Monthly Archives: January 2020

“Utopophobia: On the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy” by David Estlund— A Defense of Ideal Conceptions of Justice in Political Philosophy

Estlund, David, Princeton University Press, 2019.

A Defense of Ideal Conceptions of Justice in Political Philosophy

Amos Lassen

The history of political philosophy and politics has brought about a continual debate about the roles of idealism versus realism. For contemporary political philosophy, this debate is seen in notions of ideal theory versus nonideal theory. Nonideal thinkers move their focus from theorizing about full social justice and instead ask which feasible institutional and political changes would make a society more just. Ideal thinkers question whether full justice is a standard that any society is likely ever to achieve and/or satisfy. If social justice is unrealistic, do attempts to understand it have no value or importance and are they merely utopian?

In “Utopophobia”,  David Estlund argues against the idea that justice must be realistic, or that understanding justice can only be valuable if it can be realized. He does not offer a particular theory of justice, nor does he state that justice is unrealizable but only that it could be, and this possibility upsets common ways of understanding political thought. Estlund critically examines important strands in traditional and contemporary political philosophy that assume a sound theory of justice has the overriding and defining task of contributing practical guidance toward greater social justice. He counters several perspectives, including the view that inquiry in political philosophy could be significant if it is a guide to practical political action and that the understanding of true justice would have practical value as an ideal arrangement to be approximated.

The demonstration that unrealistic standards of justice can be both sound and valuable to understand, the book is  a strong defense of ideal theory in political philosophy.

Estlund makes a strong and exciting ” contribution to contemporary debates within political philosophy in regard to ideal theory. His powerful argument for the soundness and value of ideal political philosophy, places particular  focus on ideal conceptions of social justice. His treatment is a systematic, comprehensive treatment of issues in the ideal/nonideal theory debate and it is original, surprising and creative.  

“Pavel and the Tree Army” by Heidi Smith Hyde, illustrated by Elisa Vanvouri— A Personal Journey

Hyde, Heidi Smith. “Pavel and the Tree Army”, illustrated by Elisa Vavouri,  Kar-Ben Publishing, 2019.

A Personal Journey

Amos Lassen

In “Pavel and the Tree Army”, Heidi Smith Hyde introduces us to Pavel, a Russian-Jewish immigrant to America who is intent on finding his way in his new home. He becomes very excited when his rabbi tells him that the Civilian Conservation Corps, a new program established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is hiring young people. The Corps teaches him how to plant trees, build dams, and take care of the land, things that all good Americans should be interested in. Pavel was interested in bringing together his new home and his religion and looks to his rabbi as a mentor. We can how really hurt he is when there are those who feel that he does not belong in the Corps as an immigrant. He becomes more determined to become an American and not have to deal with the prejudices of others.

To be a member of the Corps means that Pavel will have to leave his new home of New York City and this worries him a bit. Arriving in Idaho, everything seems strange until he meets Anatoly, another Russian immigrant who shows him friendship and comfort. Anatoly assures Pavel that they will learn how to plant trees, build dams and become good Americans. But then another member of the Corps says that to be a good American, it is necessary to learn the words to the country’s national anthem (and we all know that are some very difficult words and strange structure in it). Learning the anthem becomes very important to the boys and, in fact, learning it becomes an important goal they want to reach. Learn it, they do along with other immigrants in the Corps and proudly sing it at the Fourth of July picnic. Pavel’s sergeant shares wisdom by comparing Pavel and his friends to planting trees. He tells him that the young trees they planted are like immigrants: new to the land but they will grow roots and become part of the and land in which they have been planted. ‘It will take time for the saplings you planted to take root, but they are now part of this land.

The illustrations by Elisa Vavouri are wonderful and through them we get to know Pavel. They are rich in color and it is obvious that a great deal of thought when into depicting the immigration experience.

