How an Indie Film About Turkish Orphans is Germane to the Presidential Election

When “Mustang” opened to a small handful of U.S. theaters last year, critics gushed. But like many independent films, it evaporated at cinemas like an ice cube on a hot stove. When it showed up on Amazon recently, I was ecstatic and planned an evening to watch it with my husband and teen aged daughter. From the opening scene to the end credits, we were totally engrossed. Charmed and repelled. Happy and incredulous. Our hearts broke. The good news is that “Mustang” has a good outcome, although it’s bittersweet. Then a funny thing happened on our way out to get ice cream: We realized this Turkish/French film is soberly relevant to the U.S. presidential election.

The film takes place in a small village in Turkey. At its center are five beautiful and spirited sisters on the last day of school before summer break. As the girls leave the school grounds, they decide to ditch the hot, crowded bus and walk home. On the way, they frolic and gallop, like a group of wild mustangs, with their long, dark hair, blowing in the warm wind. A detour to the beach with a group of boys soon has them in the sparkling, azure water, soaking their school uniforms and their hair, as they chicken fight atop the boys’ shoulders.

Their gleeful fun has extreme consequences when a meddling neighbor in a “shit-colored” dress (Lale’s description), rats the girls out to their strict grandmother before they arrive home. They walk in the door, still giddy with joy, but the mood in the house is anything but mirthful. The sisters are surprised by the reaction to their innocent behavior. Without any discussion or respect to their viewpoints, they are scolded, shamed and physically abused. Meaningful possessions, like makeup and music, and are locked away. They are stripped of phones and electronics to block them from the outside world. They are made to wear those ugly shit-colored dresses. Home becomes a “wife factory” where the sisters learn how to stuff dumplings, sew and do other chores reserved only for females. They are living in a virtual prison, complete with iron grates on the windows and locks on the doors.It is determined that the girls will all be married off, to men they don’t know, whether they want to or not. They are disrespected and have no choice. So the girls are forced to play hostess to strange men that come to over to “approve” them, while serving Turkish coffee they’ve resentfully spit into. In another scene, Lale, an enthusiastic soccer fan, begs her uncle if she can attend a match. It’s out of the question, but that doesn’t crush her spirit. Being the catalyst for much of the action in the film, Lale finds a way to escape to the stadium with her sisters. The scenes are delightful, from climbing through a tunnel to get off their property, to flagging down a ride and cheering in the stands with their long dark hair flowing like wild horses. The girls break loose on other occasions, but afterwards, the house is reinforced with even more iron and steel. As a final blow, the girls are not allowed to return to school (a waste of time anyway, since girls are only good as baby making machines and housekeepers). Their environment is closing in, but the strength of their bond and fiery spirit fortify us. Kinship is reflected in every glorious frame of the film and these sisters make confinement almost seem tolerable. One scene shows all five girls entangled on the floor as they play with each other’s toes before falling asleep. The atmosphere is comforting and warm, despite the cold, dark place in which they’ve been trapped.

Appallingly, the movie reflects how women in many countries are still treated today. (In fact, the film is based on an actual experience by the film’s director, Deniz Gamze Erguven.) There’s no equality for women — no driving, no sex before marriage, severe punishment for not abiding by men’s rules and no continuing education. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Women are second-class citizens with no say. Women are degraded, humiliated and disrespected all the time. Sadly, their suffering is as routine as the setting sun. Girls in progressive, democratic countries who see “Mustang” will be astonished to observe a culture that oppresses women in this day and age. Sadly, traces of this attitude aren’t all that outrageous to some here. Of course, a Donald Trump presidency would not turn America into a small village in Turkey. What it will do is set women way back, undermining much of the progress that has been made. “Mustang” is a must-see movie for anyone who is within spitting distance of voting Republican this year. This important film will break hearts. Most importantly, it can change minds.




The Data (plan) Ate My Homework

Teens and smartphone

Photo: Olaf Speier

In February, The Wall Street Journal featured a story that must have freaked out parents and guardians everywhere. In “Smartphones Go to School, reporter Charlie Wells cites an increasing number of schools nationwide that are allowing gadgets in the classroom for quizzes, homework and projects.

Massachusetts-based educator, Joni Siani, is an outspoken and passionate advocate of media literacy in schools and author of Celling your Soul: No App for Life. (This book was made into a movie by her students and was named best documentary at the Boston International Kids Film Festival last year.) Siani says,

Using smartphones in class is not only counterproductive, but downright insane. Assignments done on a gadget is homework in tiny chunks of thought with little reflection.”

