Monday, April 11, 2011

Interview: Jonas Elrod Wakes Up to a Different World

Jonas Elrod meditating

Jonas Elrod / All photos courtesy of Wake Up

The filmmaker and director takes time from his busy schedule to answer some burning questions about his latest documentary, Wake Up.

[Note: Before you dive into this insightful interview, you may want to check out my film review of Wake Up first.]

BASED IN NEW YORK CITY, Jonas Elrod has been working in film for over 10 years now, many of those in commercials and music videos. Hes worked with heavy hitters such as Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, Nike, ESPN, and Spike Lee. The subject of his latest documentary, Wake Up, is himself.

Jonas wakes one day to discover that hes tapped into another world. He sees visions of angels, demons, spirits, and auras. Hes checked out medically and psychologically and found to be normal, so he goes on a quest to try to figure out what is happening to him, talking to spiritual leaders, teachers, and healers of different faiths. After watching the film, I was left with a few questions. And he was kind enough to answer them.

BNT: It must have been pretty scary to go public with whats going on with you. It takes a lot of courage. Why did you decide to document this search? What are you hoping to achieve through the film?

I will admit that there were huge waves of fear with this process. Just exposure on any level but with this, the subject matter is incredibly sacred to me. I would have felt uncomfortable being in a film even if it were a film about oral hygiene or the slow food movement. I have always been a fiercely private person and opening myself up to tell this story was no small f! eat.

Jonas Elrod and Chloe Crespi

Directors, Chloe Crespi and Jonas Elrod

The genesis of this film was during the initial opening to these other realms. Spirit came to me and told me to expose what was happening. I was completing my first documentary during the opening so I was pretty sure that they meant exposing it as a documentary. At the time I had no idea that me and my girlfriend, Mara, would be in it, working as a launching pad into deeper territory.

In hindsight I am very pleased that we both took the plunge. At first, before my producer and co-director came aboard, I would have Mara do interviews with me making sure that the moment was capturedno matter how raw it was at the time. I am not a big fan of docs that do remember when When we were officially up and running my team kept the process going. If I had an experiencea breakdown, a break throughthey were there to document the process right then and there.

It was difficult to stay open and raw but looking back at the film and the audiences reactions I know we made the right decisions going forth. The overall intent of the film is not to sell a belief or a path but hopefully open people up to start asking questions.

BNT: I have to admit, as open-minded and spiritual as I think I am, I was skeptical at the start, particularly when you started explaining your visions. The idea that you saw angels with wings like youd see in a book had me rolling my eyes (why dont angels look like something else?).

But I think your own skepticism about everything helped to temper my own. What was that feeling like, knowing you were definitely seeing things but at the same time not really wanting to accept what was happening?

Thats a great question and I can totally see your point of view. I have had misgivings on the whole angel/demon thing. I did not want to be known as the angel/d! emon guy and I also didnt want this to be associated with a particular religion. That being said I have seen other things that are in the canon of other religions as well.

Jonas with Sufi mystic, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

Jonas with Sufi mystic, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee

My take on it is that it is all out there and, yes, I have experienced and seen things I would call angelic and demonic. Growing up a God fearing Christian in a small town in the south, I found myself completely shaken to the core at these experiences which for me go way beyond what religion has taught me.

And yes, I still carry skepticism around certain things in the spiritual and mystical communities.

Like you I am open but really at this point I am not incredibly interested in the supernatural aspects of these experiences. We were lucky enough while filming to meet a Sufi Mystic that really put things in perspective for me. He really opened me up and let me see how I was getting lost in the woods with the paranormal and not really looking at the bigger picture. That bigger picture for me is source.

I accepted what was happening but had huge resistance to it. My life has changed and I realize I cannot go back to the way I was before. With this knowledge I was forced to Wake Up and look at it, try to understand it, and most importantly learn how to integrate it. Through years of hard work, amazing teachers, and understanding, I am at peace with it. That did not happen overnight.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Complexities of Forgiveness: 4 Nights in Kigali, Rwanda

Rob Chursinoff hears first-hand stories of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Fefe, 24, Law student/hotel receptionist

[Editor's note: Today, 7 April 2011, is the 17th annual commemoration of the Rwandan genocide in which approximately 800,000 people lost their lives.]

