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Pondering Pakistan

For a long time now I’ve wanted to write about my interview with Duane Baughman and Mark Siegel. The two men were in Toronto this time last year for the screening of their film, Bhutto, at the annual Hot Docs Film Festival, following their world premiere months earlier at the Sundance Film Festival. The Toronto screening came and went, life moved on, and I never seemed to properly make time to sit down and write – until now.

I visited Ground Zero last week, less than 12 hours after President Obama’s historic announcement about Osama bin Laden’s death. With news reports filled with pertinent details and reports that paint a damning portrait of Pakistan and its possible role in harboring terrorists (or not), the screening of Bhutto tonight feels like a slow, patient untying of a complex Gordian knot. That’s not to say the movie is slow -it isn’t – but it is layered, the way any documentary worth its salt should be.
I discussed this in my chat with Duane and Mark last year on the radio:

Independent Lens is broadcasting the timely documentary tonight on local PBS stations (check yours here). Baughman, its Director, and Siegel, Co-Producer, present a complex, if deeply vital portrait of both a woman and a country that we, here in the West, have a lot of preconceptions around -especially since the news of Osama bin Laden being killed May 1st.
With numerous interviews (including fascinating input from The New York Times’ John Burns and vitriolic assertions from Fatima Bhutto, Benazir’s niece), fly-on-the-wall footage, and a thorough, if compelling history lesson (not to mention a pulsating soundtrack by The Police’s Stewart Copeland), Bhutto is a riveting look at a country that’s been painted in far too broad strokes by a Western media eager for villains. Truth be told, there are no clear villains in Bhutto, but (hint hint) General Pervez Musharraf doesn’t come off very well; he visibly squirms, as the camera casually lingers on him, providing glib answers and a ton of silence. The effect is awkward, as it’s meant to be, though his inclusion in the documentary might seem questionable. In fact, when Siegel was on The Daily Show just months after Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy, and the West came out (a book he co-authored with Benazhir Bhutto), he took host Jon Stewart to task for having the former Pakistani leader as a featured guest. Siegel had just finished working with long-time friend Bhutto on Reconciliation when she was assassinated. “She prayed for the best and planned for the worst”…
Even if you still have questions around Benazir Bhutto and her approach to Islam, her handling of government policy, and those troubling corruption charges, you will most certainly come away with a more thorough, nuanced undertanding of the machinations of politics and terrorism, and the place where the two meet, in one tragic explosive moment. Watch it. You’ll be glad you did.

Roar

It was predicted, and it came true: I’m in definite withdrawl from the amazing experience of seeing Grinderman last week. A mad mix of shrieking guitars, creaky violin, ear-splitting feedback, thudding bass, crashing drums & scratchy cymbals (oh, and one very booming baritone) has invaded my aural -and spiritual -space. It’s been perfect in terms of creative inspiration, but has totally stymied the more mundane aspects of Good And Proper Adult Responsibility. Oh dear.

Along with getting retweeted by the band’s amazing Twitter team and looking up every single live clip I can find online, I’ve been thinking a lot about women in rock and roll. It’s no accident that this fascination coincides with my diving head-first into the work of Patti Smith. Years ago I remember music-mad broadcaster George Stroumboulopoulos wisely observating that if Patti had been born male, she’d be as well-known as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen (and, I might add, just as comfortably rich too). I think about all the crap (some deserved) Courtney Love has endured, despite the fact she’s put out some incredibly good stuff. I remember the great shows L7 used to give back in the early 90s, and how people I knew sneered and thought they were vulgar. I remember bopping along to Joan Jett and the Blackhearts as a kid and being accused of being “butch.” I enjoy all these artists as much as I enjoy Soundgarden, Led Zeppelin, and yep, Grinderman. Seeing them last week, I really have been wondering: where are the women doing this? why aren’t they being promoted? Why aren’t little girls who rock out being encouraged to… well, rock out? Somehow it feels like it goes against the image of what everyone thinks girls should do. Wear pink, like Barbies, wear makeup, and eventually, don heels. Why can’t we do all that AND rock out? (Or not do any of it but still like boys, drinks, and the rock music?) What’s the role of aggression and creativity -especially when you happen to have boobs?

