Downers and Uppers

Washington City Paper | September 8, 2006
On 9/11, more people died of AIDS than died of violence.” That’s just one of the startling revelations in Nobelity, a documentary written and directed by Turk Pipkin. Pipkin, a former Night Court scribe, begins the movie talking about his daughters and about how a parent’s job is to protect them during the day and reassure them at night. “But is everything going to be OK?” he asks himself in voice-over. “Are we going to leave a better world for future generations, or is this going to be the time when it all started to unravel?”

According to the rather alarming Nobelity, the latter is more likely to be true. Pipkin spent a year seeking out the inconvenient truth from nine Nobel Prize winners about subjects such as the environment, nuclear weapons, hunger, poverty, and the general divisiveness that pits global citizens against one another. The most popular conclusion that is drawn is one that most of us probably already suspect: that the blame lies in “institutional resistance”—i.e., politics. As Steven Weinberg, who was awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize in physics, points out, governments, for the most part, don’t care about people who don’t vote. Leaving an inhabitable planet for current voters’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren? Not on the agenda. And Harold Varmus, 1989 prize winner in medicine, asserts that the United States’ foreign aid is spurred not by altruism but by a self-interested desire to help our “friends.” These are perhaps obvious observations in these increasingly cynical times, but it doesn’t hurt the population to be reminded.

Pipken travels all over the world not only to interview his eloquent, amiable subjects but also to check out conditions for himself. The country that leaves the biggest impression is India, whose more than 1 billion citizens teem the streets and work for, on average, a dollar a day yet are frequently found smiling. “I’m wondering if Americans are forgetting how to smile,” Pipkin says in voice-over. Yes, it’s a bit corny, as are dramatic segments that the director uses to serve as segues between the fascinating interviews: He scowls and holds his head in his hands as he edits his footage, adds slow-mos of his daughters, writes key words that serve as chapter titles (“Reason,” “Persistence,” “Love,” etc.) on a board.

But you’d have to be a heartless bastard not to forgive these bits in light of the package Pipken has neatly assembled to give us ordinary schlubs access to the world’s greatest minds. All are compelling, but the laureates who may haunt you the most are the 96-year-old Joseph Rotblat, who was a nuclear scientist and then turned his efforts instead to ban the weapons he helped create. When questioned about how many nukes exist today, Rotblat responds, “There aren’t enough targets in the world for all these weapons.” His most chilling statement is simply, “We are really, really in danger.” Then there’s Wangari Maathai, an environmentalist whose simple idea for helping Africa is to teach its most impoverished citizens to plant trees to reverse the devastating effects of deforestation, with an underlying motive of education and empowerment.

Pipken also speaks with South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose sweetness and palpable love of mankind is concurrent with his message that we need to start regarding everyone across the globe as our family, just as God has no enemies, regardless of whether one is, for example, gay or straight, Bush or bin Laden. Tutu’s belief that one person can affect the world is echoed by fellow peace activist Jody Williams, who puts it in layman’s terms: “There is nothing magical about change. It is getting off up your ass and caring enough to take the first step.”

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