I so identified with Pavel having left this country to begin a new life in Israel and remember that first year when I saw myself as an Israeli and coping with a way of life that I had been far removed from. Just speaking a language that was not yet my own was terrifying and having been an American pacifist, I was part of an ongoing war and facing military service. The fact that immigrants were separated at first from Israelis for army duty (at first) heightened mt feelings of alienation and made me question my decision to move to Israel. But, I also soon had roots and could not imagine being anywhere else. Reading of Pavel singing the anthem brought back memories of the first time I sang Hatikvah in Israel and the tears that flowed with that experience.

Pavel’s wondering how he can prove that he is just as American as his co-workers in the Corps is the major theme of the book. Learning “The Star-Spangled Banner” is the catalyst that brings Pavel to be a true American. We see how Pavel’s work “allows him to feel rooted in his new country just as his plantings grow and thrive in today’s national parks and forests.” What a great way to stress what American can be to those who come here. I love that Heidi Smith Hyde’s story and Elisa Vavouri’s illustrations give us the sense of how just one person can encourage many to build a community and how we can connect with each other.

 

“Run Run Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman” by Jack Hoffman and Daniel Simon— An Intimate Portrait


Hoffman, Jack and Daniel Simon. “Run Run Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman” Seven Stories Press, 2020.

An Intimate Portrait

Amos Lassen

Abbie Hoffman is one of the most fascinating and complex history-makers of our century. “Run, Run, Run” is an intimate portrait of the man that has been republished with a new intro by Paul Krassner to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Hoffman’s death. 

“Run Run Run” is filled with the details of Abbie Hoffman’s intense personal life with the movement politics of the sixties, seventies, and eighties. Dan Simon writes Abbie’s story from the point of view of his younger brother Jack, giving us a full and portrait of one of the masters of the 1960s counterculture. We go from the creation of the Yippies in 1967 and the tumult of the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests, to the humor and the agony of the Chicago conspiracy trial, Hoffman’s 1973 cocaine bust, his six and a half years as a fugitive, to his new beginnings as environmentalist “Barrie Freed” and his struggle with manic-depressive illness. This is a thorough examination of the contradictions that have made Abbie Hoffman such a compelling figure. Containing information and the affection that his brother brings to the complexities of Abbie’s life, we read of Hoffman’s public persona and his private hopes, fears, romances, and  family relationships. Hoffman possessed a powerful seriousness of purpose and these made him a unique actor in a tumultuous time.

He stood up to the bullies and showed courage for the rest of us. His political, social, or personal mistakes him in the context of the time in which he lived. He symbolizes and represents the zeitgeist of that period. The price and toll upon the Hoffman family as a result of Hoffman’s role is a cautionary tale about how government tends to come down very hard on those who disagree with its policies even when those policies are deemed illegal and in violation of our Constitution. Jack Hoffman’s stories about his brother are both heartening and gut-wrenching yet clarify and solidify Abbie Hoffman’s role as a seminal anti-establishment hero who inspired millions to stand-up for positive change. He sacrificed and risked his life for a higher cause.  This is also about Massachusetts at the time.

I was amazed to read about depressed Hoffman felt when younger generations did not want to take on the system like he did. Young adults of the 1980s did not share his moral righteousness and it was clear that the 60’s were long over.

Abbie Hoffman was a hero, but he also was human and that is clear in this book. His family was important to him and he was close to  his younger brother and sister.
Jack Hoffman gives us an honest, engrossing, and empathetic portrait of his brother, his family, and of an era in history.

 

“Tarot and the Gates of Light: A Kabbalistic Path to Liberation” by Mark Horn— Integrating the Tarot and Kabbalah

Horn, Mark. “Tarot and the Gates of Light: A Kabbalistic Path to Liberation”, Destiny Books, 2020.