Not to mention the excuses. Dogs will no longer be the scapegoats for missed assignments. Instead, maxed out data plans will be blamed for incomplete projects or homework that just didn’t get done.

It is well documented that overuse of electronics by children is detrimental to their growth. The Learning Habit, published in 2014, reveals that grades, sleep, social skills and emotional balance begin to decline after just 45 minutes of media use. A 2015 study by the London School of Economics found kids banned from using phones at school did much better on test scores than those who were allowed to use them. The impact of banning the devices was equal to an extra hour a week at school or a five-day increase in the school year.

Ironically, many tech leaders are anti-tech parents. Apple founder Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids use an iPad. Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired also had strict rules on electronics use at home. When asked why, Anderson said, “Because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I’ve seen it in myself, and I don’t want to see that happen to my kids.”

At a time when adults are talking about balance, stress management and Internet overload, our children are increasingly hooked on technology. Classrooms should be a safe haven from distractions and a focused learning environment, but teachers are caving in to their students’ desires. Comedian Paula Poundstone said it best. In reference to excessive smartphone usage, she said, “Some kids like heroin. Does that mean we’re going to give it to them?”

Surprisingly, many people defend the use of smartphones in class. And not just those profiting from the technology. John Kim, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School, told the WSJ, “The teaching profession has yet to catch up with how students are using the devices.”

Apparently our overworked, underfunded, dedicated teachers don’t have enough to do. Certainly the Internet is a superb research tool. Except when the student gets sidetracked by Snapchat while looking up the per capita income of Zaire. But will writing a paper on a smartphone make the topic stick better? Why is technology driving the content of the learning? At what cost? Who really benefits?

According to Siani, encouraging more gadget use is not what students want. And she should know. During the past seven years, she has interviewed thousands of kids and parents about the effects of digital communication. The response has been eye-opening. Young people are desperate for relief from the demands of 24/7 connectivity. After a recent screening of her film at a Boston area high school, a student asked if she could “just vent” about the pressure from smartphone distractions. Last year, 25 teenagers at another school sat with Siani for two hours after watching the film, waiting to be heard. Many were in tears. (The filmmaker says this happens after nearly every screening.)

“Parents and kids look to their schools for leadership,” says Siani. Therefore, it’s important for superintendents, teachers and other educators to help kids unhook from their gadgets, instead of enabling them. Nationwide, rules on smartphone use in school varies, but consistent, digital communications policies in classrooms are needed that benefit the children. Not Samsung, not Apple or Verizon or Sprint, or the many other companies that provide the technology.

Steve Jobs must be rolling over in his grave.

Hell Freezes Over: My Teen Gets a Smartphone

Last year, I launched a public relations effort to explain why I would not be buying a smartphone for my teenager. I wrote a blog for a leading website, was quoted in news stories and penned a guest column for the local paper. I supplemented the publicity with a community outreach effort. I begged parents to hold off on smartphones so the playing field would be leveled for kids that didn’t have one. My daughter was not thrilled, but my reasoning eventually made sense.

“I can’t argue with any of the points you make in your articles,” she said. ” I really don’t need a smartphone.”

That music to my ears echoed for weeks. Talk about a successful PR campaign.

Surprisingly, when she turned 15, I started getting pressure. Not from my daughter, but from others. Some parents called me a “Tiger Mom.” Even my husband tried to wear me down. One friend said,

“Everyone else her age has a smartphone. That poor kid is going to end up in therapy.”

But the sun continued to rise and set every day without a smartphone. My daughter was doing just fine. When she did complain, a rare occurrence, I reminded her about how they are are a want, not a need. The more I saw teens and increasingly younger kids glued to their devices, the more indignant I got. The thought of my intelligent, thoughtful daughter playing “Candy Crush,” or group chatting at all hours, made me physically ill. She’s on the shy side, so I wanted to see her socializing with peers instead of being glued to her phone.

Not only that, many adults I knew were cursing the day they caved in because their kids have turned into teenage mutant smartphone zombies, never to be seen again.

I often read Facebook and Twitter comments that said things like, “I got my kid a smartphone. It was nice knowing him.”

I would sign her up for this kind of madness over my dead body. Then the unthinkable happened.

It was a Friday and my daughter had just come home from school. Exams were coming up and she was hot and cranky. After yelling, “I hate this phone!” she plugged her four-year-old device into the charger and disappeared into her room. A few minutes later, I sat down on her bed. “We will get you a smartphone,” I said matter-of-factly.

