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director’s voice

Mark Becker, A91

Pressure Cooker (Available on DVD) The stakes in Wilma Stephenson’s cooking class couldn’t be higher. Her students at Frankford High School spend the year prepping for a scholarship competition that could provide full tuition to culinary school—a ticket out of dead-end Northeast Philly. There’s Tyree, the good-natured football star; Erica, who cares for her blind sister; and Fatoumata, an African immigrant with a tyrannical father. Part drill sergeant, part den mother, Wilma is a mold-breaking character whom Becker’s Emmy-nominated documentary brings to chaotic, joyful life.

“When the producer contacted me, I was skeptical because it seemed like a movie that was about good people doing good things, and I like something with more of an edge. She had already shot a little footage, and it was of Wilma going out onto the football field and screaming at Tyree because she needs his shirt size for a class presentation. I realized that the film could be about this culinary arts teacher who does good things for kids but has a complicated relationship with them, and this subtext would transcend the good-hearted teacher drama.

I was struck by how wholesome these kids were. Northeast Philly is predominantly African American and working class, and the area suffers from a certain amount of strife. But the kids betray any archetype. I wanted viewers to feel that same sense of honesty and surprise that I felt in filming them. I was able to make that happen without resorting to the usual narrative crutches of drugs and gangs that people expect in stories about low-income families triumphing over adversity.

Wilma is in this domineering classroom role, and she can’t turn it off for anyone. I felt like a high school student a lot of the time I was with her. One time a bunch of the kids headed out to get subs for lunch. We didn’t realize that going off campus was against the rules, so we just followed them. Later Wilma laid into us for aiding and abetting. I tried to explain that we weren’t guidance counselors and needed to film whatever was relevant, but I learned it was better just to say, ‘Sorry, Wilma.’

Fatoumata offered an amazing story. She has an oppressive father with old-world ideas about a woman’s place, and at school she’s guided by this provocative, independent woman. To watch her home and school lives collide was really compelling. In her scholarship interview, she talked about her overbearing parents and said, ‘But that’s their issue, not mine.’ This is what I love about vérité filmmaking—when a character surprises you and becomes so much more revealing and three-dimensional than any stereotype.


The Rhinestone Sisterhood: A Journey Through Small-Town America, One Tiara at a Time (Crown)

If your only experience of pageants is self-righteous scoffing, meet the Frog, Fur, Cotton, and Cattle Queens of Louisiana. David Valdes Greenwood, a lecturer in English at Tufts, sympathetically portrays these four capable “sisters of the sash.” Far from parading skimpy swimsuits and even skimpier knowledge of global affairs, small-town festival queens represent civic pride in their communities’ greatest assets. To win their crowns, they must prove their knowledge of subjects like meat-packing, all for the privilege of chasing pigs, kissing frogs, riding cows, and providing the only publicity that some of their remote hamlets can afford.

Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston (Harvard)

Everyday urban acts—drinking a glass of water, strolling through the park, hopping the train for the suburbs—are governed by complex relationships between city and nature that were pioneered in Boston. Dwelling in one of the first communities in America to urbanize, nineteenth-century Bostonians channeled lakes to provide clean water, filled in and built on the Back Bay, and transformed Boston Common from a pasture into one of the nation’s first public parks. Michael Rawson, A87, explores the social developments behind these changes, including the emergence of a leisure class with time to enjoy the city’s green areas.

The Writing Circle (Voice)

As fiction editor of The Massachusetts Review, a professor of English at Mount Holyoke, and a prolific author, Corinne Demas, J68, knows that writers are an eccentric lot—the stuff of great fiction. The novel’s protagonist, an aspiring fiction writer, joins an exclusive community of scribblers and meets a condescending famous poet, a bloviating biographer, a best-selling crime novelist with a disastrous family life, a shoe-company heir of a literary bent, and a good-natured historian who tries to keep peace among them. This tale of shifting alliances, troubling revelations, and accusations of plagiarism shows how a story is woven together from its characters’ disparate strands.

Capturing the News: Three Decades of Reporting Crisis and Conflict (University of Missouri)

“Capture,” with its connotations of animals stalking their prey, describes the journalistic career of Anthony Collings, G61, to a T. Whether he’s wresting the truth about the dissidents from Soviet authorities, smuggling video footage out of martial-law Poland in a coup for the fledgling CNN, or taking tea with AK-47-toting Syrians in Lebanon while hunting for the missiles threatening another war with Israel, Collings stays in hot pursuit till the story is his. In this age of 24/7 opinion factories, his constant, often perilous, quest for the truth is a bracing reminder of what journalism once was.

