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Archive for April 2nd, 2011

I’ve been meeting with Dr Fantasy a lot lately. He and I are writing a TV show together and we have a lot to talk about: the plot, the characters, the arcs, the tone, the mood, the aesthetics. Number one, of course, is the plot and working out what happens in each episode. We have completed six so far, all of which have been the result of a process of lengthy discussion. Dr Fantasy makes his suggestions, and Mr Plausibility makes his. Oh yeah, that’s me, Mr Plausibility.

Workshopping is a common enough approach in writing. Many writers use their friends as sounding boards – simply beginning to discuss something can highlight issues of story or character. It works rather in the same way that tossing a coin does. It comes up heads, but then you know you wanted tails. It’s not the result that matters, it’s just that tossing makes you feel the right answer in your gut. I don’t want to draw too many parallels between talking and tossing, but there you go.

I have a lot of experience in workshopping from doing a Masters in Creative Writing along with many hours spent discussing work with other writers outside of university. It’s also fair to say that I learned a very great deal about process and structure through discussions with my PhD supervisor, Professor Rosamond McKitterick, irrespective of the fact that my PhD was in late Roman / early medieval Italian history. She deserves credit as my first real editor. Dr Fantasy too has a great deal of experience in workshopping through his studies in communications and later drama at NIDA. No longer precious about our work or ideas, we can make all manner of bold suggestions for our characters, reject them, pick them up again, rework them, and perhaps discard them altogether, or in they go.

Dr Fantasy, whose show it is, and who has kindly taken me on as co-writer, is fond of the expression “It’s television!” I’m fond of it too, for it allows for all manner of melodramatic situations.

“Why not? Who cares? It’s TV, that shit happens on TV.”

And, indeed it does.

Dr Fantasy, like a sorcerer, conjures scenes from the great miasma of television and Mr Plausibility refines them, within the bounds of reason. Now I don’t mean to suggest that Dr Fantasy isn’t also a realist. His concern for plausibility, for characters to remain true to their personalities, goals and motivations is no less strong than mine. Yet, Mr Plausibility’s job is, like the devil’s advocate, to ask every question there is to be asked about why a person would say a particular line, take a certain course of action, do one thing and not another.

The process always starts with a question. Sometimes as big as: “What’s going to happen in Episode 6?” A blank canvas can be daunting, but two people can circle this very effectively if they’re thinking clearly. I like to lie down, Dr Fantasy loves his notepad, but either way, we make ourselves comfortable and just talk. The important thing is to keep talking. Thinking too much can be detrimental – you can get bogged down. Pause, certainly, but keep talking about ideas. What’s good about them, what’s bad about them. Even seemingly irrelevant tangents can flavour the vision of the characters, so it’s worthwhile voicing some of the more peculiar ideas which seem initially unworkable.

“How about this,” says Dr Fantasy. “Let’s take it out of Sydney – focus on Frederic (our main character). Get some different settings. Like a country house or a big mansion somewhere.”

“The Blue Mountains could be the go,” I suggest. “It’s misty, cold, winter. There’s a big wedding he’s shooting and someone goes missing.”

“Yeah, I like that. Maybe Bowral or something, you know, southern tablelands. It’s a big wedding, like some media mogul or something – his daughter is getting married.”

“She looks like Miranda Kerr.”

“Tasty. She’s marrying a guy called Brady.”

“American?”

“Why not?

“How about this. The old media guy is like Citizen Kane. He calls his elderly wife Rosebud. He’s a bit of a Murdoch figure, but perhaps less, I dunno, sinister.”

“Good, good. But how does Frederic get to the wedding? Who gives him the job?”

“I dunno. Maybe he meets some old cougar in a bar. Hell knows.”

“Ok, how about this,” says Dr Fantasy. “An old friend of Frederic’s is in town. A real heroic, Hansel-type dude. He’s American, called something like Cory McFlynn, or something.”

“I like it.”

“The opening scene is him and Frederic, paintballing. They’re chasing each other, maybe a montage over the intro. Then in the cafeteria – Cory invites Frederic to the wedding. He knows the daughter. Maybe he’s been banging her on the sly.”