(What did I just say??? I surprised even myself.)

My daughter looked dazed and confused.  I continued, “Your grades are excellent, you’re mature and responsible, you practice your piano and you help around the house. You even read books, God love ‘ya. Are you still interested?”

She looked at me like I just gave her keys to a new car.

There would be conditions and expectations. I reinforced that smartphones are not a lifestyle necessity, but a luxury. She had to agree to the “electronic device rules” we set up when she was in middle school. (Of course the list was supplemented to address 24/7 Internet access.)

Faster than she could say, “I promise,” we were off to the mobile phone store. Like a moth to a flame, she fluttered across the showroom to the object of her desire: a white, iPhone 5s. When she opened that rectangular white box, she looked as though she had discovered buried treasure.To protect it, she bought a pink and purple case her own money. Ever since, she is cherishing her new acquisition and treats it with kid gloves. For me, instead of feeling like our retail excursion was a dreaded rite of passage, I am proud.

My daughter got a smartphone the old fashioned way. She earned it.These days, she’s more sensible than I ever imagined. She’s well aware that I frown upon any smartphone usage when with others, so she’s considerate. (She knows I will throw it out the window if she starts texting when I’m driving her someplace.) I am optimistic this behavior will continue, although a few infractions are expected.

So to help make a smooth transition to a smartphone, here’s some advice:

1. Patience
If they lose their cell phone or it gets broken, get it replaced with the same type of device. Don’t get worn down and upgrade to a smartphone if you don’t think they’re ready. The longer you wait, the more appreciative your child will be. You will be much happier too, instead of being filled with dread.
2. Responsibility
The child pays for the activation fee, taxes and the data plan. I was blown away when my daughter volunteered to an extra $10 per month for insurance.
3. Control
Buy the phone. (He who giveth can taketh away.)
4. Consistency
Adhere to the rules you set up when your child got his or her first electronic device. Don’t waver. This will be hard, but worth the work. If a smartphone is your child’s first, think it through very carefully. (There’s no turning back!) Are they old enough to handle the Internet when you’re not around? If not, a basic phone will do.
5. Reinforcement
Remind your child that a smartphone is not an entitlement. Like driving, using one is a privilege.

Giving in to constant pressure is the fate of many parents. But caving in leaves many adults frustrated and regretful. So every time the smartphone question rears its ugly head, keep repeating, “Patience, Grasshopper. Good things come to those who wait.”


The Show Must Go On — When Sensibility Trumps Sensitivity


Nothing says Americana quite like musical theater.

The entertaining format has been enjoyed by all ages for decades, despite rampant stereotypes and exaggerated stock characters. Most traditional musicals take place in another era, so characterizations are often overlooked (and laughed at) by many theatergoers. Others aren’t so forgiving. To make these old shows more palatable, some groups are going so far as to ‘sanitize’ them. But doing so washes away all sense of history and context, not to mention the artistic integrity of many well-loved productions. Our very own, uniquely American originals will be lost forever. Not to mention that altering these productions is fruitless. How is it possible to change a character, from one type to another, without offending someone else? When does sensitivity become censorship? (Not to mention violating copyright licenses.) Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rogers are rolling over in their graves.

A recent Boston area production, of Thoroughly Modern Millie, generated quite a buzz for a high school musical that didn’t even star Zac Efron. Feature stories appeared in The Boston Globe, including one that landed on the front page. A TV program, community newspaper articles, blogs and letters to the editor continue to roll in. (In fact, it was a local blog that launched a thousand conversations.)

Any theater publicist would be jumping for joy about all the attention. But in this case, it’s had quite the opposite effect. The ‘ink’ about “Millie” has not been about the extraordinary talent or dedication of the cast and crew. Instead, it’s been negative, focusing on outdated Asian stereotypes in a story that takes place in 1922.

Had the legitimate feelings of the Asian community been discounted, the theater should have gone dark. Happily, for the hard working young thespians at Newton North, the curtain went up for “Millie” at Theater Ink, the school’s teaching and working theater. The award-winning musical, that has been performed by high schools across the country for more than 30 years,  played for three nights in Newton. At least one of the performances was sold out.

Going on with the show was the right thing to do. Here’s why:

Discussions about stereotypes in “Millie” began even before the first rehearsal. The high school worked with the Office of Human Rights to come up with a way to maintain the integrity of the production, while addressing negative images with students and the public. Workshops and discussions about stereotypes and their impact were held throughout production. Most importantly, Newton North has faith and confidence that its young people are mature enough to interpret outdated stereotypes. There was also the fun factor to consider.  Featuring a large cast of characters, the show enables many students to participate. Combined with entertaining song and dance numbers, plus its comic script, make “Millie” a staple of many theater programs.

