NZIFF: Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014)

1400158765043_0570x0365_1400158803080

The Cannes 2014 favourite gets it’s first (and only?) cinematic run in New Zealand as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. Sissako is only of the few African born directors making narrative cinema that is gaining such an interest at an international level, so I was curious to see what his cinematic voice is like, having not seen his previous films. Sissako, although born in Mauritania, spent much of his childhood in Mali, his fathers country. In this film he focuses his lens on Malian people, specifically in North Mali and Timbuktu, the historically significant city (with a long history of being notoriously difficult to get to, many colonial explorers dying attempting to cross the Saharan desert) which is often confused in western minds with a metaphor for a distant place. But Timbuktu is filled with real people and real struggles, and Sissako successfully translates these to a fictional narrative (based partially on real events) showing the human side behind the Tamasheq-speaking locals and the Arabic-speaking Islamic extremists who’ve invaded their community.

Timbuktu-863863449-large

The core of the story is a drama about a couple, Kidane and Satima who live peacefully on the outskirts of the city, tending to their cattle and raising their daughter. But an argument over the murder of a favourite cow, called ‘GPS’ leads to the father Kidane accidentally murdering a fellow farmer. Separately to this is the story of the civilians living inside Timbuktu, being kept under the strict rule of gun toting Islamic extremist, who’ve banned everything from music, to playing soccer and enforced the wearing of the hijab on Timbuktu woman. These new laws are met with defiance from many of the locals, one woman refusing to wear gloves to do the work she has been previously doing with bare hands her whole life, or a group of kids playing an game of soccer with an invisible ball just to get around the regulations. We are shown the extremists as they try to convert many around the city but struggle to find a level of Islamic conviction they seek. The hypocrisies of the extremists are also made evident; the gun toting militants ban simple pleasures and yet communicate with each other via smartphones and frequently bend their Islamic religious teachings to fit any agenda.

Ibrahim+Ahmed+Timbuktu+Premieres+Cannes+qbeKwMvo9cpl

The cast at Cannes

Although the story is a tragedy we are equally shown the light and relatable aspects of life in Northern Mali, and humor is found even in the darkest aspects of life amongst this type of extremism. What is apparent are the human stories that we are never given when watching news reports on Islamic communities in Africa or the Middle East. We are most usually told only about the murders and bombings, or the various invasions, but not taken inside the lives of those affected by these political groups. We see Malian people singing, socializing and trying to keep their lives going in spite of the changes forced upon them by the ideals of a few. We get to know the people, such as the farmers Kidane and Satima or the unique personalities inhabiting the city. We also get to know the militants, and are given opportunity to equally pity their situation.

timbuktu-cannes-2014-6
Timbukto
is also photographed beautifully; there is striking imagery, for example one key scene is is played out in a long take from a extremely wide angle, highlighting how the events of these peoples lives take place against the harsh conditions of the desert. Any brutality in the film is dealt with sensitively and without exploitation. This is delicate, considered filmmaking, on a culture that rarely, if ever, gets an opportunity to tell it’s stories on a world scale.

 

Projects: New music vid ‘Put On My Shades’

Here’s a music video I directed and edited for a song I produced and rapped on with my collaborator Andy Weston, under the pseudonym Posse In Effect. We released one EP a few years back and this is an old song that Andy had rapped on, but I had never really finished, besides putting it up on Soundcloud. Andy visited Auckland for a wedding and we decided to shoot a video, seemed a suitable time to bring this one out of the archive. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out, there’s a bit of dubstep in there towards the end, so you can tell it’s a product of 2011; but there’s heart to the lyrics and the video turned out fairly nicely considering how quickly we shot it.

