Some questions you might be pondering after watching this week’s videos:
• How did America’s war on drugs limit access to basic medical care in other parts of the world?
• Is the next Jon Stewart from Yemen?
• If you were Russian, would you really want a man like Vladimir Putin?
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Incidentally, at the I Files, we aren’t so sure we want a man like Putin, even if he is back on the market.
“The Pain Project,” International Reporting Program at the University of British Columbia
“I keep (the gun) to shoot myself … when the pain gets too strong.”
Imagine recovering from surgery or suffering from a chronic debilitating disease without pain medication. That’s the chilling premise of “The Pain Project,” produced by some seriously talented students from the International Reporting Program at the University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.
The series investigates why so many people in developing countries are denied access to basic palliative medical care. It turns out that the problem isn’t even financial – morphine, the gold standard for pain management, is inexpensive and easy to produce. A big part of the blame actually goes to the global war on drugs. Zealous policing has made access to medical morphine nearly impossible, even in places where the drug is produced and exported.
The investigation spans the globe, taking viewers from India, where patients literally scream because they have no access to painkillers, to Ukraine, where a latter-day Robin Hood of pain medication distributes unused morphine to those in need, to Uganda, where new creative solutions to pain management are being sought.
Stories like that of a former KGB officer in Ukraine suffering from stage 4 prostate cancer are profoundly upsetting. Without regular access to adequate pain medication, he has left his family and moved to a remote cottage to live alone. “I don’t want them to see me cry because I’m in pain,” he explains.
It’s at least heartening to learn that as a result of this series and other reporting on the issue, fundamental changes in medical drug policy are now underway in some parts of the world. After getting to know some of the suffering people in these stories – collateral-damage victims of the war on drugs – we can only hope these reforms come soon.
“Punched Out,” The New York Times
As the Stanley Cup playoffs heated up this week, I was reminded of The New York Times’ engrossing series on the life and death of NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard. Although the video came out at the end of 2011, the case has been in the news since Boogaard’s family recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the NHL, blaming the league for the physical wounds and brain damage he suffered while playing and for his subsequent addiction to prescription painkillers.
“Punched Out” traces Boogaard’s journey from his early years in a small Canadian town dreaming of playing in the big leagues to his celebrity as “the bogeyman,” one of the most feared enforcers in the NHL. As an enforcer, his job was not to score, but to intimidate members of the opposing team. He was a crowd favorite, but years of bare-knuckle fighting and repeated concussions eventually took a heavy toll. Boogaard was found dead at 28 after an accidental overdose of prescription painkillers.
A post-mortem on Boogaard’s brain revealed that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head that can result in debilitating physical side effects and early onset dementia. Doctors were shocked at the amount of brain damage there was in someone who was not even 30.
A doctor who studies CTE warns that other players should view Boogaard’s story as a cautionary tale.
“They should huddle together and say, ‘Do we want to keep punching each other in the head this much, or do we want to start doing this differently?’ And if they aren’t, they’re trading money for brain cells.”
“Witness: The Show Must Go On,” Al-Jazeera English
Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out of office last year during the Arab Spring. But many Yemenis believe the revolution in their country isn’t over yet. One unlikely front of that war is being fought on the stage of a satiric comedy series called “Against the Tide.” Aired on a television channel linked to the main opposition party, the show uses a “Daily Show”-like format to lambast government officials and push for political reform.
Host Mohammed Al-Ruba’a might not quite be Jon Stewart caliber yet, but he does have much more outrageous fodder to work with. When the minister of information recently charged that video showing protestors wounded at a rally was faked, he proclaimed that any real victims would have been brought to the hospital to receive a death certificate.
Al-Ruba’a laughs grimly on camera. “So, you go to the hospital with an injury but leave with a death certificate? I said, ‘No thanks, we don’t want this kind of medicine and treatment.’ ”
But making fun of politicians is dangerous in a country where, according to Al-Ruba’a, “it’s easier to get a weapon than flour or food.” Last year, soldiers attacked the studio where the show was based with bullets and an RPG and set the building on fire. The show is now broadcast from a secret location.
“One way I measured the reaction after each show was by the number of threats I received,” Al-Ruba’a says. “If the threats are like this, then I’ll know it was a good episode and I touched a nerve.”
“One Iranian lawyer’s fight to save juveniles from execution,” Guardian TV
Why would anyone become a human rights lawyer in Iran?
That’s the question examined in this sober animation by Guardian TV. Voiced by actor Paul Bettany, the piece relates how Mohammad Mostafaei became a crusading attorney specializing in defending juvenile defendants in death penalty cases.
Mostafaei found his calling when he was 14 years old and snuck away to watch a public execution in Iran. Instead of finding the dangerous-looking criminal he had imagined, he saw a very young and scared man about to be hanged in the public square.
This story was produced as part of Amnesty International’s anti-death penalty campaign last year, so it takes a clear point of view against capital punishment, but it focuses on the particular horror of executing juveniles.
Mostafaei saved some 20 young men from execution before fleeing to Norway, where he continues to work on human rights issues.
“When defending a case, you think of them as your family,” Mostafaei says. “It’s like your own child is burning in the fire created by the authorities and everyone is just standing by.”
“A Man like Putin,” PBS’ “Sound Tracks”
The Russian punk rock dissident band Pussy Riot was back in the news this week now that one member has ended her 11-day hunger strike to protest conditions at the prison where she’s being held. As you may remember, the group rocketed to fame and infamy last year with a controversial protest in an Orthodox church, where they performed their song, “Virgin Mary, Put Putin Away.”
But after watching this week’s video, an altogether different kind of music has been stuck in my head – a strident pop beat with lyrics extolling the virtues of Russia’s favorite strongman, Vladimir Putin.
My boyfriend got into another stupid mess.
He got into a fight and got drunk on something nasty.
I finally got sick of him and threw him out.
And now I want a man like Putin.
I want a man like Putin, who’s full of strength.
I want a man like Putin, who doesn’t drink.
I want a man like Putin, who won’t make me sad.
I want a man like Putin, who won’t run away.
“A Man Like Putin” traces the inception of this funny and all-too-catchy propaganda song and examines what its popularity illustrates about contemporary Russia. Part of an occasional series on PBS looking at current events through the lens of music, the short doc originally aired in 2010 but is only just now available on YouTube. (Full disclosure: The series creator, Stephen Talbot, is now the senior producer of The I Files, though he wielded no influence over the story’s selection herein. Honest.)
The song was created on a bet by a music producer straight out of central casting, decked out in greasy hair and a Pearl Jam T-shirt. He hit upon the ingenious (and, he insists, true) inspiration that, for the statistically average Russian woman, to find a man like Putin is her life’s dream. He took this big idea and molded it into a new kind of ironic and postmodern propaganda tune that Putin frequently used in campaign rallies.
But now that some time has passed, the story also illustrates how far Putin’s star has fallen in the years since the doc first aired.
“There’s no market right now for a song that criticizes Putin,” shrugs the song’s writer. “It’s futile to criticize Putin.” Oh, how times have changed.
Amanda Pike is the producer for The I Files, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. The I Files selects and showcases the best investigative videos from around the Web and across the world. Major contributors include CIR, The New York Times, BBC, ABC, Al-Jazeera, Vice, the Investigative News Network and many more. You can follow Amanda on Twitter: @AmandaHPike. This column first appeared on Salon.com.