Integrating the Tarot and Kabbalah

Amos Lassen

Mark Horn’s “Tarot and the Gates of Light: A Kabbalistic Path to Liberation” is an innovative, spiritual workbook that integrates the Tarot and the Kabbalistic tradition of Counting the Omer. In it we explore the origins and meaning of the 49-day Kabbalistic meditative practice of Counting the Omer and how it can lead to spiritual revelation, personal insight, and connection with the Divine. Horn reveals the correspondence of the Tarot’s minor arcana with the Sephirot of the Tree of Life and explains how both relate to the Omer meditation. We gain a daily practice workbook that explores the related Sephirot and Tarot cards for each day, examines their Kabbalistic and spiritual meanings, and provides questions for daily reflection and meditation guidance

The 49-day mystical practice known as Counting the Omer is an ancient Jewish ritual observed between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot (also known as Pentecost). As practiced by Kabbalists, it is meant to cleanse and purify the soul in preparation for spiritual revelation and a personal connection with God. The ritual takes us on a spiritual inner journey that follows the path of the ancient Israelites from their physical freedom from slavery in Egypt to the establishment of their spiritual freedom forty-nine days later when they arrived at Mt. Sinai.

By integrating this mystical practice with the transformative symbolism of the Tarot, Mark Horn uses the ritual of Counting the Omer as a template for a guided meditative practice that gives readers insight into their personal life journey and help in overcoming the issues that hinder their growth and spiritual awakening. He examines the correspondence of the Tarot’s minor arcana with the Sephirot of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life and shows how using the cards in connection with Counting the Omer can unlock a deep experience of the sacred. In the detailed daily practice workbook section, Horn gives a day-by-day description of the 49-day meditative practice of Counting the Omer. He divides the journey into seven week-long segments, which are broken down into seven daily practices. For each day, he explains the related Sephirot and Tarot cards and their Kabbalistic and spiritual meanings, providing the reader with questions for daily reflection, guidance for meditation, and insight from traditional Jewish texts as well as teachings from Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim traditions. By showing the relationship between Tarot and the Kabbalah, Horn gives readers how uniting these two practices can open them to a deeper experience of the Divine.

The book provides spiritual guidance in a very practical way. The Tree of Life is brought into real-world terms that make it truly relevant to spiritual pursuits. We gain easy access to the complex worlds of tarot and Kabbalah and a solid framework in the physical world from which to explore the things that cannot be put into words.

Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, the book is a bridge between Buddhist and Jewish mysticism. It is encoded with the power to add to and deepen any tarot practice. Horn applies language to a mystical technology for daily transformation. The book goes into linking traditional Jewish Kabbalistic ideas and, more importantly, practices, with Tarot this giving Tarot users a way into Jewish Kabbalah and the contemporary Jewish Renewal movement a way to give concrete form to some of the more abstract ideas about the Tree Of Life.  Horn is knowledgeable on the material of the Tarot, Jewish Kabbalah, and Rabbinic tradition of the meditative practice of the Counting of the Omer. His  examination of how to match up the suits of the Minor Arcana to the Four Worlds of the Kabbalah is genius and he gives it to us along with a deep and insightful examination of the card’s meaning as they related to using them to understand the sefra’s of the Sefiroth.

As a gay man, Horn found a complicated path back to Judaism. As he struggled, he found tarot and again, like so many of us who were self-disenfranchised, it brought him back into the world of his religion of birth through an esoteric back door. Whether you are interested in tarot or Kabbalism or both, what you will find spiritual guidance in a very practical form here. Horn brings The Tree of Life, into real-world terms that make it truly relevant to spiritual pursuits. By relating it to the tarot, things fall into place in a way that makes sense.

“Asteroid Goldberg: Passover in Outer Space” by Brianna Caplan Sayres and illustrated by Merrill Rainey— A Passover Fantasy

Sayres, Brianna Caplan. “Asteroid Goldberg: Passover in Outer Space”, illustrated by Merrill Rainey,  Intergalactic Afikoman, 2020.

A Passover Fantasy

Amos Lassen

Just when I thought that I knew a good deal about books and publishing houses, I receive a new book from Intergalactic Afikoman. I thought to myself that this is a really interesting name for a publisher and found that it was validated by “Asteroid Goldberg: Passover in Outer Space”. What a great idea to have a Passover fantasy since the Passover story is a bit of fantasy itself.

Lately I find myself reviewing several children’s books and the more I do, the more I love the ideas behind the genre. Here we certainly see the ingenuity of finding a new approach that will both entertain and educated the youth of today. “Asteroid Goldberg is “an out-of-this-world Passover fantasy!” 