If you’re interested in checking out more of Posse in Effects stuff, find us on bandcamp or facebook:

posseineffect.bandcamp.com

http://www.facebook.com/posseineffect

Or find more of my stuff on soundcloud:

http://www.soundcloud.com/hamish-gavin

NZIFF Auckland 2014 – Kung Fu Elliot (Matthew Bauckman, Jaret Belliveau, 2014)

MV5BODgxMDk3ODI3MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDUwNzU2MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Kung Fu Elliot (Matthew Bauckman, Jaret Belliveau), compared to Big Men that I discuss in the post below, provided an interesting opposite example of how to make a documentary. Either the filmmakers got perhaps a little too involved in their subject or the authenticity of the film itself is up for doubt. Elliot ‘White Lightening’ Scott plans to become the first Canadian Kung Fu film star, shooting no-budget short films on a consumer point-and-shoot camera, doing all his own stunts with the help of his supportive partner Linda. The filmmakers follow him around over two years as he attempts to finish his 2nd film, Blood Fight. His Kung Fu is dubious at best, as is the acting and stunts which he attempts, and yet he has an enduring belief in his talent.

During the course of the film, the stories Elliot tells about his life and achievements begin to unravel. Linda waits patiently for a ring to make their engagement legitimate. Elliot continues to delay. The production of his third film, Blood Fight, continues to be delayed as well. During all this, Elliot’s commitment to his partner becomes doubtful, as the filmmakers document his increasingly suspicious behaviour.

photo-mainIt’s an at times hilarious film and at times painfully awkward. The third act gets particularly strange and stories we are told about Elliot break down in front of us. If it is a real documentary, the filmmakers become aware of facts about Elliot that they withhold from his partner Linda (infidelity etc), and they become fully involved in Elliot’s illusion, breaking down the usual subject/filmmaker barrier ( it could be seen as a personal version of Harlem County, U.S.A.)

That is if we are to believe the film is a real documentary. Elliot could very well be a mockumentary that hasn’t been outed as one yet — I’m doing a little bit of social networking research  on this topic and the real Elliot does indeed have a facebook fan page, but nothing has been posted on it since 2013. I contacted the filmmakers, asking if Elliot had seen the film, to which they replied stating that neither Elliot nor Linda have seen the film, yet a few of the cast members had.

So perhaps this debunks my theory, and the filmmakers practices getting that close to the subject are in my eyes questionable, or maybe they’re pulling a Cannibal Holocaust on us to get press for their partially kickstarter funded project.

Not to put anyone off seeing the film. It is hilarious and a well made debut, so see it and form your own opinion, add to the discussion. It’s sure to become a cult favourite. A particular memorable scene was one in which Elliot visits an actual Shaolin monk in China, and attempts to fight a real trained Kung Fu monk. The results must be witnessed.

To the filmmakers credit, they raise some interesting questions about the fantasies we build around ourselves. That is, unless the trick is on the audience, but that remains to be seen.

EDIT: The filmmakers have responded further on Facebook to my questions, stating that Elliot is most definitely a real person. There’s a good vice article on the making of the film, which gives insight to show that the filmmakers were led on by Elliot’s lies and fantasies, just as much as his friends and associates were.

POSTSCRIPT (23rd July): Based on this new information that Elliot and his friends are completely real people, and the insights that the filmmakers give in the above vice article, I have to say that the film has become an even more intriguing thing. It was not just Elliot’s girlfriend Linda and his friends that were lied to, but the filmmakers as well. The documentary team started this project following Elliot expecting completely innocent things; that they were following a delusional but well natured man, who desires fame as much as any of us do, but whom is prepared to build fantasies around himself to give himself a sense of achievement beyond what most people have the capability. The darker side of Elliot that slowly emerges throughout the course of the film, was something the filmmakers themselves were also unaware of and the way they have structured the documentary, we the audience become aware of this as they do. Therefore the filmmakers were not withholding as much information from their subjects as what I assumed they were, and the dramatic revealing of information that occurs throughout the last section of the film is made all the more potent by the fact it is completely real.

Elliot wanted the fame, he let the documentary crew in and the exposed his life in a way that he perhaps felt the illusions he had built had made him immune to. In that way the film perhaps shows the limitations of desiring fame from many perspectives; the example here is that if you’re prepared to build very large illusions around your life, than you to should be prepared to have those illusions shattered, and to lose those people in your life that you have gained through maintaining those illusions.