A Call For Judgment: Sensible Finance for a Dynamic Economy (Oxford)

Once upon a time, if you wanted to buy a house you would apply for a mortgage at a local bank where they knew you. The loan stayed on their books, and they had plenty of incentive to be prudent. Somewhere along the line, all that changed. A distant mortgage broker replaced the local loan officer, and by 2004, less than a third of all loans were originated by the lenders’ own employees. Amar Bhidé, the Thomas Schmidheiny Professor of International Business at Tufts, blames this system of “decentralized judgment” for the global economic collapse. When a few large centralized firms rely on mechanistic models rather than case-by-case information to make credit decisions, it diffuses immediate risk and engenders recklessness. Bhidé’s highly readable plea for reason calls for a return to relationship-based finance that fosters economic dynamism.

film & video

The Big C

Oliver Platt, A83, stars in the new Showtime drama The Big C as Paul, the husband of Laura Linney’s character, Cathy. When she’s diagnosed with cancer, straitlaced Cathy makes some radical decisions, including keeping mum about her condition, and kicking Paul—an overgrown baby who still demands she cut the crusts off his bread—out of the house. Can Paul man up in time to win her back? Mondays at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT.

Deep Down

Many attempts to understand Appalachia fall back on damaging stereotypes. But not this documentary co-directed and edited by Sally Rubin, J99. It follows two Kentuckians who grapple with the country’s energy demand in very different ways. When a coal mining company comes to her hollow, Beverly May, a health practitioner, fiddler, and self-described hillbilly, organizes her community against mountaintop removal mining, in which explosives blast off mountaintops and expose the coal beneath. Meanwhile, Terry Ratliff, a college-educated furniture maker and former social worker, considers selling the mining rights to his backyard. Their peaceful community of Maytown is swept up in an environmental maelstrom. Our voracious appetite for energy has obvious devastating effects on the beauty and integrity of our natural environment, but Rubin’s film highlights the less frequently acknowledged impact on lives and local economies. Airs on Independent Lens (PBS) November 23 and at community cinemas nationwide (schedule at to.pbs.org/deep_down).

Everyone Has Their Miracles

Alex Kahn, A10, won for Best Documentary at Brandeis University’s IndieLouie Film Festival for his twenty-four-minute Spanish-language film (Spanish title: Todos tienen sus milagros), an exposé of Argentina’s Santeria industry. The documentary also aired at the Long Island International Film Festival. The Santeria religion, practiced in Latin America and the Caribbean, combines African and Catholic roots with a heavy dose of black magic. Santeria shops sell a wide assortment of mystical tchotchkes reputed to bring their buyers good luck. Kahn, who made the film while studying in Buenos Aires, sought to present a portrait of faith in Latin America, including a look at how commercialization has diluted a local religion.


Magic Man

France seems to have cast an inspirational spell on Alex Caplow, A12, and Sam Lee. The two friends had been playing music together since middle school, but when they spent summer 2009 volunteering at French organic farms, the indie-pop duo Magic Man—and their first album, Real Life Color—was born. The entire album was recorded using only an acoustic guitar and a MacBook. Caplow and Lee completed the final touches back in their dorm rooms. Magic Man recently got a shout-out on Good Morning America when their song “Daughter” was used as the soundtrack for the show’s “Your Three Words” segment (bit.ly/magic_man). Download Real Life Color for free at magicman.bandcamp.com.


Sacred Words

In Paris, Krista Bard, J75, presents a show of her tangible meditations—phrases from world religious texts written in simple circles or rectangles using ink and oil pastels. Even the paper she uses has mystical resonance. She treats it with ancient oils such as frankincense and myrrh and Lourdes holy water to “raise awareness of the meaning and energy of each word.”

The serenity of Sacred Words belies its darker inspiration. When Bard and her fiancé parted ways, she began painting mystical words over and over to calm herself. Her mother, Hope, suffered from chronic depression, and Bard was acutely aware of the dangers of falling into the abyss. After her mother’s death, her sister founded the Hope for Depression Research Foundation to further understanding of the condition. Proceeds from some of Bard’s sales have gone to the foundation, which also commissioned one of her works, “Hope Springs Eternal,” in honor of her mother. At Galerie Vivendi, Place des Vosges, Paris, October 14–31.

other books of note

In her professional development guide Teachers Act Up! (Teachers College), MELISA CAHNMANN-TAYLOR, J92, shows how educators can use theater to meet an array of challenges both inside and outside the classroom. MEGAN HARLAN, J91, cites the influence of Deborah Digges, the late acclaimed poet and Tufts English professor, on her newest poetry collection, Mapmaking (BkMk), which charts emotional, spiritual, and geographic territory with a visionary sweep. The Third Reich and the Ivory Tower (Cambridge), by STEPHEN H. NORWOOD, A72, exposes the complacency of elite American universities during the Nazi regime. KATHERINE HALL PAGE, G74, serves up Have Faith in Your Kitchen (Orchises), a collection of the recipes that have spiced up her stories about caterer-cum-crime-solver Faith Fairchild. ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, A86, an overseer to the School of Arts and Sciences and founder of his own investment management company, says Goodbye Gordon Gekko (Wiley), arguing that it’s possible to embrace wealth and ambition and retain your moral compass. Many of the U.K.’s greatest actors studied under George Hall. LOLLY SUSI, J72, conducts a series of incisive interviews with him in An Untidy Career (Oberon). Employment Law: A Guide to Hiring, Managing, and Firing for Employers and Employees (Aspen), by LORI B. RASSAS, J94, covers everything from job creation to benefits. The Racism Trainings (BlazeVOX), a novel by DAVID REICH, A70, takes aim at the orthodoxies of race and religion and the absurdities of office politics.

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