Monday, April 29, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Acclaimed Young Filmmaker Turns Cameras Toward Legendary American Rock Band Chicago

Peter Pardini (center) with Chicago's Keith Howland (left) & Walt Parazaider
Peter Pardini was bitten by the cinema bug early. The 26-year-old filmmaking wunderkind, whose magnificent obsession with movies started back in kindergarten, has already directed three features, four feature documentaries, and several short films, music videos and commercials

Despite all this early success, the amiable director and screenwriter, whose work is sampled here, never dreamed he'd get a chance at this stage of his career to get total and unprecedented access to a legendary American rock band like Chicago - despite the fact that Peter's uncle, Lou Pardini, a Grammy-nominated songwriter, vocalist and keyboardist, is the band's newest member.

Peter didn't land this coveted gig because of his uncle. In fact, he says he probably had to work even harder to prove to the band that he was worthy. "It was really a year-long process of proving myself incrementally to the guys," says Peter, who graduated from Cal State Northridge's screenwriting department at the top of his class and was the only undergraduate selected for the department's 2010 annual screenwriting competition for his short film The Benders

In his very first media interview, Peter told me that his working relationship with Chicago began inauspiciously when the band asked him to shoot some video of the group recording its Christmas album in Nashville. It wasn't a paying gig, Peter notes, "but I obviously hoped that if the band liked what I did it could lead to more work."

Filmmaker Peter Pardini
Peter worked on the project for 10 days, and the band was evidently pleased with the results. Because two months later, Peter got a call from Lee Loughnane, Chicago's trumpet player and co-founder, who asked Peter, "What are you doing next year? Do you want to bring your cameras and come out on the road with us?" 

It didn't take long for Peter to answer. He hit the road with the band beginning in April 2011 and started filming every show, all over the world. "Out of the band's 110 shows that year," he says, "I was at 100 of them, shooting every night from all different angles."

The result of all of his work is Chicago World Tour 2011: Backstage Pass, an expertly crafted, entertaining new documentary now available on DVD. Fast-paced and painstakingly edited, Peter's film, which documents the group's travels from Germany to Italy to France to Spain, and more, features funny, candid and at times touching interviews with each of the nine current members. There's also plenty of concert footage, including some remarkable shots directly from the stage. 

It didn't start out as a full-length feature film project. When he began, Peter was assigned to produce five-minute vidoes for Chicago's website. But eventually he was asked to put together a feature for theaters. 

"I had edited a lot of stuff, but basically I had to make it all into a full story, which was very time consuming," he says. "I went back to Fresno (California), my hometown, to edit it. I did it all in my grandmother’s basement. I lived there for two months and just worked night and day. There was a pool table. It was my world for those two months. It was Lou's childhood home." 

The hard work shows. Watching the film, you'd think Peter had assembled a large and seasoned crew. But, he says understatedly, "No, it was just me. I shot it all myself. The thing about Chicago is, they're so professional, so good at what they do, you can just film their performances night after night and they always get it right, they just don't make mistakes. It made the editing process so much easier."

The film, which captures both the energy that has always defined Chicago in concert with the humor and human touch that this band has always possessed, is a fitting tribute to an eternally underrated group. Chicago, which has been around for 46 years, is arguably the most popular American rock band of all time. The group still sells lots of records and plays to sellout crowds worldwide. And the guys are evidently very happy to have this young filmmaker chronicling their work.

Chicago's Loughnane tells The Reno Dispatch, "It was exciting to be working with someone who's young and hungry to create just like we were when we started. That process has never stopped for us and I think it will never stop for Peter, either."

Peter, who's also the director, writer and co-star of an inspired short film titled Ordinary Man about a superhero who loses his powers and seeks to find meaning in his life as an ordinary man, has an obvious affection for Chicago. But is he really old enough to appreciate the music, so much of which was made before he was even born? 