IT IS MY LAST NIGHT IN KIGALI. Im in a bar. I ask a man sitting next to me if he is Hutu or Tutsi. He scoffs.

We are all Rwandans now.

He lifts his bottle in the air, cheersing anyone who might be listening. He is drunk and my question seems to have agitated him. We are supposed to all be Rwandans, there is no more Hutu and Tutsi. He looks at me with a bleary-eyed earnestness when he says this.

After gulping down the rest of his beer, he slams the bottle onto the table and peers at me for a moment. Then he whispers close to my ear, I am Tutsi. He begins karate-chopping me on the neck where it meets the shoulder and, occasionally, across the top of my head.

This is how they killed us, he demonstrates. In Canada, do you know what its like to have your family killed with a machete?

I am stunned and silent. I do nothing but allow him to chop.

First Day in Kigali

Driving on the highway south of the Ugandan border, verdant tea and coffee plantations carpet the valleys, which make way for villages which grow into suburbs, then suburbs into a bustling city. The newly erected skyscrapers of Kigali appear on the rolling horizon. The Land of a Thousand Hills is what Rwanda is called and Kigali sprawls over a half dozen of them.


Zozo, 56, Head Concierge, Hotel Des Mille Collines

In 1994, in the span of 100 days, nearly 1 ! million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by their countrymen (250,000 in Kigali alone).

I wonder what Rwanda is like now as I drive into the capital. The last time I gave the country this much consideration was during the horrific events of 1994. I was a broke musician living in East Vancouver, shocked by television news reports and images, feeling helpless and indignant that the world did nothing but watch a genocide unfold.

How do people move on from such seemingly terminal wounds? I wonder as we wind through the citys outskirts. Or do they? My intention during my short visit is to photograph genocide survivors for my website. In this way, talking with theminvolving them in my projectI will try to understand and share their stories.

I look for traces of devastation as we enter the citybullet-pocked buildings, buildings left in ruins, plaques marking tragedybut can initially see no trace of what unfolded 17 years earlier.

Kigali is clean, orderly, new. Its bustle, cheery billboard ads, and glass towers give the impression of new wealth and optimism. But human scars, unlike blood stains and rubble, are more difficult to erase. En route to my hotel I see a man whose eyes have been gouged out, then another man with arms severed above the elbows; in the reception area of my hotel sits an employee with prosthetic legs.

After I am shown to my room, I ask Fefe, the receptionist, what might be happening on a Tuesday night in Kigali. Nothing she says in her Rwandan French accent. All the bars are closed and its forbidden to play loud music. Tonight is the start of genocide memorial week.


Jackie, 29, Bartender

Of course, its early April. Are you too young to remember the genocide? I ask her. She looks around 21 years of age.

I was e! ight, sh e says, looking away. Everyone in my family was killed. I remember.

Everyone? I ask, shocked.

She pauses for a breath, then counts off her family members like shes reading a grocery list. My mother, father, sister, grandmother, one uncle, and some cousins. She goes on to tell me that its particularly difficult on the anniversary of their deaths as her family was thrown into a lake and shot. Their bodies were never recovered. Likely eaten by crocodiles.

Im sorry, I say after a few seconds of speechlessness.

Fefe nods. How many times has she heard foreigners tell her theyre sorry?

Fefe has no relatives left in Rwanda. She tells me about an uncle who occasionally sends money. He lives in Europe while two cousins live in Montreal attending McGill University.

How is it now, how do you deal with your familys death? I ask.

I pray and I have to forgive those that did that to them, she says. After another pause she finishes. And I am okay with it.

Over the course of a week I hear the word forgiveness repeatedly. It reveals itself to be a central force in Rwandas remarkable step back from what easily could have been an abyss of perpetual, cyclic revenge.

Monday, April 4, 2011

16 Masks We Wear When Traveling

Richard Stupart has a laugh at his own expense as he recollects the different roles he played while abroad.

COMPARING TRAVEL NOTES with a friend over lunch recently, the conversation ended up devolving into laughter and snorting soft drinks through our noses as we exchanged stories about some of the memories of travelers we have known. The personas that people adopt the moment they leave their front doors and hit the road.

