Arts & Entertainment

"La La Land" Takes 5 Prizes at British Academy Awards

Glamour was shot through with grit at the British Academy Film Awards on Sunday.

Frothy musical “La La Land” took five prizes including best picture, but major awards also went to tough welfare-state drama “I, Daniel Blake” and fractured-family stories “Lion” and “Manchester by the Sea.”

In keeping with an awards season that has coincided with a wrenching change of government in the United States, even “La La Land’s” prizes came with a political tinge.

Accepting the best-actress trophy for playing a barista who dreams of Hollywood stardom, Emma Stone said that “this country and the US, and the world seems to be going through a bit of a time.”

She said that in a divided world, it was vital to celebrate “the positive gift of creativity and how we can transcend borders and how we help people to feel a little less alone.”

The U.K. awards, known as BAFTAs, are often seen as an indicator of who will win at Hollywood’s Academy Awards, held two weeks later. “La La Land” already is a dominant force at the Oscars, with 14 nominations. It also has won seven Golden Globes.

“La La Land” had 11 nominations for the British awards and won prizes for Stone, director Damien Chazelle, music and cinematography as well as best picture.

But while the luscious musical was an academy favorite, voters also rewarded less escapist fare.

Stone’s co-star, Ryan Gosling, lost out on the best-actor prize to Casey Affleck, who played a grieving handyman in “Manchester by the Sea.”

Affleck, who is also Oscar-nominated for the role, thanked writer-director Kenneth Lonergan for creating a film that “dignifies everyday lives and their struggles with great compassion.”

The wintry New England drama also won Lonergan the prize for best original screenplay.

British actor Dev Patel pulled off an upset, beating favorite Mahershala Ali, from “Moonlight,” to the best supporting actor trophy for “Lion,” about a young man who goes searching for the Indian family from which he was separated as a child.

The London-born Patel expressed shock at being a winner at a ceremony he used to watch on TV with his family.

He said “Lion,” which co-stars Nicole Kidman is “a film, about family, about a love that transcends borders, race, color, anything.”

The “Slumdog Millionaire” star thanked his “amazing team, who had the insane task of trying to get this Indian dude, this noodle with wonky teeth and a lazy eye and floppy hair, work in this industry.”

“Lion” also took the BAFTA for best adapted screenplay.

Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” was named best British film. The 80-year-old director used his acceptance speech to lambast the country’s Conservative government.

Loach said his docudrama about a carpenter trying to get welfare after a heart attack shows that “the most vulnerable and the poorest people are treated by this government with a callous brutality that is disgraceful.”

Loach apologized for making a political speech, but told reporters backstage that “you can’t do a film like this and then talk showbiz.”

Loach was cheered by an audience at London’s Royal Albert Hall that included Prince William, his wife, Kate, and nominees including Meryl Streep, Casey Affleck, Emma Stone and Nicole Kidman.

Both William and Kate wore black and white – he a tuxedo, she an off-the-shoulder Alexander McQueen gown and glittering chandelier earrings.

Viola Davis won the supporting actress BAFTA for “Fences,” Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s stage drama about an African-American family.

A visibly moved Davis praised Wilson’s play for showing “that our lives mattered as African Americans.”

“The horse groomer, the sanitation worker, the people who grew up under the heavy boot of Jim Crow,” she said. “The people who did not make it into history books, but they have a story – and those stories deserve to be told.”

Ada DuVernay’s film about mass incarceration in America, “The 13th,” was named best documentary, and Laszlo Nemes’ unbearably powerful Holocaust drama “Son of Saul” took the trophy for best foreign-language film.

The stars brought a dose of glamour to gray, wintry London, as hundreds of fans lined the red carpet outside the domed concert hall beside London’s Hyde Park.

Many said they were unsurprised politics made a guest appearance at the ceremony, as it has so often this awards season. Streep is among the stars who have used the awards stage to criticize President Donald Trump.

Master of ceremonies Stephen Fry joked about Trump’s dismissal of Streep as overrated, declaring from the stage: “I look down on row after row of the most overrated people on the planet.”

Prince William, who serves as president of Britain’s film academy, presented the academy’s lifetime-achievement honor to veteran comedian Mel Brooks at the end of Sunday’s ceremony.

The 90-year-old entertainer said he would treasure the trophy.

“This is one of the awards you will not see on eBay,” he said.


Arts & Entertainment

Singer Al Jarreau Dies at 76

Hours before the Grammy Awards ceremony, the biggest night in the music industry in the United States, word came of the death of well-known jazz and rhythm and blues singer Al Jarreau. 

