TV

Deathwatch 2005: Terry Schiavo and the Pope Antidote

Bill Gibron

When John Paul went from Pontiff to patient, he seemed to instantly wipe Terry and her hot button harangue off the map.

Terry Schiavo, now there's a name you haven't heard in a while, right? Since she finally passed into the shadows a few weeks ago, it's safe to say that the media maelstrom surrounding her case has not been as blustery. Why haven't Fox News Channel and MSNBC kept their reports in constant vigil near the hospice-turned-shrine where this symbol of an unsympathetic judiciary once vegetated?

The last time anyone looked, Congress wasn't usurping its representative duty to help individuals make tough decisions, nor was the President jetting back from vacation again to undermine the checks and balances built into the three branch makeup of the government (at least, not for non-responsive terminal patients dangling from the threads of modern medical technology). Schiavo and her sideshow have finally fallen by the wayside, and we have the mighty power of the papacy to thank for it.

When Pope John Paul II finally answered the call of his Creator on April 3rd, he successfully provided the feel good story about mortality that Schiavo and her muddled moral dilemma couldn't provide. As JPII donned his best mortal-coil shuffling vestments and positioned his velvet slipper clad feet into bucket kicking mode, there was no court case looming to keep him hooked up to life preserving devices, no one running through the Vatican City roadblocks to deliver him food and water.

Perhaps it was because of the perceived higher mission involved or the acknowledged futility of the fight, but John Paul II definitely proved that, when it comes to pushing up the daisies, the media likes dying when it's clean, simple and part of a pre-ordained process. When you start adding in ethics and epistemology however, the normally nonplused TV signal starts to get a little scrambled.

Let's face it -- when it comes to the Grim Reaper, our modern, 24 hour a day media has only one of two switches it can throw - the celebratory or the sensational. The former is usually reserved for the famous, or infamous: someone who wouldn't normally warrant a mention in between all the violence and vitriol. We get the pleasant obituary, the obligatory montage of career highlights, and some person either directly or indirectly related to the deceased stepping up to deliver a sixty-second sound bite eulogy, a noble if often pointless attempt at summing up someone's life in a couple of sentences.

But give them the sensational, let a little child be abducted and found murdered, or have a desperate employee start shooting up his ex-workplace, and the panther press springs into action. Smelling the raw meat of tragedy and sensing the ratings that such a situation procures, the image of vultures picking the bones of bereavement clean is no exaggeration. The inexplicable death is what the media truly live for, the chance to report as well as create the news simultaneously. It provides viewers a chance to live and experience misfortune, vicariously, through the plight of others.

Instead of worrying where the next headline will come from, the round the clock coverage just begins in earnest. And if the police aren't offering up a press conference, or relatives aren't reeling in spontaneous outbursts of emotion, no need to worry. There are dozens of agenda-lead mouthpieces just waiting in the Green Room wings to give their two hundred cents worth.

Such was the case in the Schiavo matter - sort of. Frankly, it had all the facets that make your basic cable news networks salivate. On one side was the heartsick husband, wanting to (supposedly) fulfill his wife's final wishes. On the other side were the parents, arguing that they had the right to determine their child's fate. In between, where no King Solomon could ever fit, was the legal system, with its rules and regulations meant to guide, not guarantee.

Thanks to its more than ambiguous attributes, the Schiavo case became the perfect premise for what TV news now does best - pontification. Gone are the days of reporting - today's news anchors REACT! They thrust themselves deep into the fray, using prosecutorial tactics to throw bias-laced leading questions at their co-conspirator guests. Those with an opposing side are dismissed as psychotic, immoral - or the worst crime of all - unpatriotic. While it's not an excuse for how the Schiavo case devolved into a circus, it certainly explains the morbid fascination with which the subject was treated.

It's hard to hate the news for what they did to and for Schiavo and her family. From the original poster child for death with dignity, Karen Quinlan, to the Kevorkian cases of a decade ago, the public has a fascination, and a fear of imminent mortality. It tends to turn even the most rational mind a bit ghoulish. Certainly, there were times when everyone went a bit overboard: a so-called professional journalist on Chris Matthews' Sunday talk show was actually heard to say that Schiavo needed to be kept alive for "the further enjoyment and entertainment of her family".

If you think the national coverage of the Schiavo case was outlandish, you should have been in Florida during the debacle (actually, there is no real reason for anyone to be in the solipsistic Sunshine State, unless your name is Bush or you belong to the AARP). For the local media in and around Tampa, the Schiavo case was an annual rite of spring.. To your average sunstroked viewer, Michael Schiavo and the Schindlers were like the Yankees arriving for training camp, or the horrid stench of red tide returning to the beaches.

The case has defined the region, reminding the vast majority of elderly residents that, after retirement, there weren't many spaces left on the game board called life. So as the living-will kits started disappearing from Office Depot shelves, and patients grilled their surgeons about means of extraordinary resuscitation prior to undergoing the knife, Terry and her publicity-seeking pirates seemed happy to battle it out on the local level.