NZIFF Auckland 2014 – Big Men (Rachel Boynton, 2013)

I’ve been checking out a bunch of films at the NZIFF Auckland leg, and it feels right to write up some thoughts on them.

My selection so far has been dominated by documentaries; the Nick Cave day-in-the-life musical drama 20,000 Days On Earth opening the fest for me, followed by the questionable Kung Fu Elliot on the Sunday and a revealing look into oil mining in Africa, Big Men today. Amongst that I found the time to see The Young And Prodigious T.S. Spivet, a charming novel adaptation by the director of Amelie and Alien Resurrection, Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Big-Men-promo-poster

Of the films Big Men has so far hit the hardest. An incredibly thorough documentary from Rachel Boynton, who’d previously exposed the corruption of South American politics in Our Brand is Crisis (2005), now tackles the secret world of African oil deals. Boynton takes us deep inside the big players on all sides of the African oil war, the CEO’s of the American oil company Kosmos, the governments of Nigeria and Ghana as they do deals with the companies and the armed militants, unafraid to sabotage the oil extraction efforts to get a cut of the profit for their own people. There’s corruption on all sides and huge billion dollar deals but the bigger questions are asked; who is entitled to the money made from these oil deals? Will the impoverished people of Nigeria and Ghana see any benefits from the extraction of their countries own minerals, or will the money go straight into the pockets of the investors and the government officials?

Boynton objectively documents the events and probes into players motivations, never directly passing judgement, letting the audience build it’s own opinion. It’s certainly a complex situation but the failings of the profit driven capitalist system are ever prevalent as is the systems victims, everyday family’s caught in the wake of the all consuming machine. In this case the victims are the Nigerian and Ghana families; one could sympathize with the militants even as they wore balaclavas and held rocket launchers, mostly because as they explained, all they wanted was to leave something for their children and bring some of the profit from the oil drilling back into the community.

115298_galAs the title suggests, all these major players are motivated by the desire to be big men, and Boynton looks at this ego-driven mentality as one possibility for the chaos that surrounds the business of extracting such in demand resources as oil. The CEO’s want to protect their reputation, the African government leaders want more for their country (and their own pockets) and the militants want the profit to be directed to the communities.

These are the broad themes but the film also tackles specific deals, particularly between Kosmos negotiating with the Ghana government over the first drilling of oil within Ghana, documenting the financial collapse as it directly effects these events. I recommend the watch never the less.

Only Lovers Left Alive [film review]

Only lovers left alive

[May contain spoilers]

A modern vampiric romance set against decaying Detroit streets with the odd Tangier alley-way thrown in for good measure, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive succeeds because of the chemistry between it’s lead stars, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston.

Playing a couple with a love that has lasted several centuries, Lovers sees Hiddleston’s Adam holed up in a Detroit mansion writing droning funeral rock music on antique guitars, while his wife, Eve (Swinton) lives in Tangier. We see both of them securing blood through underground measures not requiring the eating of living people, Adam from a doctor and Eve from a fellow aging vampire, a ghost writer of considerable success in a past time, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Adam also has a friend in Detroit who secures him the antique guitars he plays, Ian (Anton Yelchin) and other black market things. The depressed Adam makes a call to Eve, and quickly convinces her to rejoin him in Detroit. After a brief period of romantic reunion, Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) arrives on their doorstep, shaking things up slightly.

The plot is not especially dense, but Jarmusch is more concerned with mood, as per his earlier films like Dead Man. The soundtrack is a highlight, matching the sombre visuals (all at night, hence the life of the vampire) with droning guitars and the occasional Moroccan instrumental. Jarmusch puts particular emphasis on making the vampire situations not overly staged, the plot refrains from big twists that might feature in a mainstream version of the same plot. The conversations between the key vampires are all pretty interesting and topical as well, with Adam and Eve both concerned with science, astrology, Einstein’s entanglement theory, toads and giant humming crystals in the sky to name a few. Adam has a love of antique instruments and Eve indulges his passion, thus anyone interested in classic guitars would probably get a kick from the references.