It’s always been my opinion (based on direct experience) that the world doesn’t take very well to aggressive women: “butch”, “dyke”, “trashy”, “nuts”, even the eponymous “bitch” all get thrown at those women. Toronto’s urbanvessel theatre company wanted to take a closer look at this idea of women and aggression. Their show, Voice Box, was produced this past weekend in association with the city’s Harbourfront Centre (a big arts complex on the edge of Lake Ontario), and it integrates boxing with theatre and music. From the very first notice I got of this show, I was curious about the hows and whys. I interviewed Voice Box’s whip-smart writer, Anna Chatterton, at CIUT just before the show’s opening to get her insights into popular perceptions around female aggression, and how they relate to the art of getting in the ring.

Voice Box with Anna Chatterton by CateKusti

Alas, I’m no closer to solving the riddle of why women aren’t making the kind of balls-out, kick-ass music that puts my stomach in knots and makes my blood do aerobics in my veins. But then, I suppose, there’s another argument that, if I enjoy it (like so many women do), that’s enough. But is it? Hmmm. Pop music has its fair share of male-female ratios in terms of performers (their presentation and marketing is a whole separate argument); why not rock and roll?

Dear Grinderman, please think about having Patti sing a number with you. I can hardly wait for her version of “No Pussy Blues”.

Photo credits:
Top photo by Adam Coish.
Bottom photo by Giulio Muratori.

A New Vision

When Matthew Jocelyn and I sat down recently to talk about the new Canadian Stage season and how to make the Canadian theatre scene better, I never could have foreseen the amazing insights that would emerge from that short conversation.

I already covered the company’s 2010-2011 announcement several month ago, and was properly impressed, but I was eager to know the whys and wherefores, and just how Jocelyn, who is the company’s Artistic and General Director, planned to make this season appealing to a city where the great majority of theatre-goers (the ones not in the luvvie camp) far prefer the safe and familiar (and frequently cutesy) instead of the new and strange (and frequently ugly -if fascinating). How to integrate the instinct of elevation with the necessity of sales? It’s a tough riddle to work out, especially within the harsh conditions many Canadian artists live and work (or try to work) under.

There are many untrue cultural stereotypes of Canadians: that we all like hockey, that we love winter, that we say “eh” after everything, and we worship Tim Horton’s coffee. (Cue my extreme eyerolling.) The one stereotype I’d argue holds a kernel of truth is that, by and large, we don’t like experimentation when it comes to the arts, and we’re leery about artists who push the envelope. (As an aside, dear Lady Gaga fans: a Canadian did it first.) Jocelyn, by virtue of living abroad for so long, wants to change the Canadian tendency toward caution in the arts -gently, yes, and with much patience too, but with an equally clear vision of his company’s 21st century mandate and its relationship with Toronto. A theatre company should do more than put on safe, middle-of-the-road stuff, but at the same time, shouldn’t isolate either its core supporters or potential newcomers with art-with-a-capital-A material.

What’s notable (and heartening) is our too-brief discussion of how the internet has really rendered thee companies more able to communicate between and amongst one another -so whether you’re in Dublin or London or New York (or even Toronto!), sharing and exchange ideas has never been more prevalent -or more important. No company is an island, or in this age, can afford to be. It’s a lesson well worth heeding.

A note to my international readers: please don’t think you have to be in Toronto to enjoy this chat. The things Mr. Jocelyn discusses -marketing, outreach, planning a season, trying to balance populist choices with an embrace of new, multi-cultural programming -are issues every arts company faces, everywhere. Let me now what you think; if you’re an Artistic or General Director, I want to know how you’re tackling the challenges of attracting and cultivating audiences with making interesting, inspired programming choices. As my chat with Mr. Jocelyn taught me, cultural exchange is more than a few complimentary words left on a Facebook wall.