All that changed, of course, when the State Legislature decided to play a little game of Constitutional Challenge and special sessioned its way to something called Terry's Law. It is still an amazing concept to consider: the entire governing body of Florida, representing millions of residents with an equal number of important issues, took a so-called ethical stand to protect a single citizen. Wow. If only we had all known it was so simple. There are probably thousands of private disputes and personal problems the government could step in and cure right now. Apparently, all we have to do is ask - oh yeah, and be on the right political side once Election Day comes back around.

That such an intervention would eventually happen at the national level was hardly conceivable. Yet, there were the Republicans demanding a jurisdictional change to the legal branch so that another series of lawsuits could be filed in Federal Court, and our President, taking a moment away from the less pressing matters like war in Iraq or Asian nuclear proliferation to make sure the Schindlers got another few days in court.

TV reveled in all of it. It was like a very special episode of The West Wing. Sides were drawn up pretty quickly. Few stations championed Michael Schiavo's position. Most just tossed up that highly misleading footage of Terry "responding" to her family, and called the contest in their favor. Of course, no context was provided for the film - no date, or factual circumstance. All the public saw was a young woman, misshapen by illness, smiling and moving. Naturally, she should be saved - especially from a man with questionable motives and even more concerning morals.

But when John Paul went from Pontiff to patient, he seemed to instantly wipe Terry and her hot button harangue off the map. When he was shown in those annual rituals of media related religious recognition - Christmas and Easter, he was referred to as "frail", or "weak but courageous". Even his last, most memorable public appearance, where he tried but was unable to speak to the faithful in St. Peter's Square, was couched in the terms of a wounded war hero, not the recognizable death throngs of an enfeebled old man. For many, John Paul II was a great man. To others, he was a symbol of something - religion - that is ancillary to their reality. But for television, the Pope's death was a chance to make amends for all the misguided messages offered during the Schiavo case.

Indeed, John Paul's passing was something everyone could all get behind, no matter your denomination. Public opinion polls post-Schiavo had not been kind to the Congress, or the coverage, and the building antagonism toward sensationalism run amuck was reaching critical mass. But when this simple man born into a nation that would know both Nazi invasion and Communist occupation, finally called it a day, it was time for a little objective absolution. Instead of condemning death, the end of life could be distinguished as the natural part of the process that it always has been. Fear could be replaced with fanfare, the pain of loss juxtaposed against the glorification of good works.

It worked. No sooner had the announcement be made that the Pope was being hospitalized, than the respectful vigil began. In stark contrast to the Schiavo case, John Paul II's imminent demise was treated with dignity and respect. Certainly, there were talking heads who were looking for beatification before the Cardinals came calling to do their enclave thing, but hushed tones and courteous commentary met every update, every sign of a post-mortem papacy.

It was an obvious ruse, a self-congratulatory ploy that screamed for attention like a grade schooler in a toy store. The media was demanding to be seen as sincere, to be forgiven for taking the Schiavo case to such sorry extremes. And they had the perfect pawn from which to make their plea.

Of course the public bought it - hook, line and subterfuge. The normal viewer forgave the media for overdosing on death - with or without decorum. Gone were the angry voices shouting their slogans about playing God. Gone were the politicos trying to worm their way out of obvious questions about Federalism and the questionable co-mingling of government in deep personal intimacy. In their place , an equally sinister sentiment curdled, one just as nauseating as the entire staged morality melodrama performed for Schiavo. Failing to celebrate the Pope as he fearlessly headed off into the afterlife was seen as a sign of spiritual malaise, or worse, that you were the Anti-Christ come to destroy God's kingdom on Earth.

Even as they tried to push the Pope's case precariously close into overdose mode - reports of his would-be assassin weeping, the sudden sightings of the pontiff's image in church's and in malformed sticky buns - the media kept the mistakes of Schiavo in the rearview mirror, and proceeded with calm and caution. If one was so inclined, they could argue that Karma, or some manner of cosmic synchronicity, was actually at work here, an attempt to realign the planes of reality before the entire human race went completely cable news catawampus. Schiavo showed us that no matter the diagnosis, we hang onto any amount of life, no matter how immaterial and empty. John Paul II proved we could accept death, as long as it is given the proper amount of respect and recognition.

Maybe, had the media tried to turn Terry Schiavo into some manner of symbol, a woman who was leaving behind a treasure trove of charitable and Christian acts of kindness, the whole plug pulling, tube removal scenario could have been downplayed. But instead, they turned over that card more insidious than race or hate: the card of unapologetic grandstanding. But instead of trumping the television audience, journalism almost lost the entire hand. Thankfully, the Pope was around to take the last trick. It just goes to prove that when the media sticks its favoritism foot in its always-open mouth, they require divine intervention to extract it.

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White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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