“Or maybe he knows the dad, the old media mogul. Roland. Roland Chandler. Maybe Cory worked for him for years. When he was starting out he was a rising star of a photographer, Roland was still hands on, editing the newspaper or whatever. He was a bit of a maverick like Rupert, and then he sold out. Cody’s an old family friend, he’s the best in the business.”

“Cody? or Cory?”

“Hey, Cody, why not? They want him to shoot the wedding.”

“Maybe,” says Dr Fantasy, “he likes to suck a dick here and there and he’s Roland’s old bum- chum.”

“It got him that feature.”

“Moved him up the ranks.”

“Maybe Roland’s a bit of a media guru, when he was younger, he lectured in journalism. Cody was one of his students.”

“His wife is very sophisticated. She’s French, she doesn’t care that he likes boys on the side.”

The above is a pastiche of a considerably longer conversation held only recently during which the plot of episode 6 was taking shape. It’s always a genuinely collaborative process with each of us refining each other’s ideas as they emerge, taking them to extremes and then trimming them into plausibility. Once a pool of information has been put together, such as that contained in the above exchange, we filter it for clichés and give people names that sound less like they derive from cheesy sitcoms or Restoration dramas.

Once we had developed a working framework for the episode, the debate found its biggest point of contention: the timing of a blow-job.

“Look,” said Mr Plausibility, “if Miranda’s going to catch this chap Cody giving her dad a BJ and then go riding off on her horse at dawn, only to get lost in the heavy fog of the southern tablelands, then surely we have to ask the question of why in hell has this old chap stayed up all night only to have a fire-side brandy-fuelled blow-job from his sycophantic former bumchum at five thirty AM on the morning before his daughter’s wedding?”

“Hey, who cares,” says Dr Fantasy. “Does it matter? They’ve been talking all night, sitting by the fire – maybe a little saucy line of coke or two. They’re hardcore night owls with plenty to talk about. Maybe all the men were sitting up late, playing cards, smoking cigars, the odd game of chess. Then, just after everyone goes to bed, down comes Miranda, all bleary-eyed, on her way to get a restless snack from the kitchen, when bingo – she sees Cody crouched over her dad’s lap working his magic for that next promotion.”

“But, dude, the guy’s like sixty. Is he really going to be up that late? Wouldn’t the saucy old fruit retire a good deal earlier, say one o’clock, which would still constitute a pretty late night? He’s got a wedding on the next day.”

“Maybe it’s not dawn then. Why does it have to be dawn anyway?”

“Because we want Miranda riding off at dawn – it’s a visual thing, we want that silver grey morning light through the fog, so we need to have moment of shock in the morning. You know that’s how you want it.”

“Of course. But why can’t she ride off in the middle of the night, and then Frederic and others go looking for her in the morning?”

“But, that’d be crazy. I mean, who would go off on a horse in the middle of the night in winter in a nightie when it’s freezing cold and dark out in the country? She’s a sensible girl. Yes, she’s in shock, but at one or two in the morning, she’s far more likely to go flop on her sister than hop on her horse.”

“Why not? She’s upset, she’s crazy. She’s not thinking. It’s a brain-snap. Hey, come on, it’s television!”

“But…”

Anyway, you get the drift. The debate continued over two further sessions. How could we make the timing work? How could one event lead to another in a smooth and ultimately plausible transition? Often it seems as though one is patching over things, looking for any means of bridging the distance, of establishing a suitable flow. Timing has always been one of the biggest issues with writing, especially when all the events of a story or show are stuck within the tight constraints of a weekend or even a single day. There is always the option of a complete overhaul of events, but having seen the dramatic possibilities of one course of events and having already worked characters and situations to fit around these, it seems as though finding a way through is the first priority.

Dr Fantasy certainly recognises the need for tight scheduling, but he is perhaps more willing to use larger bandaids than Mr Plausibility.

“Sometimes, you take this plausibility thing too far, you know,” said Dr Fantasy. “Sometimes you’ve gotta let it go.”

“Well, they don’t call me-

“Mr Plausibility –

“Mr Plausibility for nothing.”

Either way, we got there in the end, and of course, I have no intention of revealing further details of the plot – not to suggest that the above is especially accurate. What’s important here is the process. Talking, putting out feelers, wrestling with possibilities, asking questions of all the characters, from their point of view. Dr Fantasy is a master of the raw materials, and I’d like to think that in my small way, Mr Plausibility is something of a craftsman.

