Dear Ezra and Lian,
Adults have become so jaded in our society now. We have all seen the pictures of little kids who haven’t eaten for days. We quickly flip to another channel. When I was shooting film for the CBC about the famine in Mizoram, the TV producer asked me, “I don’t mean to be rude, but people are starving all around the world, viewers can see this all the time, why would anyone stop and watch this?” I told him the story of mautam. He told me to get film of rats and people eating them. That was the money shot, the hook.
The producer gave me a small digital video camera. It proved to be very useful. I ended up being the first guy to get documentary proof of how bad the famine really was. (That’s for another letter.) Of course, I still needed to see people eating rat. That was my twisted, number 1 goal. Without that, this famine was just another tragedy that would never make it to TV. I said to myself, if that is what TV wants, then that is what TV is going to get.
We didn’t drive around looking for people eating rat. We set it up. We spent a good day making good television. My friend, Dawnga, knew of a family catching dozens of rats every day. Dawnga, my friend Stuart and I went for a long ride for a visit and a special meal.
We met a young couple with some young children. They showed me around the area. They showed us the yams they were eating because the rats couldn’t get to them underground. Above ground, their rat traps were full every morning. (There was a bounty in the state for rat tails. This did nothing to affect the rat population, but it was used as means of getting money to the rural population most affected by the plague and famine.) We went rat hunting to get some fresh ones for lunch. Our host went to the roots of some bamboos and start digging. He caught the rats (all bamboo seeds and rice fed) by hand. Within about 45 minutes we had enough to feed a table of eight.
The rats were quickly washed and gutted. They were put on skewers and roasted over an open fire. They weren’t skinned so the fur was burnt off of them. Probably more because of the way they were cooked then anything, they tasted awful. One of the worst tasting things I’ve ever eaten. Later my friend Marina, said they tasted a lot better if you steam them inside a bamboo with savoury herbs. I’m sure he’s right. I will probably try sometime in the future.
We sweat out rat odour for hours. When we got to Dawnga’s house after a long drive, his wife practically took a straw grass broom and shooed us up to the bathroom. We stunk so bad, the kids plugged their noses as walked through the house. We gave ourselves a thorough scrubbing to get the rat stench out of us.
I got the video footage I needed. We video of me, my friends and this family catching, cooking and eating rats in a typical, bamboo and thatched roof house. TV gold baby! That’s why I got 10 minutes of video on Sunday Report with Evan Solomon. (Evan Solomon recently got fired from CBC for unethical conduct at work.) I gave a lengthy taped interview to the Sunday Report staff. It was filmed at CBC studios in Toronto. Not 1 second of it made it on air. (Face for radio, I guess.) I couldn’t give short sound bites. I couldn’t speak with authority. Everything I said, I would try to qualify and make as accurate as possible. I wouldn’t lie or exaggerate. None of that got on TV. My video footage of people starving and digging for yams; catching rats, the emaciated bodies of starving people, people losing eyesight, people with the “thousand yard stare”, all that made it on. Also, an entirely set up sequence of a young family eating rats, that made it on to television because that’s what people want to see.
After watching that story and hearing its effect on people in the remote parts of India, not one person in a very large Canadian TV audience responded. Nobody called World Vision to donate and nobody called the show for more info. It was just one more thing in this world’s curiosity shop.
I ate rat to thinking I would help save people’s lives and all I got was a bad taste in my mouth. I crossed the line of ethical reporting and it was a complete waste of film. It was a complete waste of time, effort and gasoline. People were starving to death and instead of feeding them, transporting food or seeds, fundraising, we were eating rat on camera. It took a whole day to do that.
This is why now, I realize that “raising awareness” is a complete waste of time. People spend so much effort trying to let people learn the truth. Social media, the news reporters and even my own blog. Ultimately, it will have little effect on a mass audience. It all becomes trivia, talking points or water cooler conversations.
It’s a belief going back 2500 years to Socrates. Knowledge is virtue and ignorance is vice. Problem is, it’s just not true. Forrest Gump was wiser than Socrates; “Stupid is as stupid does.” Or Tim Morgan’s version; “Evil is as evil does. Good is as good does.” A direct appeal to 1 good person will yield more good than educating a million average people. Everything I learned during mautam showed that to be true. (Once again, it’s another letter for another time.)
What worked is searching for those people who want and even need to do a good thing. It works regardless of wealth, race, status or ability. Some of the biggest sacrificial givers were poor people with no status or ability who helped others of another race. Some of the most cold-hearted people who did nothing were scientists, bureaucrats, rich business people and politicians who worked less than 100 miles from the mass starvation of their own tribe. They were the most knowledgeable of the situation and had the greatest means to help, but did nothing.
It all left a bad taste in my mouth.
I wrote out this quote and pasted it on my bedroom wall when I was a teenager. I still cling onto these memorized words by James Russell Lowell;
“Be noble! and the nobleness that lies in other men; sleeping, but never dead; will rise in majesty to meet thine own.”
I have come to find out that there is a whole lot less nobleness in the world than I could ever imagine, but it is out there. You will always be surprised where you find it. Be noble, kids. You never know what you are going to get from life.