Before each performance, the director drew the audience’s attention to an extensive production note in the program. It specifically addressed one of the most negative characters in the story.  It read, in part:

“Mrs. Meers must be understood as the villain…She is racist and covers her own insecurities and life failures with hateful attitudes and behaviors.  Without question, Thoroughly Modern Millie contains extreme negative stereotypes and offensive attitudes…the opinions expressed in this musical do not necessarily reflect the views of Newton North High School…in fact they strongly oppose the beliefs and attitudes found within our school culture.  Furthermore, we have worked hard to analyze and revise these images in order to align them with our socially conscious mission of acceptance and open mindedness…”



When the show’s run ended, Newton North issued a lengthy and contrite letter to the community. Following is an excerpt:

“It is our sincere hope that this production is one of both artistic integrity and one where significant learning has occurred.  It certainly was never and is never our intent to offend members of our school or Newton community.  Theatre Ink prides itself on being “Newton North’s Teaching and Working Theatre.” The process of producing this show, and the thoughtful and sometimes challenging dialogue it has generated among staff, students, and the broader Newton community, exemplifies the program’s commitment to explore, critique, and interpret how the human experience is conveyed through the arts.  As the curtain went up this past weekend we brought the constructive conversation and learning process that our school community has engaged in over these past few months to an audience of students, parents, and community members.  We hope that you will choose to participate in it with the same appetite for learning that we have seen in our students – a genuine desire to understand our differences, our history, and ourselves…

After the letter went out, the school held a public forum, attended by the members of school’s administration, Theater Ink directors, parents and students.

Newton is a standard bearer of political correctness. (This is a city with schools that promote a campaign called, “Respecting Human Differences,” hold lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender assemblies and ban Halloween.) So the extra effort made by the high school to head off concerns about an old fashioned musical is not surprising for those who of us who live here. Expected or not, the extensive outreach for “Modern Millie” is public relations at its finest. Institutions across the country should look to Newton North’s example as a model of urban sensitivity and respect.

Theater Ink has been a treasure trove of talent and high caliber performances for many years, providing students with endless golden opportunities. The community at large also reaps the benefits of this theater. Hopefully, the spirit of those who work so hard on its behalf has not been diminished by the “Millie” firestorm. Image


Just say “No” to Smartphones for Teens

Once you say "yes," there's no going back.

Once you say “yes,” there’s no going back.

Just say NO to Smartphones for Teens

If you’re a parent or guardian who’s on the fence about getting a smartphone for a teen, think very carefully about it before you say “yes.”  Nine out of 10 parents I have spoken with who did, regret the decision.

Following is an excerpt from a blog that appears on The Huffington Post (click on the title of this blog entry for the full text):

 Mobile devices can be damaging to a young person’s psyche and it’s easy to get hooked. A recent South Korean report found that the smartphone addiction rate was 18% among teenagers.  Dr. Jonghun Lee, a professor of psychiatry and the study’s lead researcher, presented the findings at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting this summer. He stressed that the more smartphones are overused, the greater the risk for severe psychopathologies in adolescents. Those who are dependent on them experience anxiety, insomnia and depression.  Some self-aware teens are realizing the toll that checking their smartphones is taking on them.  An 18-year old girl told a newspaper reporter recently, said, “I hate doing it, but I can’t help it…Why did I buy a smartphone? Sometimes I stay up all night using Facebook and Twitter.  I quickly became addicted.” 

A Pew Research Center study found teenage smartphone usage increased 23 percent from 2011 to 2012 and that 37 percent of teenagers owned smartphones last year. Dr. Lee says, “The number of adolescents addicted will increase because the popularization of smartphones is an inevitable social trend. And the younger they are, the more vulnerable they are.”

There’s a lot of talk about limits, balance and moderation. But setting restrictions on smartphone and Internet usage is easier said than done. The Web has become a necessity for homework, school communications and research. So it can be hard to distinguish between an assignment, recreational viewing or school-related texting. Monitoring usage consistently, enforcing time constraints and being on top of content can be overwhelming for most busy parents. This becomes even more difficult when their kids are literally carrying the Internet around with them.  

Parents who say “no” level the playing field for the kids who don’t own smartphones.  Moms and dads unite!  Teachers, other parents, society-at-large and your kids (eventually) will thank you.