The plot is simple. When Asteroid and her parents get stuck in outer space for Passover, Asteroid plans a Passover Seder for her family keeping with the out-of-this-world theme. Since most of what is needed for the Seder were not available in outer space, Asteroid had to find symbolic representations (much like the symbols we use at the Seder to represent what the Israelites had to deal with on the Exodus”. Jupiter’s moons become matzoh balls and the Big Dipper is a ladle, Saturn’s rings became Matzoh  and soon Asteroid had all she needed for a Seder. But she had no guests other than her immediate family.

We all know the importance of providing for those who have no Seder so she became to make up a list of who to invite. She invited Grandma Luna, Uncle Cosmos, Aunt Andromeda and Cousin Corona and soon all was ready for a unique Passover. I love this idea and to read it in text that rhymes makes it all the more fun. This is “Asteroid’s first Seder with intergalactic [afikomen] seeking.” Elijah makes his appearance as Houston coming through the microphone saying “The Goldberg ship can land”. However, they were enjoying the Seder so much that they decided to stay another week because there were more songs to be sung and more story to be told. The Goldbergs experience true freedom with zero gravity to pull them down (and that is what Passover is all about). In fact, they all enjoyed themselves so much that they proclaimed “Next Year in Outer Space!”

Brianna Caplan Sayres’s text and the out-of-this-world illustrations of Merrill Rainey are wonderful and show diversity. Even though the setting for Asteroid’s Seder is unusual, the traditional Seder elements are all included (with an intergalactic twist!). The book also has a glossary to explain all the included Passover terms.

“A Little Chatter” by Terry Connell— Twelve Stories

Connell, Terry. “A Little Chatter”, Terry Connell, 2019.

Twelve Stories

Amos Lassen

I must admit that I am not much of a short story reader and I have never understood why. I suppose that I prefer to be engaged with plot and characters for longer periods of time. Yet, every once in a while, I come across a collection of stories in which each one pulls me in and doesn’t let me know and this was the case with Terry Connell’s “A Little Chatter”. Each story totally stands alone with unique characters and plot yet they are all tied together by the familiarity we find in them. After all, do we not all challenge the way things are.

Rather than go story by story, I prefer here to take the collection as whole and reflect on it. We live in an age where everyone wants to write a book and so we are often bombarded with mediocre literature that really does not speak to us. From the moment I read the first story, “Good-Bye Willow Grove” and on through the last story. “Silver Lake”, I identified with what I read. We look to our pasts and reflect on the errors we have made and we form judgements. I find here that it is much easier and certainty more circumspect to read what others have done and measure the way I am affected. Terry Connell grabs us early and does something really unique— each of the twelve stories has something personal to say. This is really special since each story is so different.

“Each story had a unique voice and took me someplace different and interesting.” I laughed and I wept, I smiled and I grimaced. More than that, I realized how affected we are by the little chatter that everyone seems to engage in when thinking about others. Rereading this I see that I have really not said anything about the contents of the collection and that is deliberate. Too often reviews give away too much and thereby spoil the surprises that await the reader. I do not want that to happen here and have therefore remained generic. Instead, I am looking at the way Connell sets up his plots and introduces his characters. “A Little Chatter” is something of a master class in how to construct stories that are meant to be shared.

“A WORM IN THE HEART”— The LGBT+ Community in Russia

“A WORM IN THE HEART”

The LGBT+ Community in Russia

Amos Lassen

 “A Worm in the Heart” is a “collection of never before seen stories of tragedy, strength and resilience from the LGBT+ community across Russia. The film follows the trajectory of the Trans-Siberian railway, as Director Paul Rice and Producer Liam Jackson Montgomery stop off in cities thousands of kilometers apart to meet with activists and non-activists to find out what it means to be queer in Russia.”