I’m by no means hugely schooled on Jarmusch’s filmography, having seen Mystery Train and Down By Law quite some time ago, but I feel the film stacks up against cult favourite Dead Man, being similarly hypnotic in pacing and detailed in scripting. The film is mostly appealing visually, though there is a few ugly shots here and there (some of the car perspective driving shots I felt looked out of place). The images of a decaying Detroit were particularly striking, and with never aging vampires set against this backdrop, Jarmusch seemed to be making a point about the finite nature of human existence. The humans of the film, referred to as zombies, are a kind that ignorant to their own decay, and the destruction of their civilization around them. All themes that were tackled without being heavy handed – and at the end of the day – ever lasting love is what prevails in this Gothic romantic tale.

Only lovers left alive

Arctic Monkeys New Zealand May 2014 [live review]

Vector Arena Auckland

AM in Auckland

Anticipation has a habit…

The highly awaiting chance to see Arctic Monkeys live again got taken up to the next level due to a chance opportunity to go to both Auckland and Wellington shows. I had posted on the Arctic Monkeys online forum weeks in advance asking if anyone had a spare ticket to either show, as I had missed out on the original G.A. sale and was looking to not buy from scalpers if possible. Just last week an admin of the forum named Athena saw this message and offered me a spare Wellington ticket she had, as she could no longer make the trip from Australia. I was blown away by the generosity and offered to pay for the ticket but she insisted on no payment. Fellow Monkeys fans are the best. So after a few days of deliberation I jumped at the chance (perhaps self-indulgent but I will pay it forward when the opportunity arises) to go to both shows.

Early morning plane to Welly

Early morning plane to Welly

Crowds queued up early at both shows, with mostly the teen fan base taking a place long before the doors open, attempting to get as close to their heroes as possible. Wandering the streets of Wellington in the early morning, about 8.30am after my plane touched down, I came across a small group of fans who were already sitting outside TSB Arena, complete with sleeping bags and necessities to keep them going. Some told me they had been waiting since four in the morning. It seems Arctic Monkeys fandom has well and truely continued after their initial success of the last decade, undoubtedly on a second wind due to the success of last years AM.

The night before in Auckland I arrived relatively late to the venue, only securing my ticket very last minute. I caught up with a few friends and then took my place inside, having missed the opening act Pond. I would catch them the next night at Wellington, and there they were awesome, sounding heavier and carrying more weight live than on their albums. They deserve to have their own limelight, and escape the shadow of fellow Perth-psychedelic rockers Tame Impala, who they have shared several members with.

Anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment in evening entertainment some say. And I had years of pent up anticipation brewing before the Arctics took stage in Auckland. I had a seated ticket for that night right down the back of the arena and as the boys came out and launched into One For The Road I quickly realized this seated thing would not do. The music sounded great, the band looked great, but Vector Arena’s screens weren’t on and many people were staying in their seats, not dancing around my area. I made my way down the steps to the side of the barrier, with the arena within jumping distance below me. I did not plan this, but by the time of Arabella I felt my decision had been made for me. A security guard turned his back and in time to the music I jumped, hitting the floor and loosing my footing as I fell. I quickly got up and ran into the standing masses, a little shocked and incredibly excited that I had not been caught and thrown out. I continued to make my way into the mass of people as the band started up with Brianstorm. Any potential disappointment was soon eradicated, within the standing crowd was the place to be, as I had previously assumed.

Adoring Masses, Vector Arena

Adoring Masses, Vector Arena

“…Evening Entertainment”

Boy had things moved on since New Zealand last saw the Arctics live at the Big Day Out 2009 before the release of Humbug. We’ve all followed the youtube streams, Glastonbury performances and other album promotional stuff since then, so the look of the band came as no surprise. Nick O’Malley still rocking his beastly beard, Jamie Cook now back with long hair, Matt Helders letting his curls grow out a little longer and Alex with the characteristic quiff and expensive suits that have come to define him in this period of the band. The first time I caught them live in 2009 at the Auckland Big Day Out the band opened with Pretty Visitors, a completely new track at that time, which sounded great but felt a slightly awkward opening to a festival set (Alex played the keys then which is now left to touring keyboardist Thomas Rowley). This time the Arctic’s took the stage bathed in red light to the sound of a backing track, which led into a slightly extended One For The Road intro. The confidence the band has gained from years of non-stop touring is immediately apparent. I was glad to see the band had brought the giant AM lights down this side of the world (although they were no doubt smaller versions than the colossal ones present at the 2013 European tour) and the general lighting design went for the huge and impressive, with smoke and strobes utilized to impressive effect. A far cry from the couple of lamps that littered the stage back at the Big Day Out.