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The response to the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East has been varied to say the least. Initially underestimating the scale of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, many governments favoured a pro status quo approach for the sake of political, strategic and economic stability, which slowly, then more rapidly moved towards support for regime change. In the case of Libya, there was little disagreement amongst the international community that Gaddafi’s actions were worthy of condemnation, and instead the debate centred around how strong the response should be and whether or not some form of intervention was necessary. Why, however, in the wake of ongoing deadly crackdowns against protesters in Bahrain, who have equally compelling reasons to demand regime change, has the international response been so muted?

The protests in Bahrain, led by Shia parties and activists demanding more representative government and greater equality, which began in earnest on the 14th of February across Bahrain caused immediate alarm when heavy-handed policing led first to the death of a protester and then a further death at the funeral which followed. The situation changed dramatically in tone after the February 17 crackdown on protesters gathered at Pearl Roundabout in the capital Manama, which left 6 people dead and hundreds injured. Undaunted, protesters returned to Pearl Roundabout where they continued their sit in, refusing to accept offers of dialogue and calling now for the end of the monarchy.

On March 14 hundreds of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) troops and police, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, arrived in Bahrain at the government’s request. The following day a state of emergency was declared and, on the 16th of March, Bahraini security forces again drove protesters from the symbolic Pearl Roundabout and from surrounding streets. Public gatherings and marches were subsequently banned. The Salmaniya hospital, where most of the dead and injured protesters had been taken, was raided, medical staff were arrested, and the tents set up by protesters were also removed.

On the 18th of March the Pearl Monument was torn down by the government in an attempt to deny the protesters what had become their rallying symbol. Concerned about violent repression, the opposition parties called off further protests for fear of more deaths. Last Friday, a call to action via independent protesters through Facebook and Twitter drew large crowds in towns across Bahrain, but the protests were dispersed by a heavy security presence.

In total, at least twenty people have been killed, including two policemen, and hundreds, possibly thousands injured during a month of heavy-handed security crackdowns. The security response has included house raids and arrests of human rights activists, dissidents and members of opposition parties on charges of sedition, murder and contact with foreign states. Perhaps the most shocking image to come from this is a video showing protesters marching towards security forces holding flags and chanting “peaceful, peaceful,” being gunned down in cold blood. One man appears to have been killed instantly by a shot to the head. http://bit.ly/gcjinZ

Bahrain is a society that is significantly segregated along sectarian lines. The ruling Al Khalifa family is part of the Sunni Muslim minority, who constitute roughly 35 percent of the population. Bahraini Shias are heavily discriminated against in politics, employment and services. Yet, unlike Egypt, the protests in Bahrain are not largely driven by poverty, but by inequality and lack of representation. Unemployment stands at close to 20%, but this is largely amongst the Shia population.

The Al Khalifa family have been refusing more participatory government since the 1950s. Significant constitutional reforms were again promised in the 1970s and then abandoned. King Hamad, who has been in power since 1999, promised reforms in 2002, but the new constitution which did emerge gave considerable new powers to the Consultative Council of Bahrain, which is handpicked by the king and has powers of veto over the lower house. Despite the largest opposition party holding 18 of the 40 seats in the lower house of the Bahraini parliament, this does not translate into legislative power. Protesters have avoided taking a sectarian stance and have instead stressed the need for equality and unity, to little effect.

The Prime Minister, Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, has held his position since 1971. In recent weeks, opposition Shia parties have opted to boycott parliament in support of the popular protests. The crackdowns have been seen as a victory for hard-liners in the regime.

It is for these reasons that the opposition groups, led by Wefaq, have repeatedly rejected offers of dialogue and instead demanded the establishment either of a republic or constitutional monarchy. In the wake of the increasingly violent crackdowns, however, they have eased their demands that the royal family step aside from politics altogether, and have shown some willingness to engage in negotiations.

What makes the situation of the protesters in Bahrain so difficult is that there is next to no chance of either the security forces or military siding with them. The Al Khalifa regime has for some years now been recruiting exclusively Sunni personnel, both from within Bahrain and also from other countries such as Yemen, Jordan and Pakistan, including Iraqis formerly employed under Saddam Hussein. Most of the Pakistani recruits speak neither Arabic nor the local dialect and are seen by the Shia majority as hated mercenaries. The foreign recruits are given housing and citizenship, creating further resentment amongst the local Shia majority. Often, the recruits are hardline Sunni fundamentalists with strongly anti-Shiite sentiments.