"Oh yeah, absolutely. I was a huge Chicago fan growing up," says Peter, who particularly loved the songs from Chicago VI and Chicago VII, which both represent the band at its creative peak. In seventh grade, Peter made a movie with his friends and they put Saturday in the Park in the film. He also owned the band's original Greatest Hits album. 

"I know and love all those songs," says Peter, who while out on tour remembers suddenly finding himself standing on stage beside Chicago co-founder Robert Lamm as Lamm sang Saturday in the Park. "It was surreal, it was this weird full-circle thing," Peter recalls. "Here was the real guy singing the song I loved and had used in one of my early movies. I tend to think cinematically; I look at life like a movie. It was a pinch-yourself moment."

In Peter's film, which is largely about personal relationships, Chicago founder Walt Parazaider, who plays sax and flute, talks about the enduring friendship of the band's immortal three-piece horn section, which unbelievably has remained intact since 1967.

Parazaider says in the film that when the band performs, "A spiritual wire passes through all three of us. It is one of most wonderful relationships I have in my life. We are like brothers.  There is an unspoken thing that is so spiritual. If I pinpointed it to you, we would lose it. Jimmy (Pankow) and Lee (Loughnane) make me a better musician.We've gone through so much together, there is a surprise every day. I wake up every day and learn something. I'm so grateful that I can do this. We don't ever go to work, we go to play."

Peter, whose career goal is to make movies for the masses while maintaining a level of artistic integrity, says that while most people his age don’t know the band Chicago by name, "they have all heard the music. It is ingrained in popular culture. They're the only band in history to have top 40 albums in six different decades, it's incredible. Anything I can do with my work to give them more recognition with people my age, I'm happy to do that. Not that they need more recognition, but I get frustrated when I talk to people who don’t know the band."

Peter says he really didn't know what to expect when he started this collaboration, which he hopes will continue as long as the band will have him. 

"You hear about the egos and different personalities in rock bands," he says. "You know, things like 'you should stay away from this guy or that guy.' But with Chicago, everyone is open and friendly and accessible. There is none of that drama. They genuinely love what they are doing and like each other. And they also care deeply about their own legacy and living up to that legacy, every night they perform."

And the love out there for Chicago's iconic songs, Peter says, is "so incredibly strong, no matter what part of the world you're in. I've never seen anything like it."

Tris Imboden, Chicago's drummer, told Peter something while they were in Europe that stuck with him. "Tris said that it was amazing how you can be in Des Moines, Iowa, then in Berlin, Germany, and the audience reacts exactly the same way to the songs," Peter says. "And it's so true. Working with the band has been an incredible experience for me, both professionally and personally."

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

EXCLUSIVE: Is Damaged Southern California Nuclear Power Plant About to Reboot?

Surfer walks the beach near the San Onofre nuclear power plant

Are Southern Californians about to witness the restart of an unsafe nuclear power plant? Southern California Edison, the utility that owns the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) north of San Diego, which leaked radiation more than a year ago before being shuttered, is evidently looking to sidestep safety evaluations of the plant's damaged steam generators and reboot as soon as June, with minimal public input.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has preliminarily approved a "No Significant Hazard" request by Edison that allows the plant to reopen before any public hearings are held. Operators admit they don't yet know how to fix the problem at the damaged plant. Their solution? Start and stop at 70 percent power, and see what happens. 

A growing number of residents, activists and pols think this is far too risky. The Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously today to urge federal regulators not to allow the restart before a formal public process determines whether Edison’s experimental restart is safe and all needed repairs or replacements are subsequently completed.

Los Angeles is the latest in a growing list of So-Cal cities that have expressed serious concerns about the safety of restarting either of San Onofre’s twin reactors. Cities that have passed resolutions or sent letters of concern to the NRC include Del Mar, Encinitas, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Mission Viejo, San Clemente, Santa Monica, Solana Beach, Vista, Berkley and Fairfax. In addition, the San Diego Unified School District board passed a similar resolution.