The new songs sound almost studio perfect live, with Davey Latter filling in the extra percussion and back up vocals, his spot to the back left of the stage just to the left of the giant ‘A’ light, but still visible. As well as keyboards Thomas Rowley fills in extra live guitar, often doubling the Jamie’s rhythm licks, with fills up the sound. Matt’s drumming is on point, he’s an ever impressive live drumming nailed every fill and beat. Occasionally I wondered if the tempos were slightly slower than on the album, but this was possibly only noticeable in the old material, Florescent Adolescent and Dance floor particularly, perhaps a symptom of the band moving on from their punk roots and towards this more groove orientated direction. Jamie’s playing was also tight as, and he seems to be moving around a bit more, though still keeping near his pedals. He was particularly in motion at the Wellington gig, perhaps encouraged by the rapturous crowd response at that second gig. Nick’s stage presence is also at a new peak nowadays, due largely to his great beard and his backing vocals were one of the most impressive parts of either gig. He now performs Josh Holmes vocal spot in Knee Socks and if you close your eyes you can barely tell a difference between the two. Hopefully they continue to use his vocals in the future.

Finally Alex, now every bit the front man, teasing the crowd between songs – stalking the stage with just a mic in Pretty Visitors and Arabella like some indie rock Elvis – nailing the vocals of every song and switching between lead and rhythm with effortless ease (Alex’s lead/vocal double act in the chorus of Knee Socks is some pretty impressive stuff to watch). Ladies love him, guys want to be him (judging by the Alex turner haircuts around both arena’s); he might come across a bit more full of himself than the Alex of 2009, but it seems to be working in terms of pulling off a gripping live show.

The lights, Vector Arena

The lights, Vector Arena

Wellington or Auckland, “Do I Wanna Know?”

In terms of the differences between the gig, I think the Wellington show had better atmosphere, the crowd was electric and really densely packed due to the small venue. The boys seemed to register this and the energy on stage was higher, as well as more banter from Alex at that second show. At one point Alex asked for the audience lights to be turned on, at which he pointed to a silhouette in the back of the arena, stating something along the lines of “that’s some trippy stuff Wellington, looks like a James Bond title sequence” in his Sheffield-cum-Rockabilly drawl. I wasn’t quite sure what he was talking about but the audience appreciated the interaction. Later before final track R U Mine? and after I Wanna Be Yours, Alex pulled out the effective routine of “we are yours Wellington, but I have one question to ask.. R U Mine!?” (paraphrased). His in between song banter through out was as amusing and the crowd responds enthusiastically every time. Auckland was as good of a show as well, not to do any disservice to it, but due to me having to mission into the G.A. area part of the way into the set and perhaps the more intimate size of Wellington led to me putting that second show just slightly above the first. Maybe also the fact it was my first show at the TSB Arena in Wellington, and the little I had adventure surrounding that second gig with a 6am flight (not to mention the last minute hook up of the ticket from Athena); these personal elements probably have some part to play in my preference of the second gig. But both amazing shows none the less, justifying why I hold this modern rock band so much higher than many others.

auck am sharp

The boys lookin’ sharp in Auckland

“Nothing on the early stuff”