Winner of seven Grammys himself, Jarreau died at age 76 Sunday in a hospital in Los Angeles, the city where the Grammys are held each year. No cause of death was given. 

He was hospitalized for exhaustion last week, and while he had been “recovering slowly and steadily” according to a Friday post on his Facebook page, he had been forced to cancel his remaining tour dates for 2017. 

The multi-talented Jarreau achieved a rarity, winning Grammys in three different categories:  jazz, pop and rhythm and blues. He released 16 studio albums, a host of live albums and several compilations. He was considered one of jazz’s greatest vocalists. Jarreau’s hits included We’re in This Love Together, After All, and Moonlighting. 

Moonlighting was the theme he wrote for the late 1980s’ American television show with the same title, and it cemented his place in pop culture.  

Gregory Porter, who won the Grammy Sunday for Best Jazz Album, said Jarreau was “one of the greatest jazz voices that ever lived.” 

“Jazz is the music of freedom and Al Jarreau epitomized that,” Porter said 

In a 2012, interview with All About Jazz, Jarreau said he still was in awe that he made music for a living. 

“To be given that ability to create something where there was nothing before, empty space, and now there’s a song; that’s an amazing gift,” he said. 

“There’s nothing more important than that, except maybe creating a life.”

Economy & business

IMF: Trump’s Plans Could Boost US Economy, Endanger Global Advances

International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde voiced optimism Sunday that U.S. President Donald Trump’s planned tax cuts and construction spending would boost the American economy, but said they could cause trouble for the economies around the globe.

Lagarde, speaking at the World Government Summit in Dubai, said, “From the little we know, and I will insist on the little we know, because this is really work in progress… but from the little we hear, we have reasons to be optimistic about economic growth in the United States.”

Major U.S. stock indexes are near record highs, with the new U.S. leader promising to unveil a “phenomenal” tax cut plan in the next two to three weeks, while also pledging to launch $1 trillion in major infrastructure spending to fix the country’s deteriorating roads and bridges and expand airports. But both measures would need approval by Congress, where the controlling Republican lawmakers have voiced skepticism about any changes that would add to the country’s nearly $20 trillion in long-term debt.

But Lagarde warned that advances by the U.S. economy, the world’s largest, could hurt economies elsewhere because of the strength of the dollar against other currencies and expected action by the U.S. central bank, the Federal Reserve, to gradually boost its benchmark interest rate to keep the American economy from overheating.

She said U.S. gains are good, but that “the more worrying news, if you will, is that it will have consequences on the rest of the world, and we are seeing it.” She said the Fed’s tightening of monetary policy “will be difficult on the global economy and for which economies will have to prepare.”

The IMF last month boosted its U.S. growth estimate a tenth of a point this year to 2.3 percent, and four-tenths of a point to 2.5 percent for 2018. The IMF predicted an increase in global growth to 3.4 percent in 2017 and and 3.6 percent in 2018, up from the 2016 figure of 3.1 percent.

Trump has already revoked U.S. participation in the planned 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade in favor of American deals with individual countries.

Lagarde, however, continued to promote globalization of the world economy, while acknowledging its negative aspects, which Trump says has cost U.S. manufacturing workers their jobs as their employers moved operations overseas in search of cheaper labor.

“We have been saying globalization is great, international trade is great — and it is,” Lagarde said. “But we have not looked at those who were badly, negatively impacted.”

Science & Health

Egyptian Woman, Believed to be World Heaviest, Seeks Lifesaving Surgery 

A 36-year-old Egyptian woman, believed to be the world’s heaviest woman at 500 kilograms, has been brought to an Indian hospital to undergo surgical procedures aimed at drastically reducing her weight and giving her a chance of a normal life.

For Eman Ahmed, the journey to Mumbai was her first outside her home in Alexandria in 25 years. And it involved complex logistics on many fronts: The Indian foreign minister’s intervention to get her a visa, an Airbus modified to equip it with a special bed, a truck at the Indian airport to whisk her to the hospital where a crane lifted her bed into a special unit for her treatment.

Born a heavy baby at 5 kgs, her family has said she began putting on weight by the age of 11 and stopped going to school by fifth grade when it became difficult for her to move.

Stroke worsened her condition

Her condition worsened two years ago when Ahmed suffered a stroke, which not only left her bedridden, but also affected her speech.