We follow a gay couple from Ireland and Wales as they travel on the Trans-Siberian railway through Russia, stopping off in multiple cities to meet with members of the LGBTQ+ community living under oppressive laws and harsh societal attitudes. The documentary details the extraordinary lives and brave stories of the diverse LGBTQ+ communities across Russia. It was  shot in six cities along the Trans-Siberian railway and uses intimate interviews about current Russian life, featuring deeply personal and moving accounts from activists and non-activists alike. As we follow Rice and his partner, Liam Jackson Montgomery, we meet many heroic LGBTQ+ people who risk their lives to live authentically under oppressive laws and prejudices (including Nobel Peace prize nominees and international activists to drag queen performers thriving in remote Siberia).

Rice directed the film as well as appears in it. He also wrote, produced and was the cinematographer. He says he made “A Worm in the Heart” in an effort provide personal accounts of the current state of the LGBTQ+ communities in Russia, to call attention to the parallels from these repressed societies with western nations and  send out a cautionary message against the rise of homophobia and transphobia, and to offer a universal message of hope that people should not remain hostage to politicians or governments.

While western nations were debating marriage equality and workplace protections for LGBTQ+ people, laws like the ‘gay propaganda law’ were being enacted in Russia making any public display of queerness an arrestable offense. “The subject and contents of this documentary are incredibly timely and important due largely to the current state of human rights in global affairs. LGBTQ+ rights are being almost entirely ignored or quashed in Russia. State owned media sources in Russia often dismiss or play down the plight of LGBTQ+ people in Russia, and the fact that politicians and those in leadership positions even refuse to acknowledge the brutal atrocities happening in the state of Chechnya against gay men is a glaring example.”

Rice says, “The people I met with along this journey have profoundly impacted mine and my partner Liam’s life, and I hope that this documentary will spread their stories and messages further afield. The LGBT+ community is not confined to national borders, and I believe it is entirely our global responsibility to use our voices to support the LBGT+ people of Russia and beyond.”

 

 

“CUNNINGHAM”— A Dancer’s Story

“CUNNINGHAM”

A Dancer’s Story

Amos Lassen

Alla Kovgan’s documentary about modern dance legend Merce Cunningham seems to be taking orders from the late choreographer himself. The film quotes him saying in that he didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to describe what his dances were about, and the film lets dancing tell his story.

Focusing on Cunningham’s works dating from 1942 to 1972, and his longtime collaborations with composer John Cage and other artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Andy Warhol, Kovgan mixes biography and art. The often scratchy-looking archival footage gives context for the milieu Cunningham was operating in. The latter sections, in which Kovgan stages a number of Cunningham’s pieces in settings ranging from a subway tunnel to a forest and are filmed in 3D with luscious colors.

The film is both ascetic and playful with Cunningham functioning as the beginning avant-garde dance from the time he started producing work in the ‘40s. As we see in the archival interviews, Cunningham didn’t appear to have much of a grand unifying theory behind his style. He rejected the idea that he was some kind of modernist pioneer, he insists to one interviewer that he was simply “a dancer” and was really more interested in expanding the repertoire of movements available to performers by combining the techniques of ballet with what was already happening in modern dance. He says that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”

In describing the reaction to one of his dances, Cunningham says that “the audience was puzzled.” After a performance in Paris, food was hurled at the dancers. There was confusion about the lack of an underlying story or intent to deliver a singular emotion. Making even less sense is the dismissal of many of Cunningham’s pieces as “cold” and “passionless”. What is staged here by Kovgan are  sometimes airy and insubstantial or gangly and jagged but they are also “lush and buoyant.”

We hear and see Cunningham say that the dances aren’t intended to reference anything— interpretation is up to the audience. There is no distancing, no narration or restrictive frame. The camera doesn’t stand back; it plunges straight into the thick of the action. Even the timeline is flexible. Kovgan – and the audience along with her – becomes more than mere observer, instead engaging directly with the work.

Putting the dance front and center , we are invited to get to know Cunningham through his art. Cunningham’s partner John Cage provides personal insights, helping us to understand the toughness it took to turn artistic vision into reality. We hear from Cunningham himself, reflecting on his relationship with his work – the fierceness he could use when needed but also his inclination to be a part of it rather than steering it. It was the art, not the man, that mattered.