“Our army are not really native Bahrainis,” said Sayed Ahmed Alwedaye, a Bahraini activist, speaking to Al Jazeera. “They are all brought over from different countries. So their loyalty is not really to the country. The army is fully controlled by the king himself and his agenda is the agenda which has to be followed.”

http://bit.ly/dKBQog

The exact figures are kept secret, but the policy is part of a broader attempt to shift the demographics in favour of the Sunni minority, who constitute just 35% of the population.

In a country with such a clear sectarian divide, which has until now, managed to avoid much sectarian violence and unrest, there is grave potential for Shia-Sunni relations to worsen dramatically. This will not only have domestic consequences, but regional consequences as well. Some analysts are concerned that should the situation drag on, it will lead to greater radicalisation of Bahrainis and might potentially result in civil war. Bahrain may be small geographically and population-wise, but then so is Gaza and the impact of events there cannot be downplayed. Iran and Syria, who already support and arm Shia groups in Iraq and Lebanon for example, may seek to do so in Bahrain as well. Iran has made it clear that it regards the deployment of Saudi troops in Bahrain as an “occupation”, making full use of the circumstances to promote further its regional leadership amongst Shias. Iran has demanded the removal of GCC troops and recalled its ambassador. Bahrain has expelled the Iranian charge d’affaires, whilst Iran has ordered out a Bahrainian diplomat.

The United States finds itself in a bind because the US Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain. All Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton had to say after the brutal crackdown on March 16 was that Bahrain and the GCC were “on the wrong track.” The United States seems more concerned about Iranian influence in the Gulf state than the implementation of reforms. Even with the very muted pressure the Obama administration has placed on Bahrain, its relations with Saudi Arabia have become increasingly strained. The Saudis have several times warned both Iran and the United States not to interfere in Bahraini affairs.

It is not merely the United States who have taken a soft approach on Bahrain, but response of the international community has been decidedly cautious. Despite expressions of outrage, with the exception of Iran, little real pressure has been applied. After a recent fact-finding visit to Bahrain, Robert Cooper, a special advisor to EU foreign Policy chief Baroness Ashton was defensive of the Bahraini security forces saying “accidents happen.” He stated that “the exceptional nature of recent events is part of the problem, because… it’s not easy dealing with large demonstrations in which there may be violence.” Despite some strong criticism of his comments by EU colleagues, there seems little willingness to consider the application of greater diplomatic pressure.

The United Nations has made clear its displeasure at the situation in Bahrain, and in Manama in particular, but again there seems little appetite for stronger measures. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed concerns about “arbitrary arrests, killings, beatings of protesters and of medical personnel, and of the takeover of hospitals and medical centres by various security forces.” She described it as “shocking and illegal conduct.” UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, expressed his “deepest concern over reports of excessive and indiscriminate use of force by the security forces and police in Bahrain against unarmed civilians.”

 

The Middle East has long been a strategic balancing act for the United States and the international community at large and it seems that in the case of Bahrain, the old paradigm still stands. The overriding concern is to maintain economic and strategic stability. The US will be reluctant to damage further its standing with Saudi Arabia, and has little room to move because of its naval base. The EU seems reluctant to engage with the situation and whilst the UN has used strong language, it has done little else. It begs the question as to what ultimately caused the world to recognise the need for change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya? Because it was morally right, because regime change had become inexorable and thus inevitable, or was it out of concern to garner positive relations with the newly emerging leadership? It seems that in Bahrain, strategic and economic concerns have outweighed any moral imperative to pressure the regime to make significant reforms. What happens next is likely to happen internally, though external mediation is still a possibility. A new offer by Kuwait to mediate in talks with the regime has been welcomed by Wefaq, but it remains to be seen whether the Al Khalifa regime is willing to consider reform. If the government is not genuine about dialogue and the unrest continues, there will likely be regional implications that may force an unwanted shift in the world’s relationship to Bahrain.

 

This article was first published in New Matilda on 28/03/11:

http://newmatilda.com/2011/03/28/bahrain-not-quite-top-list

 

 

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