Later, I realized how many times Ive assumed some of these roles myself during my travels. To differing degrees, I think they were a defense against being judged by the people I would meet. Used that way, masks can be helpful in relating to people. A way of breaking the ice or keeping enough of your shy self hidden.

Taken to extremes though, we run the danger of identifying a little too closely with the mask. Jamie Catto, director of What About Me, put it well when, in this interview, he said:

when you were in school, your favourite teachers were just really cool human beings who happened to be playing the role of teacher. And there were other ones that we didnt get along with who were busy being a teacher. It really sums it up in all areas of life, from policeman to parents.

There are people who are naturally cool human beings, impeccably doing the role of parenting. There are others who are so busy being parents, and are so attached to that role, that the person gets evaporated and thats where problems start arising and dishonesty happens.

So yeah, I confess. Ive been a little bit of many of these characters. And perhaps a little too much of a few. The trick, I suppose, is r! ememberi ng that Im not actually

1. The Party Animal

Im the traveler who finds the bar first at every hostel. Who can order a beer in more languages than would be required at an office party at the UN.

Fire will be involved if possible. No club is too small, too loud, or too kitsch. The day must end at 3am. I may have packed a party hat.

2. The Cheerleader

Someone has food poisoning and weve been traveling more or less nonstop for days and morale is low. Except for me. Im as chipper as a stepford wife on a prozac cocktail. It doesnt matter if its the temple complex at Angkor Wat or the local organic thimble manufacturing project. Everyone should be up early to see, and do, and do again. Its a beautiful new world of adventure outside and we should make the most of it. Ive already booked the tuk tuk. Today is gonna be awesome.

3. The Camel Man

My cargo pants are military-spec and hold enough knives and tools to accommodate everything short of having to assist in a shuttle launch. Want to open a coconut? I have just the custom-tooled, stainless titanium blade for it. Thinking of a hike? Im there with my Camelbak, breathable Goretex, and reversible bandana. With a space blanket that could keep three of us warm for a week before we would need a rescue, and a microfibre towel capable of drying my sculpted and rugged torso after my waterfall shower. Im almost hoping for an emergency. You wont believe the first aid kit I packed.

4. The Tourguide

While you were getting butterflies ! over pic tures of the beaches in Thailand and Cambodia, Ive been studying Khmer prehistory. And I cant wait to start sharing. That building we just passed? That was built in 1695 and is decorated with the face of the obscure Norse God Thallajulllhorl. Did you know that the left front window was, in fact, restored based on a design concept borrowed from a Herbert Baker household in Johannesburg? I read that in a book somewhere.

5. The Agent Provocateur

Its not a journey unless you have stories. And its not a story unless local law enforcement was involved. Or the Mob. I believe in saying yes to everything from the ping pong shows to Happy Pizza. Im the guy who fed you that mouthful of trippy cactus and laughed my ass off when you thought you were about to die.

Photo: Tetsumo

6. The Pilgrim

Wherever I travel, I choose to sit with the gods of the local religions. Ive walked the Camino de Santiago, trekked Nepal, spent months in the ashrams of India and learned unspeakable wisdom from the yogic sages of Thailand. My life is a dedicated and deadly serious spiritual journey. Ive read Siddhartha a dozen times while sitting in contemplation at the back of the bus.

7. The Storyteller

Call this snake wine? The snake wine I had in a tiny Laotian village had a mixer of blood and venom, served in a tall glass with extra ice made from unpurified river water. Had a wild night out? I had a wilder one back in 2001. I was among the worst of the Agent Provocateurs (see above) in my earlier travelling days now I delight in recalling the memories of wild experiences and putting the younger travelers to shame.

8. The Jeweller

That bracelet on my wrist is the one I found in a market in a remote corner of Lesotho. And that ring? That was handcrafted by a silversmith in Senegal to ward off evil spirits. Everywhere I travel, Ive gathered beads, bracelets and talismans of every eclectic design that humanity across the world could conceive of. Before picking a destination to travel to, its absolutely imperative to determine the quality of their ethnic jewellery.

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