Cunningham’s work is rooted in an appreciation of what a trained body can do, in expressions of physical possibility that come before aesthetic concerns. We see footage of his own dancing which combines discipline with a constant desire to explore, to test the boundaries. Even when he’s trying hard to be serious and focused, he can’t altogether hide the pleasure that he finds in his art – even in its imperfections.

“THE GERMAN NEIGHBOR”— Observing Eichmann

 


“THE GERMAN NEIGHBOR”

Observing Eichmann

Amos Lassen

Six psychiatrists had certified that Eichmann was a “normal” man. But, can one of the biggest criminals look like a “normal man”? World history shows us yes; the little stories, the testimonies of everyday history, confirm it. Hannah Arendt postulates again and again how the normality of a man can subsume the most atrocious and stark, horrifying and criminal acts towards the human race:

In Eichmann’s case, was precisely that there were many men like him, and that these men were not perverted or sadistic, but were, and remain, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the point of view of our legal institutions and our moral criteria, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities together, because it implied that this new type of criminal.

The movie “The German Neighbor” shows this. It mixes history and fiction as we watch the daily life of a genocidal monstere. Under the pretext of the translation that a young woman, Renata Liebeskind is a translator for the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem for the crimes perpetrated during the Nazi totalitarian system and through her part of the history of Eichmann is reconstructed, framed and related, in multiple ways. The plot of the film also draws a path to rebuild the identity of Renata herself. The times of the film story overlap with the different moments in history and alternate to show the greater future.

Responsible for the logistics of deportations to concentration camps, Adolf Eichmann became one of the main responsible for the catastrophe. He dared to present himself (and was convinced that he was) as a simple gear in the machinery of such a managed massacre ; According to him, “I only carried out orders.” After fleeing Germany, he found refuge in Argentina, where he lived between 1950 and 1960, the year in which he was captured by “Operation Garibaldi”. He adopted the name of Ricardo Klement here. Renata begins to enter these issues through the investigation of her stay in Buenos Aires and in a small town in the province of Tucumán. Philosophers, researchers and specialists in the subject are other figures that Renata uses to analyze part of the story. One of the great merits of his work (and that of the directors Rosario Cervio and Martin Liji) is the reconstruction of history through Eichmann’s neighbors in Argentina: it is about searching for the living word that allows composing, first hand and from everyday life, the essence of Eichmann, or Ricardo Klement.

The phrase repeats itself in the testimonies that the film gathers is, as Hannah Arendt said, is that “He was a good person.” This “double consciousness”, as the directors point out, is what reconstructs the film. Able to break the normality of human life, in the macabre border between the two spaces, we see Eichmann as a “normal man.”

Adolf Eichmann speaks this film. But of him and much more: of the history of the Nazi genocide on a global level, of the judgment, of the after such history on the individual level, of the facts of a daily life after the events of macrohistory, of the reconstruction of the stories — the testimonies, of the perceptions, of the language, of the memory, of the memory, of identity (s). It is impressive to see Eichmann in the images that the film recovers: to watch him declaring, to hear him speak at the trial as an ordinary man, taking the floor to defend himself from the indefensible. The film leads us to think about the ways of horror, memory, memory, identity, language, human conscience and subjectivity of the victimizer. This film let us see that narration and fiction are, as Arendt believed, one of the privileged ways of studying, investigating and questioning history.

“MOVING PARTS”— An Unpredictable Journey

“MOVING PARTS”

An Unpredictable Journey

Amos Lassen

 Emilie Upczak’s “Moving Parts” looks at how much is communicated and accomplished in a short amount of time. We follow the unpredictable journey of a young Chinese woman as she immigrates to a different country for the same reasons so many others do. Extortion and human trafficking play roles in the journey and the way in they factor into this harrowing story feels quite real and authentic. 

Zhenzhen (Valerie Tian) comes to Trinidad and Tobago by boat with other young woman and is brought to a secluded port via a smuggler  who tells her brother, Wei (Jay Wong) that he owes a “tax” of ten-thousand U.S. dollars. They promise to come up with the money, but it’s this extortion is just one of many uncertainties hanging over their heads in this new stage of life. Zhenzhen has joined her brother after recently caring for and burying their father back in China. It is not clear why or how this location was chosen as a place to relocate, but we eventually see it to be a place where many people have come for years in an effort to find better lives. How long they intended on staying there is something else.