The reason for her abnormal weight is not clear. Her family has said she was diagnosed with elephantiasis, in which limbs swell because of a parasitic infection. In Mumbai, she will undergo a series of tests to identify her ailment.

Last October, a Mumbai doctor, Muffazal Lakdawala, who specializes in weight reduction surgeries, responded to a plea for help from the woman’s sister.

Travel, arrangements difficult

But the going was not smooth. Initially the Indian embassy in Cairo turned down her visa request because she could not travel to the city for the interview.

However, a tweet by Lakdawala in December to Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, who was herself in the hospital at the time, drew an immediate response and a visa was promptly granted.

After that, preparations to get her to Mumbai got into full swing. But it took time to arrange her travel because no airline was willing to carry her because of her health complications and the special arrangements that would have to be made. Eventually she took the seven-hour flight on an Egypt Air plane.

Before she arrived in Mumbai Saturday, Indian doctors prepared her for the journey. 

“A team of doctors has been in Egypt for the last 10 days to optimize the conditions for her travel,” a statement by her doctor said.

Egyptian Consul General in Mumbai Ahmad Khalil, who met her briefly at the airport, said she was happy to be in Mumbai and expressed hope her suffering would be over.

Her treatment in Mumbai could take two to three months. She will undergo bariatric, or weight loss surgery, which is a stomach-shrinking procedure.

At the moment, the Guinness Book of Records lists Pauline Potter from the United States, who weighs 291.6 kg as the world’s heaviest woman. If Ahmed’s family has her weight correct, she is much heavier at 500 kgs.

Economy & business

Somalia Says It Will Resume Printing Currency Soon

Somalia intends to resume printing banknotes this year for the first time since the government collapsed in 1991.

The governor of Somalia’s central bank, Bashir Issa Ali, told VOA in an exclusive interview Saturday that all technical preparations are complete, and his government is confident it can assemble a financial aid package within three months to fund the printing program. Further work would take another four months.

Asked if Somalia will print and distribute banknotes during 2017, Ali answered: “Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely!” He pledged the new currency would include “good, reliable security features.”

Pre-1991 banknotes have disappeared from Somali markets, replaced by either Western currencies, including dollars, or privately printed notes, most of which are worthless fakes.

Financial reforms to take hold soon

Ali said international institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as the U.S. Treasury, have been helping Somalia reform its financial sector and train central bank staff. 

“We have prepared all the issues and all the basic groundwork, and put in place the technical requirements,” he told VOA.

Outgoing Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud met a key demand of the international community last year by signing into law parliament-approved legislation to outlaw money laundering and “financial terrorism.”

The Somali government needs $60 million to be able to begin printing banknotes. Ali said he expects to obtain pledges for that sum at an international donors’ conference for Somalia in London in May.

“We expect the international community to assist us with that issue,” the bank governor said.

Private banks, ‘mobile money’

Hardship and the scarcity of trustworthy currency has created opportunities for some innovative strategies in the private sector, Ali said, and Somalia has made some progress in establishing private banks and mobile money systems.

Many transactions in Somalia now take place using “electronic mobile money,” Ali added.

Somali shillings account for a small portion of the payments system, he said.

“Most of it is done through dollars and electronic money, which is a great thing for … saving costs and effort and very convenient, also.”

Remittance companies that relay payments from Somalis working abroad operate in many parts of the country, Ali noted, but a large part of the nation does not have access to electronic funds or dollars, so there is an urgent need for a reliable national currency.

Once Somalia-printed banknotes begin to circulate, the central bank governor said, his staff will be able to regulate and control operations by private banks and remittance services.

The bank now has trained staff members to work on the financial and exchange systems, and training efforts are continuing. On February 12, he said, “more than 10 staffers are departing for training about counterfeiting and financial controls. They include staff from the bank, police and the national security agency.”

Monetary policy comes next

Since Somalia does not yet have its own currency, it also lacks a monetary policy, Ali said, but once the banknotes begin circulating, he looks forward to “the beginning of a new era” in the East African nation.

“Monetary policy always must come together in close collaboration with the fiscal policy of the government — taxation and revenue, the public budget and these kind of things,” Ali told VOA. “We don’t apply any monetary policy at the moment.”

Economists have recently predicted a slowdown for Somalia’s domestic economy, which largely relies on livestock exports. Ali said a “very disastrous” drought has killed thousands of farm animals.

“When you don’t have enough crops, it will contribute to food shortages,” he said. “When you have drought problems, you will not be able to export livestock.