As well as nearly hearing the whole of the new album over the course of both nights (we got Number One Party Anthem at the second show, the only songs missing were Mad Sounds and I Want It All ) the band treated us to many of their old classics. Having missed the Suck It And See tour, I was stoked to hear She Thunderstorms. I’m a big fan of Suck It And See and was hoping for just a few random tracks from that album, so that did the the trick. Library Pictures was also a highlight of both sets, the fast numbers standing out even more against the groovier new numbers. From Humbug we got the ever kick ass Crying Lightening, a live favourite of mine. At the Wellington show, a rare live stumble occurred just before this song with Matt cutting off an introduction from Alex by counting the song in perhaps too soon. Both shows also got a version of Cornerstore, with Alex playing the first verse and chorus acoustically by himself. Auckland also was lucky enough to receive an epic version of Pretty Visitors from the same album. From Favourite Worst Nightmare both shows featured Brianstorm which never fails to set the crowd jumping, the sing-along of Florescent Adolescent which I felt was played slightly slower (and perhaps has been since the Humbug tour) and 505, which seems to be quite a crowd favourite. Auckland got 505 as the traditional encore closer, whereas 505 closed the first set at Wellington, with R U Mine closing the show that time round. I have to say I prefer R U Mine? as the set closer and it’s good to see them mixing it up. From the first album we got the very welcome Dancing Shoes and that other song which needs no introduction (Bet You Look Good), that seems to forever remain their number one crowd favourite (the little kids seem to have got into it like it was 2006).

The lights in Wellington

The lights in Wellington

I should note that the new material got some of the largest applause from the audience, particularly and perhaps unsurprisingly Do I Wanna Know?, which I felt worked better earlier in the set, such as in Wellington, than as the first set closer as per Auckland. Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High? came early in the set in Auckland so had more of an effect on me when placed at the start of the encore in Wellington. At that second show, High? came across to me as one of the biggest set highlights and I hope it remains a fixture. It was also great to hear I Wanna Be Yours both nights, which I assume won’t stay in the set forever, but is probably the darkest song of the set at the moment and a real moody juxtaposition. Great to hear Helders on the electronic samples during this song as well.

Being on old fan since the Beneath The Boardwalk days, I have to be lame and say I miss not hearing a lot of the old material. There was sadly no Old Yellow Bricks that I was hoping for given it’s inclusion in 2013, and part of me left Wellington wondering what had happened to Teddy Picker/Still Take You Home/A Certain Romance, that sort of stuff. They’d be huge crowd numbers so I hope they don’t retire them for good, but in saying that they’re starting to amass quite a large list of classics so it’s impossible to hear them all. They also seem to have stopped playing b-sides at the moment, and even though it’s not yet had a live debut, it would be great to hear stuff like Stop The World which I personally think is one of their best songs and probably deserved to be on the album.

But in spite of being a picky AM nerd, both gigs were amazing and satisfied the several-year long urge to see the band live again. For the time being that is, I see me travelling to see them live many times in the future, hopefully at some international festivals. I don’t see why it won’t happen as well, they’re showing no signs of slowing down.

Alex in the blue

Alex in the blue

“Your heroes aren’t what they seem…”

The only other disappointment of the weekend, was I failed in my attempts to stalk and get a photo with any member of the band (but this is definitely periphery to the music). I spent most of Saturday waiting around TSB arena, the hoping to spot the boys coming in for a soundcheck. At around three o’clock their music could be heard from within the venue, so we all thought it was them soundchecking. Turns out false alarm, and was just the sound crew testing the gear, fooling us all. I was there however when their cars arrived at TSB arena, and led a gang of 15 year olds at their first concert up to try and meet the band. They were running late so went straight inside though but Alex did give us a wave. Was kind of cool as well to see who traveled with who, Matt was in a car with Jamie, Alex with Nick in another car. Apparently they were hanging out at Wellington bar Mighty Mighty later that night, but I was pretty exhausted after the show, so we’ll have to give up the stalking until next time (or maybe give it up completely and repress the instincts of the teenage fan-boy within).

TSB Arena, the morning after

TSB Arena, the morning after

But I hate to end on a pessimistic note and it was a pretty damn good couple of gigs indeed. The Arctic fan base in strong down these southern ways and seems set to remain, so hopefully the boys come and grace us with a few more gigs next tour. With another couple of albums the size of AM, they could be doing their own stadium shows rather than basketball arenas next time we see them here.