You Knead It

Saturday mornings I want nothing more than my French press coffee & a good croissant or pain au chocolat. Such was the case this morning; with no decent boulangerie within walking distance, I was left sighing over my beautiful copy of Bourke Street Bakery: The Ultimate Baking Companion. The hefty hardcover book (published by Harper Collins) is chalk-full of yummy-looking photos of all manner of fancy pastries featured in the famous Sydney bakery that’s owned and run by co-bakers Paul Allam and David McGuinness.

The book is fantastic for not only its photos but its impressive array of recipes; along with sweets, there’s a variety of breads and delectable savouries, including pizzas and meat pies. Flipping back and forth between the beef pie and flatbread recipes, I returned once again to the beautiful croissant dough recipe before me. Would I do it? Could I? Alas, with bare feet, black slip, and crazy hair, it didn’t seem like the right time; the easel was calling, and I was barely awake. I didn’t feel like scaring myself either. Sure, I’ll happily go about my Christmas baking business every December, cutting out sugar cookies and fussing over gingerbread, but when it comes to pastry and stuff I deem fancy… my knees buckle and I get butterflies. True.

Ivy Knight‘s upcoming Bake-Off Night at Toronto’s Drake Hotel hopes to dispel this kind of nervousness, while giving you something to chew on -literally -when it comes to the approachability of baking. The prolific food writer and consultant is hosting five prominent Toronto food bloggers this coming Monday night; each has chosen a recipe from the Bourke Street Bakery cookbook to offer up to the hungry masses, who will then vote for their favorite. The democratization of baking? Hmm. Art Battle, meet the rolling pin & baking tin.

The event is part of Ivy’s regular 86’d Mondays, which are fun, informative, food-themed events that happen at the Drake. In the past, these events have revolved around professional cooks only; Monday’s Bake-Off will feature almost entirely home cooks, save for Kristina Groeger. I interviewed both Kristina and Ivy recently about the event; we shared ideas around home cooks vs restaurant cooks, the joys (and fears) of baking, and the role of the online world in helping food culture proliferate. Our yack will be airing on CIUT this coming Monday morning on morning show Take 5, between 8am and 10amET. I’ll try to get a copy of our interview up here at Play Anon later on Monday in case you miss it.

Right now I’m imagining all the bloggers proofing, kneading, and rolling their hearts out. Hmmm, I wonder if any of them are making croissants… and if I could get an order for next Saturday morning. Oui?


Addendum: The audio of my conversation with Ivy and Kristina is here:

Incidentally, it was Kristina who wound up winning the bake-off with her pulled-pork pies. Mmmm.

The Art Of The Duel

Today marks the one-year anniversary of heads, the salon-style speaking event I helped to co-organize. It featured Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy and Chung Wong of Givernation, as well as the first public edition of Art Battle, a competitive event that pitted two painters against one another in a timed event that the public could view and, once the pieces were complete, vote on.

While heads didn’t survive, Art Battle has rocketed into the stratosphere of popularity within Toronto’s cultural community. It’s so popular in fact, that the popular weekly Now Toronto is running a live feed of tonight’s event starting at 8pm ET.

The premise is simple: pit two painters against one another, live, for a specific amount of time (usually twenty minutes). When finished, the observers get to vote on a favorite, which is then auctioned off. The losing painting… can sometimes meet an ugly end. Or not. There are three rounds, and the public has the opportunity of being in one of those rounds. Fun? Scary? Nuts? Brilliant? All of the above.

I had the opportunity of interviewing the co-founders of Art Battle, Simon Plashkes and Chris Pemberton, about the hows and whys around pitting painters (sometimes well-known, sometimes not; sometimes not even painters) against one another in a public arena.

Toronto’s Art Battle by CateKusti

I have to admit, I’ve never been 100% sold on the idea of putting painters within a competitive arena. The very nature of it -people gawking and talking, holding cold beers and varying expectations, combined with the added pressure of an unforgiving stopwatch -means the essential nature of the artist’s output will be vastly different to what they’d produce in an actual studio. But who’s to judge which is better? That’s an interesting question worth exploring. And there is something fortifying about the level of community input and involvement Art Battle has consciously sought. I love the fact that Art Battle has encouraged those who’ve never put brush to canvas before to give it a try (both publicly and not). It’s equally heartening to see the curiosity Torontonians have shown towards Art Battle, rendering it the big success it is now.