Damon Moglen, director of the climate and energy campaign at Friends of the Earth, asked The Reno Dispatch, "How can the NRC seriously consider allowing the restart of this reactor without public hearings, when Edison still doesn't know exactly what went wrong, still hasn't fixed it and has no idea if their experiment of running at partial power will work? It would be the height of arrogance (for the NRC) to ignore not only the inherent risks, but the request for public hearings from Los Angeles and other cities throughout Southern California." 

Acting on a petition from Friends of the Earth, the NRC is conducting two official proceedings which could require Edison to seek a full license amendment with adjudicated public hearings, expert testimony and rules of evidence. 

Meantime, Kendra Ulrich, nuclear campaigner for Friends of the Earth, says San Onofre’s steam generators are so damaged that they should never have been granted a license in the first place. 

"Edison is saying that even though these two reactors are total lemons that failed after two years, and even though they don't know how to solve the problem, they now want to conduct an experiment running at reduced power because they are so afraid at running at full power," says Ulrich.

While Edison wants to restart the reactor as in time for the Summer heat, the NRC still has final say on if or when the plant reboots. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) which oversees the NRC, said in a statement earlier this month that NRC's proposed determination to grant the "No Significant Hazards" consideration is "dangerous and premature," and could pave the way for a restart "before the investigations of the crippled plant are completed."

Boxer said, "It makes absolutely no sense to even consider taking any steps to reopen San Onofre until these investigations look at every aspect of reopening the plant given the failure of the tubes that carry radioactive water. In addition, the damaged plant is located in an area at risk of earthquake and tsunami." 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Boston Bombing Suspects' Roots - A Primer from the National Security Network

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who was killed in an altercation with police this morning, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, who tonight was taken into custody, are suspected of carrying out the bombings at the Boston Marathon on Monday. The brothers are reportedly of Chechen descent, with roots to the Russian Republic of Dagestan and the former Soviet Republics of either Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. 

The National Security Network (NSN), which was founded in June 2006 to revitalize America’s national security policy, just provided me with me an informative primer on these nations as they may relate to events unfolding today in Boston and around the world. The NSN material includes background on these locales as well as links to pertinent news stories.

Chechens have populated the mountainous Northern Caucasus for hundreds of years, according to NSN, which notes that while the subjects of Moscow's governance for two centuries, Chechnya has oscillated between de facto autonomy and being ruled by Moscow. Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev are reported to have left Russia in 2002 to come to the United States. 

Their uncle says that they never lived in Chechnya itself; reports indicate that Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent six unaccounted-for months in Russia in 2012. Ethnic Chechens are dispersed throughout other parts of the former Soviet Union as well, discussed below in NSN’s comprehensive recap:


Chechen Terrorism (Russia, Chechnya, Separatist) 
Preeti Bhattacharji, Council on Foreign Relations, 4/8/13

Timeline: Chechnya 

BBC News, 1/19/2011

Chechnya. Kyrgyzstan. The Caucasus

Slate, 4/19/2013

9 Things You Need To Know About Chechnya 

Dan Oshinsky, BuzzFeed 4/19/2013

Chechnya's conflict has been ongoing throughout this generation

The fall of the Soviet Union led Chechen separatists to launch a coordinated campaign for independence and a continued Chechen insurgency, precipitating the First Chechen war (1994-1996). Parts of the insurgency took on an Islamist cast.  After 80,000 people had died, a peace deal was brokered in 1996 with an agreement on economic relations and reparations to Chechens affected by the war.
In response to two attacks by Chechens in Moscow, the Second Chechen War commenced in September 1999, Russian troops maneuvered into Chechnya and suppressed resistance through massive artillery fire.