To finish, here’s a video of  R U Mine? recorded on an Ipod Nano I had in my pocket. Pretty awful quality, but alright for archival purposes:

 

Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton

hi

*I’d just like to note I’m not necessarily an Atheist and you don’t have to prescribe to such specific definitions of spirituality to enjoy this book.

In the second chapter of Religion For Atheists, Alain de Botton compares the approach of education in the secular state to the religious approach to education. Talking about literature in either, de Botton raises the subject of how religion (Christianity in this case) understands the forgetful nature of people, using the term akrasia, “a perplexing tendency to know what we should do combined with a reluctance to actually do it, whether through weakness of will or absent-mindedness”. Due to this Christianity, which is primarily dedicated to educating people on how to improve their lives on an emotional level as opposed to secular education whose primary purpose is the imparting of facts, has set up a system where the lessons of christian text (the Bible) are constantly reinforced, be it in sermons, religious holidays or other ceremonial type things. De Botton raises the point that we could learn similar life changing lessons from secular classics, such as the work of Chekhov or particularly emotionally moving films. Often we leave the theater, cinema, or finish a book and feel like completely changing our lives based on the values in that text we have just experienced. But then the feeling fades and we go back to mundane life. So whether or not that was the key point of De Botton’s chapter, I’ve decided to combat that akrasia by writing more about everything I watch, read or listen to. May as well start with the book that inspired the impulse.

Religion For Atheists argues the case that the secular world could learn a lot from religion. By largely rejecting elements of the main religions, the secular world, atheistic or not is allowing a lot of helpful ideas or activities that were in the past more general human concerns to be entirely claimed by religion. If we were to look for positively on religious things we might be able to improve the way the modern world works, de Botton argues, in areas such as community, art, education, kindness, architecture and institutions. You may find many parts of modern religious dogma unappealing but de Botton successfully illuminates the positive elements of religion, and in doing so creates a book that’s informative, eye opening and as helpful as any self help book.

Several threads from de Botton’s other books are continued here, such as looking at modern consumer societies status obsessed society, and shows how religion can help us to ask the questions about our lives and souls to really improve our existence, beyond the temporary fix that is chasing material possessions or satisfying shallow urges. De Botton uses this humanistic kind of outlook to appeal to people who have no interest at all in religion and couldn’t put even a slight belief in any deity. Regardless of how atheist or agnostic you are, it’s difficult not to relate to human creations, of which religion can be understood as one, which exist primarily to try and help people live their lives as best they possibly can.

If you don’t get totally carried away and want to start integrating into your life secular versions of religious activities, the book also proves interesting as an overview of the many varied aspects of religion that the non-religiously inclined might not be immediately aware of. At times the book felt genuinely revelatory, either that or I’m just naive and like a sponge when it comes to reading about de Botton’s self-help pop philosophy. Particularly the section about Buddhist ceremonies and their purposes I found struck a chord. De Botton partakes in a Buddhist weekend retreat for novices; there he engages in activities such as breathing meditation, which he describes the purpose as being “to open up a modest distance between our consciousness and our ego”. It just resonated with me the perhaps obvious to others thought that there are cultures of the world entirely dedicated to such things as separating your ego from your experience, such as in this Buddhist way which seeks to show people how they can view the world as it is, being mindful of such things as the blood running through our veins, the wind against our cheeks and tiny little details of what is happening right now in the present. Ignoring self absorbed, ego driven concerns is not something the modern western world does very often at all, and being so surrounded by propaganda fueling our selfish insecurities, driving our material lusts, it is refreshing to join de Botton’s search in finding the parts of human culture that are dedicated to making the human experience better.

His ideas may be commonsensical at times and perhaps over simplistic but I felt there was a lot of positive thought within the pages of Religion For Atheists. The last few chapters detail Art, Archeology and finally end up with a literature review of some of the other key idealists who have sought to reclaim religious ideas into some kind of secular church. It may not have happened yet but it’s good to know there’s thinkers out there willing to constantly challenge the capitalist modern machine and provide us with alternatives on how to better live our lives.