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Taken from CANOE JAM (March 30, 2006)

Michael Franti in Edmonton

Live Review

by YURI WUENSCH - Edmonton Sun

Michael FrantiEDMONTON - Michael Franti is crazy. The world could use a few more guys like him.

In 2004, I interviewed Franti, advancing his performance at the folk fest. At that time, he recounted a trip he'd just taken to the Middle East, hitting places like Baghdad, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

I remember thinking the trip sounded interesting, albeit foolhardy - I mean those are dangerous places, right? Or so we've been led to believe. It's that kind of ambiguity that prompted Franti to go.

A clearer picture of his journey was showcased last night at the Myer Horowitz Theatre on the U of A campus. Franti screened I Know I'm Not Alone, a documentary he filmed about the trip. He also played an acoustic set of music he wrote for the film and did a brief Q and A with the capacity crowd.

While compiling anything definitive about the situation in Iraq and Israel in an 86-minute film would be a near-impossible task, Franti's simple-yet-effective flick is still a thought-provoking one. Franti shows us stuff we seldom see on the nightly news and the ease with which he did so is surprising. Enlisting the aid of a cab driver, Franti - video camera and guitar in hand - moved around Baghdad freely.

Of course, everywhere he went was "at your own risk," but Franti was determined to talk to average Iraqi citizens, people embedded journalists in Iraq seem to ignore.

The revelations from those everyday conversations are both touching and revealing.

On the lighter side, not knowing Arabic, Franti wrote a song centred around one Arabic word - "habibi," meaning "sweetheart" or "close friend" - to help break the ice. The song is goofy, but effective and many Iraqis seemed glad of his goodwill and happy about any reason to smile.

Seeing Franti steal kisses from an Iraqi grandmother or one of his buddies getting inked at a Baghdad tattoo parlour (talk about bragging rights) was also surreal. It made the Iraqis look like actual people, not death-toll statistics.

Nor are they, as one angry Iraqi woman asserted, a nation of "lazy" or "stupid" people - despite what you may have heard.

Hearing how clearly the Iraqis themselves outline their country's problems was also enlightening, most describing the American presence as the reason why violence persists.

"We only need our own people and community to live in peace," his cab driver stated.

In Israel and the Palestinian Territories, the long-standing hatred has become an institution.

One Israeli security officer - rationalizing the $1.5 billon, 700 kilometre-long and eight-metre-high separating wall being built in the West Bank - complained about Palestinian children being taught to hate Israelis from the age of three. In almost the same breath, he described Palestinians as "a cancer" and that Israelis "treat them like sh--."

The wall's proponents say it will decrease the number of terrorist acts being perpetrated upon Israeli citizens. Its detractors say Israel is using it to annex what is some of the best, most arable farmland in the West Bank.

In the film, Franti actually finds himself caught in the middle of such a debate between a frustrated Palestinian farmer and Israeli soldiers manning a checkpoint.

What was interesting about the Israeli soldier's perspective is how similar it is to that of American military personnel in Baghdad - that they're just doing a job, following orders and that they'd really much sooner go home.

The strength of Franti's documentary is the degree of impartiality he, for the most part, manages to maintain. He accomplishes that by focusing less on the respective political situations in Israel and Iraq and showing us the oft-ignored human costs, like the elderly Palestinian woman who must live on the street lest what passes for a home collapses on her. Or the Iraqi boy, no more than eight years old, who had his legs blown off.

I Know I'm Not Alone isn't anti-American or anti-Semitic, but it is antiwar. And for a first time filmmaker, Franti makes a compelling argument to that end.

Franti manages to balance war's dark horrors with the resiliency of the human spirit and together it makes you realize how horrible war really is. Seeing nice, innocent people caught in such desperate situations is depressing, sure, but hopefully it will strengthen our resolve to do something about it. And that just might be what Franti had in mind.


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