Kudos to Simon, Chris, the entire Art Battle team -and not least of all to all the artists, past, present, and future, who continue to re-define that most contentious of words -“art” -and what our relationship to it is. Bravo.

Photo courtesy of Art Battle Toronto.

TED’s My X -Or Not.

The famed TED has come to Toronto -or rather, it did last year, in “X” form. Those who’ve attended Idea City for a while might argue the brainy TED idea arrived in this city a long time ago -but as Dan Jacob pointed out to me in a recent broadcast chat, TEDx Toronto is a free event. Free, if also chosen by committee.

Jacob is the co-founder of TEDx Toronto, happening Thursday. Attendance to the conference is free, but potential attendees had to fill out a questionnaire and prove why they should be there. I’m not 100% sold on the idea of this being any less elite than a hefty price tag, but taking a look at the eclectic roster of speakers, it must be conceded that the event is truly a good-hearted, well-intended celebration of Toronto in all its various shades and angles. Why would you want people there who only know how to draw in one colour (or worse, can’t draw at all?) There’s a poet, a playwright, a CEO, an author, an adventurer… and much more. The frisson of creative, seeming-opposites in a room-full of young, curious people committed to ideological exploration feels like it might produce something… good.

Speaking with Jacob was a fantastic experience, especially since (big reveal) I have attended Idea City in the past, and been invited to a TED in the United States. I’m always intrigued by why people want to jump, feet first, into such a heady (or seemingly-heady) event. The young co-founder was clear about the intentions behind starting TEDx here, and about why the city needed it. I admire his bright-eyed optimism and open embrace of the unknown -I’m sure those qualities have -and will -colour TEDx Toronto.

TEDX Toronto, Two Years On by CateKusti

On the outside, sure these kinds of conferences do seem like a bunch of geeks (or snoots, or hipsters, or all three) talking about SEO and online ventures, and throwing around buzzwords like social engineering and crowdsourcing. Occasionally, they are -but more often, they’re not. And the theme of this year’s TEDx Toronto conference might pull you away from that horn-rimmed/I-pod-toting/American-Apparel-wearing stereotype; it’s called “A Call To Action” -and the breadth of speakers Jacob has lined up feels like a fulfillment of that call. I think Jacob’s answers will surprise and inspire, just like the event itself will for those lucky enough to be going.

For those who aren’t, video from the conference will be posted soon. Hold your TEDs -not your noses. It doesn’t cost anything to get a bigger brain.

Animating Arthur

The Lipsett Diaries is one of my favorite National Film Board animated shorts. Screened as part of the Canadian shorts series at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the work is a brilliant interpretation of Canadian filmmaker Arthur Lipsett‘s life and work. It covers his short, tragic life with equal parts gusto and respect, and imaginatively captures the inner torment and outer brilliance of the Oscar-nominated director.

Award-winning director Theodore Ushev spent a good deal of time manically drawing each frame in The Lipsett Diaries. Yes, he drew it. By hand. We spoke about this pain-staking (if rewarding) process during TIFF, and we also explored the vital role music plays in Ushev’s creations. It’s fascinating to listen to him talk, in Bulgarian-accented English, about his passion for Polaris-nominated band Besnard Lakes & as well as Godspeed You, Black Emperor. It really hit me, in speaking with him, about how the two artistic forms I consider the oldest -art and music -have the exhilarating power of reaching past nationalities, experiences, places, and circumstance, to go straight into the territory of the heart, where logic stops and feeling starts. This sense definitely plays into his work.

Lipsett, Animated by CateKusti

We also discussed Stanley Kubrick‘s letter to Lipsett upon the latter receiving an Oscar nomination for his landmark film, “Very Nice, Very Nice” and the creative way Ushev animated this amazing moment -as well as Lipsett’s unique (and kind of hilarious) reaction.

