (the Far East of Russia is the cold pole on the planet), but it is the peoples living there – the Nenets, Dolgans, Nganasans, they have a unique culture, their way of life and reindeer husbandry have been preserved. It was interesting to visit, thanks to Norilsk Nickel (The world’s largest high-grade nickel and palladium producer), to get to these places. I would like to return to Taimyr, shoot more there, if there is such an opportunity,” the artist noted.

The Norilsk Nickel company, which takes an active part in the fate of the small peoples of the Arctic, supported the Khimushin project.

“Our company supports the work of Alexander Khimushin, because thanks to his work, the whole world can see amazing, beautiful people living in remote corners of our planet. Including representatives of the indigenous peoples of the North of Russia, who managed to preserve a unique, original culture and traditions. The preservation of nature, traditions and culture of indigenous peoples, support and new opportunities for the development of ancestral activities – these are the themes that bring countries, international and commercial organizations, artists and creators together, “said Tatyana Smirnova Head of Public Relations MMC Norilsk Nickel.

Khimushin became the first Russian photographer to have an exhibition at the UN headquarters in New York. Works from The World in Faces project were exhibited at the University of Lille in France, and for six months were broadcast on the screen of the world’s largest digital art center in Bordeaux.

The exhibition at the headquarters of UNESCO will run until the end of August 2021.

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Russia, Egypt Launch the Year of Humanitarian Cooperation

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Russia and Egypt have opened the next chapter in their bilateral relations as the Assistant Foreign Minister for Cultural Relations, Ambassador Mahmoud Talaat, described the launch of the Russia-Egypt Year of Humanitarian Cooperation as a “bright spot” in the history of joint relations.

Addressing the launch ceremony on behalf of Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Talaat said the event comes within the framework of strategic relations between the two countries that reflected in a humanitarian exchange document, which was signed by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi.

Both officials reviewed Cairo-Moscow distinguished relations that have been growing in all fields, mainly at the political, economic, scientific, cultural and social levels. They pointed out to the close historic ties binding both counties and their peoples.

Russia’s Deputy Minister of Culture Olga Yarilova who led the Russian delegation in the meeting emphasized the strength of relations between Cairo and Moscow. She added that the agenda of the Cairo-Moscow year of human exchange will include several cultural, tourism, sports, youth and educational events and activities among the two countries’ cities and regions.

Culture Minister Enas Abdel Dayem and Russia’s Deputy Minister of Culture Olga Yarilova jointly launched the kick-off event at the Cairo Opera House, in the presence of Chairman of the Cairo Opera Magdy Saber, alongside a number of ministers, ambassadors and leaders of the Ministry of Culture.

Beryozka (Berezka) Dance Ensemble, one of the internationally renowned and oldest Russian dance troupes, presented a number of artistic shows on Russian folklore. The Ensemble is a troupe of female dancers founded by Russian choreographer and dancer Nadezhda Nadezhdina in 1948 in the Soviet Union which specializes in performing in long gowns and moving across the stage as though on wheels or floating.

It is worth mentioning that Russia has been chosen as the guest of honor for the Ismailia International Festival for Documentary and Short Films, set for June 16-22.

The Egyptian culture and foreign ministries and Russian bodies concerned have prepared an agenda, including 23 cultural and artistic events throughout the whole year, with the participation of the culture ministry’s sectors and authorities. The cultural programmes will run till May 2022, and as part of the preparations for the second Russia-Africa summit planned for next year in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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