The wars resulted in an exodus of Chechens - most to re-start peaceful lives as refugees and some to extremist groups. Chechens have been both perpetrators and victims of terror attacks inside Russia, most memorably in sieges of a Moscow movie theater in 2002 and an elementary school in Beslan, North Ossetia in 2004. In the last decade, Chechens have been connected to militant groups in the Middle East and South Asia, and faced charges in European countries.  The Washington Post notes that "in 2011, a Chechen-born man was sentenced in Denmark to 12 years in prison for preparing a letter bomb that exploded as he was assembling it in a Copenhagen hotel a year earlier.  Lors Doukayev, a then 25-year-old, one-legged resident of Belgium, was wounded when assembling the device, which is believed also to have been intended for the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which published controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.  Two suspects, Elsy Issakov and Mourad Idrissov, were arrested in Paris and a third, Ali Dokaev, was detained in the town of Noyon, northeast of the French capital."


Putin's War in Chechnya: Who steers the course?
 Pavel K. Baev,  International Peace Research Institute, Oslo; via CSIS, 11/2004

Key Players in the Chechen Conflict New York Times via Agence France-Presse, 2000

Getting the Caucasus Emirate Right Gordon M. Hahn, CSIS, 8/2011

The Alleged Dagestan Connection

The New York Times reports that the Tsarnaev family briefly lived in the capital of the Russian Republic of Dagestan before immigrating to the United States in 2002.

Dagestan is Chechnya's neighbor, the southernmost republic of the Russian Federation in the Northern Caucasus with a population of approximately 3 million, comprised of 32 indigenous ethnic groups and a small percentage of ethnic Russians. Dagestan has experienced ethnic tensions and intermittent violence since the First Chechen War in (1994-1996). Violence, however, has escalated considerably in the aftermath of the Second Chechen war (1999-2000), after which, in 2002, the Islamic insurgency Jamaat Shariat was formed with establishing Sharia Law among its goals and has since been a primary belligerent in hostilities. Unlike some surrounding conflicts, violence in Dagestan is not driven by nationalism or secessionism but by poverty, police abuses and religious conflict. The religiously-motivated conflict in the Dagestan is complex, primarily involving traditional SufiMuslims, a more conservative populations of SalafiMuslims - which Jamaat Shariat purports to represent - and secularists. In recent years, conflict has escalated dramatically. For example, in 2010, Dagestan experienced 685 casualties related to terrorism and insurgency - more than twice the number of casualties experienced in Chechnya the same year.

Inside the Deadly Russian Region the Tsarnaev Brother Used to Called Home  
Uri Friedman, Foreign Policy, 4/19/13

Dangerous Graft 
Tom Parfit, Foreign Policy, 3/23/11

Russia's Dagestan: Conflict Causes 
International Crisis Group, 6/3/08

The North Caucasus: Russia's Volatile Frontier 
Andrew C. Kuchins, Mathew Malarkey  and Sergei Markedonov, CSIS, 3/11

The Alleged Kazakhstan/Kyrgyzstan Connection
Conflicting reports identify the Tsarnaev brothers as having either lived Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan or having immigrated to the United States with Kyrgyzstan passports.

It would not be unusual for ethnic Chechens - as is allegedly is the case of the Tsarnaev brothers - to have originated or otherwise had ties to either of the former Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. In Soviet history, Chechens emigrated to both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, sometimes involuntarily, as was the case in 1944 after the 1940-44 Chechen Insurgency under Stalin. Kyrgyzstan has a population of over 5 million and has a large majority of ethnic Kyrgyz and Muslims, with a minority 20 percent practicing Russian Orthodox. Political instability has been acute in Kyrgyzstan since popular unrest in 2005 following questionable elections, after which largely peaceful opposition turned violent with the assassination of multiple members of parliament.  Kazakhstan is the largest of the former Soviet Republics with a population of just under 20 million, a majority of whom are ethnic Kazakhs - though religious affiliations are closely split between Russian orthodox and various sects of Islam.


Kyrgyzstan: Widening Ethnic Divisions in the South 

International Crisis Group, 3/29/12
Central Asia: Migrants and the Economic Crisis 
International Crisis Group, 1/5/10

Kazakhstan Introduces New Counter-terrorism Strategy 
Roger McDermott, the Jamestown Foundation, 4/9/13