 Wei secured a position for Zhenzhen in the kitchen of a local restaurant run by a Mrs. Liu (Jacqueline Chan), a mature woman who may be involved in another type of service industry as well. As Zhenzhen gets settled and starts working under the head chef (Godfrey Wei), she is noticed by Evelyn (Kandyse McClure), a woman who lives nearby. We eventually learn why Evelyn is so observant of the new arrivals to the island. She runs an art gallery while dealing with her brother, James (Nickolai Salcedo), who is homeless and on the street. Her derelict father (Conrad Parris) is also of great concern. He has ties to local illegal affairs. It doesn’t take long before Evelyn and Zhenzhen’s lives intersect and this is beneficial to both women.

Desperation sets in as both Wei and Zhenzhen feel the pressure of the debt they owe to her smuggler and they make decisions that seem to be the only way out. Wei turns to gambling and Zhenzhen to an alternate method of employment at a nightclub. Things come to a head when Wei learns how she’s been earning money, which puts Zhenzhen in an even more difficult spot as she ties to get out of the situation.

“Moving Parts” opens on the sea, with the camera following the boat which carries Zhenzhen to her new home as it carries the audience into this world that we probably never knew about. We’ve all heard of the hardships of starting anew in a different country, particularly regarding immigration, and we’ve all heard of sex trafficking. “Moving Parts” is put a face and a heart on these topics and in turn helps us realize that these people exist. Each of us is a guest on Zhenzhen’s journey, witnessing all the moving parts at play in her life and what part she is often forced to play.

Director Upczak immerses us into the environment in order to learn who these characters are. We come closer to the people we follow and to the atmosphere where they are. The camera gives much more than typical establishing shots, we’re taken through the streets as locals and new arrivals go about doing what they can to make ends meet. There is a foreboding sense of the unknown for Zhenzhen throughout  and a visual approach here that is clear and understandable. The story gradually shares focus with Zhenzhen and Evelyn, two woman navigating through life in different ways while also sharing similarities. Both women have brothers, and while their relationships with their siblings are different, both men have an effect on them. Zhenzhen and Wei are emotionally weighed down by their recent loss of their father and, while they appear close at first, it becomes clear that Wei is troubled with the responsibility he feels for getting he and his sister out of the situation they are in. Similarly, Evelyn is concerned with where her estranged brother is in life and how their father shows no interest helping him. She seems to avoid influences and temptations that won’t benefit her and while it pains her to see her brother living as he does yet she knows she can’t help him if he doesn’t want it. Help is exactly what Zhenzhen knows she needs, especially when a tragic incident leaves her alone and she turns to Evelyn. These two strong and resilient woman gradually see each other and we benefit from that just as much as they do.

Much of what we see is because of how the actresses portray their characters. Both have an absorbing screen presence, but the emotional vulnerability they convey plays a large factor in how drawn we are to them. At the same time, each character needs a certain amount of exterior cautiousness as well, since they do not know who they can trust. The screenplay (co-written by Upczak, Nicholas Emery and Jay White)  shows rather than tells and carefully balances what to show the audience as the story unfolds.

Ths is a well-intentioned film that covers a lot of familiar terrain. It is eye-opening to see how thin the boundaries are between legit (but exploitative) menial labor and outright sexual servitude.

Valerie Tian gives a brutally honest and painfully vulnerable performance. Her character makes plenty of mistakes, but she matures quickly, which gives her an interesting developmental arc. Jay Wong is compelling as Wei and he shifts in the opposite direction. Jacqueline Chan is chillingly villainous as Mrs. Liu, but Godfrey Wei is the film’s secret ingredient, adding both grace and grit as the restaurant’s chef.

We know exactly where “Moving Parts” is going and it breaks little new ground getting there but seeing this story unfold against a Caribbean backdrop gives viewers a full sense of the extent of human trafficking crimes. It should convince us that the time for some sort of global treaty prohibiting passport confiscation should exist.