“That will affect our foreign market and our exports,” he added, so Somalia’s foreign-exchange earnings will decline.

“When you get less foreign exchange, you will not be able to import what is required,” the bank governor said, “and when you import less, there will be less tax revenue for the government.”

In the short term, the peaceful election of a new Somali president appears to have helped the nation’s economy. The Somali shilling rose in value compared with the U.S. dollar over a two-day period; $1 brought 22,000 shillings before the election in Mogadishu, and by Saturday it was trading at 16,000 shillings.

“It’s a matter of expectations. There is a new government, new environment and new atmosphere,” Ali said, and that will have an effect on people’s opinions about security, the economy and the stability of the government.

Science & Health

Nationwide Anti-Abortion Rallies Face Off With Counter-Protesters

Anti-abortion activists and supporters of a woman’s right to choose staged demonstrations in dozens of U.S. cities Saturday, with the nonprofit group Planned Parenthood at the center of the discussion.

Anti-abortion activists organized rallies in more than 200 locations Saturday, according to one of the national organizers, Monica Miller of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society. The activists are calling for the federal government to stop providing funds to Planned Parenthood because it provides abortions. It is something U.S. President Donald Trump has said he wants to do.

Meanwhile, pro-choice activists organized in many of the same locations to express support for the nonprofit, which provides a number of reproductive health services such as pregnancy testing, birth control, and breast exams at hundreds of locations across the United States.

Planned Parenthood does not get federal funding for abortions, but Medicaid, a government health care subsidy for low-income families, pays into Planned Parenthood’s other services. Critics say those funds help subsidize the more than 300,000 abortions the organization provides each year.

Dueling demonstrations

In some cities the protesters lined up on opposite sides of a major roadway and held up their signs to passing motorists. Many of the Planned Parenthood supporters wore pink knitted caps that have become their symbol of solidarity.

In some cities, such as Evansville, Indiana, turnout was small on both sides. Karen Meacham, a Planned Parenthood supporter who brought her 11-year-old daughter to the protest, notes that Indiana is the home state of Vice President Mike Pence, a longtime abortion opponent.

Still, Meacham says, there were as many as 130 Planned Parenthood supporters at the Evansville event, as opposed to about 60 against.

The anti-abortion activists, she said, “were mostly older people and they didn’t stay out as long as we did. … The pro-choice turnout was actually really good for our small, conservative city.”

In Fort Collins, Colorado, about 1,000 people turned out in Old Town Square, far from the local Planned Parenthood facility. Supporter Lauren Farley said the measure was taken to avoid disturbing people seeking services at the clinic.

Colorado Senator John Kefalas and Representative Joann Ginal both spoke at the rally. Ginal told the crowd, “We cannot go backwards.” She added that voices of support for women’s reproductive rights are more important now than ever.

Farley, who came to the rally with her mother and sister, said the dueling demonstrators were largely peaceful.

“One solitary guy shouted ‘baby killers’ at us a few times,” she said. “He was largely ignored.”

Rally outside clinic

Meanwhile, several dozen anti-abortion activists gathered directly outside the Planned Parenthood clinic, several kilometers away. The demonstrators held signs saying “choose life” and “stop abortion now.”

Anti-abortion activist Kevin Williams, who organized the protest at the Fort Collins clinic, told the local newspaper, “We’re here to help these girls. We’re not here to judge them or condemn. We are here to help and to let them know that there’s alternatives to abortion.”

The pro-choice/anti-abortion issues that the rallies settled into, however, distressed Charsey Cole, who attended a rally in Sacramento, California. The Sacramento Bee reported about 15 anti-abortion activists faced off with some 200 Planned Parenthood supporters.

Cole said she fears the subtler issues of federal funding got lost in the argument over whether abortion should be legal at all.

“I think a lot of us that recognize all that Planned Parenthood does and the funding they need were a bit uncomfortable with it being turned into an ‘our body, our choice’ protest,” she said.

Cole added: “Regardless, it was great that so many people came out.”

In 2014, the most recent year for which figures are available, Planned Parenthood said it provided 324,000 abortions. But it also said the majority of its clients are seeking birth control, being tested for sexually transmitted diseases or other services.

Science & Health

Coming Soon: Private Mini-satellites From Poland

Researchers in Poland are using off-the-shelf technology to create a mini-satellite they plan to offer to scientists, companies and even individuals, for gathering useful data from space. The spacecraft, named after the ancient Slavic god of war, fertility and abundance, is meant to make space exploration available to ordinary people. VOA’s George Putic reports.