Ushev and I were particularly keen on yacking about the extent to which the deceased director set the standard for later cinematic (and artistic) experimentation in North America. Lipsett was truly a trailblazer in terms of his cultural contribution and unique vision; he utterly anticipated Burroughs’ cut-up technique, had a keen eye for unusual storytelling, and he was one of the few North American filmmakers to embrace surrealism in the early 1960s.

Arthur Lipsett’s death in 1986 came too soon, but, as Ushev’s piece seems to whisper, his artistic spirit is with us now, more than ever. The marriage of sound and art has never been more short -and more sweet.

Magical Modra


Modra was among the many movies I screened during the 2010 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.

It tells a simple story of two teenagers on holiday in Slovakia and features members of director Ingrid Veninger‘s own family, including her daughter (Hallie Switzer) who plays the lead, Lina. I adored the movie for a few reasons: its clean style, its intriguing story, and its strong, natural performances. No sappy, swelling score or predictable outcomes here; this is an honest, honestly-told tale about intimacy, family, and the stretching, flexible nature of identity. No wonder it generated so much buzz at the fest, and received such positive reviews.

I really enjoyed my interview with Veninger (audio below), originally broadcast on CIUT’s morning show as part of my TIFF coverage. It was truly fantastic learning earlier today that she’d struck a deal with Mongrel Media for Canadian distribution rights. Yay! Today Canada, tomorrow the world!

Ingrid Veninger And Modra by CateKusti

If you happen to be in the Toronto area, you can see it one more time as part of TIFF; it’s screening tomorrow at the Yonge-Dundas AMC. If you’re not in the city, look out for Modra at a cinema near you soon. It’s a gem.

Lip-Smacking Listening

As I announced with a mix of nerves and excitement back in April, I’ve returned to broadcasting -a big passion of mine, and a world I feel infinitely comfortable and happy in.

Among the many, many interviews I’ve done since then, there are a few that stand out as favorites. I’ll be posting a few of them in the next wee while. Here’s the first. It’s a chat with food journalist and educator Lucy Waverman and was originally aired on Take 5 in mid-May. There are some great recipe tips and tricks here, particularly with regards to yummy, easy method in preparing fresh fish.

Enjoy!

A Year in Lucy’s Kitchen by CateKusti

Radio Radio

After an absence of nearly a year, I’m returning to the radio waves tomorrow morning.

It’s a weird mix of nerves and excitement I’m dealing with right now: fear over the live aspect, of under-prepping (I’m currently, madly, mowing down every piece of info I can find), of being late, of guests getting lost, of me getting lost, of scary electrocuting microphones, of power outages, and tripping on wires and downed signal towers. Some of those fears are, I suppose, more well-founded than others.

A bigger issue is the confidence it takes to get in front of a mic and talk to complete strangers with some degree of authority. When I left a career in advertising many moons ago to go to broadcasting school, I was scared, sure, but I was also armed with an astonishing confidence and self-belief that stupifies me, looking back. Life experience is supposed to make you more resilient, more comfortable in your skin, more ballsy and more brave -not less so. Right?

Another part of me, that small voice that still shouts my love of broadcasting in tinny, transistor-esque tones, is happy, excited, joyful and … content. It feels like a good kind of return. A return to a version of me I miss terribly -the one that wags a joyful tail at strangers and bounds up to a microphone fully confident of the words about to be delivered, half-improv, half-melody, with high and low tones singing a full stream of bleary-eyed morning magic.

Won’t you tune in?

Take 5, CIUT 89.5FM Toronto – I’ll be on after 9.30am ET, interviewing choreographer Wen Wei Wang about his new work, Cock-pit. And yes, there will be more -next week.

Oh, and just for fun, here’s a picture of me with filmmakers Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen, the guys behind the awesome documentaries Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Global Metal, and Iron Maiden: Flight 666. You can’t see it, but yes, my tail is wagging.

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