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Penelope’s Oscar Picks

VOA entertainment reporter Penelope Poulou spent the year reporting on Hollywood films and interviewing the actors and directors about their works of art.

Here are her picks for who will win the coveted Oscar statuette in the major categories on Sunday. Penelope says she thinks this year’s ceremony will be a cliffhanger.

Best Picture – “La La Land”  but I also think “Hidden Figures” could be a surprise winner

Best Director  – Damien Chazelle for “La La Land”

Best Actor – either Denzel Washington for “Fences” or Casey Affleck for “Manchester by The Sea”  – Casey won the Bafta (British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards) which makes me think he may edge out Denzel

Best Supporting Actor – Mahershala Ali for “Moonlight”  – although Dev Patel could be a close second for “Lion”

Best Actress – Emma Stone for “La La Land”

Best Supporting Actress – Viola Davis for “Fences” – if she doesn’t win it will be a story on its own

Best Foreign Language Film – “The Salesman” from Iran  – especially because the director said he would not travel to the U.S. for the Academy Awards ceremony in protest of President Donald Trump’s immigration ban – this move mobilized many protests in Los Angeles and has shifted much focus on his film in comparison to his competitors.

If the Iranian film doesn’t win, Penelope thinks “Toni Erdmann” from Germany will take the prize.

Best Documentary Feature – “13th” by Ava du Vernay – she won a Bafta award for this movie so she is likely to also take the Oscar.  “O.J: Made in America” is also popular. A third option would be “Fire at Sea” – based on the rescue of refugees at sea, which has beautiful cinematography – if this wins it will be a political choice, Penelope thinks.


* Penelope says this years choices were particularly good so it’s hard to choose the best in a field of excellent movies

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Historical Dance School for Black Students Thrives

This is Black History Month in the U.S. A dance school in the nation’s capital has been making history for more than 75 years with its commitment to high-quality dance training. The school, which started at a time when African-American dancers had few opportunities to study classical ballet, is thriving. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to Jones-Haywood Dance School in Washington. Carol Pearson narrates.

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Past, Present Collide on Set of ‘Bitter Harvest’

“I wanted something that looked like a fairy tale,” says German-born Canadian filmmaker George Mendeluk, describing what compelled him to tackle one of the darkest chapters in Ukrainian-Russian relations.

Opening with a picturesque scene of a Ukrainian village in the 1930s, the historical juxtaposition is stark: Bitter Harvest, a historical drama that weaves a love story around cataclysmic events surrounding the Holodomor — the devastating state-sponsored famine in Ukraine that killed millions — can’t help but draw comparisons with today’s news coverage of nearby regions.

Released worldwide Friday, Mendeluk’s first full-length film sheds light on a tragedy that, concealed by Soviet authorities for decades, remains little-known outside of Ukraine today.

Watch: Past, Present Collide on Set of ‘Bitter Harvest’

Anchored by the fairy-tale romance of rural teens Yuriy and Natalka, played by Britain’s Max Irons and Samantha Barks, the script rapidly interweaves cruelties of a Soviet regime steamrolling the Ukrainian peasantry, leaving millions dead in its wake.

Striving for historical accuracy

Toronto-based producer and financier Ian Ihnatowycz says the film, shot on location in parts of Kyiv and in London on a budget of $20 million, aims for unflinching attention to historical detail.

“When [Canadian actor] Richard Bachynsky brought this script in 2011, I immediately was interested because of my background and knowledge of the Holodomor,” Ihnatowycz told VOA’s Ukraine Service. “I felt it was important to present a film with international stars in a style that would appeal to Western audiences.

“We focused a lot of effort on making sure that the film was historically accurate,” he added. “It was verified by many historians.”

The weight of coming to terms with finer details of the Holodomor wasn’t lost on the cast.

“We were quite embarrassed that we didn’t really know too much about it,” said British actor Tamer Hassan, who plays Sergei, a Soviet commissar who terrorizes Ukrainian peasants. “You know, people say ‘Stalin, Stalin! Horrible!’ We all know something was there, that there was some kind of a tragedy, but to the extent of how bad it was, we really didn’t know.”

Current events echo the past

“When you read the script, you understand that there is a reason you don’t know about it,” Barks said. “There is a reason that so many people don’t know about it.”

In a seemingly ominous turn of events, anti-government protests broke out as filmmakers were finishing portions of the film shot on location in Kyiv.

“When we were filming in Ukraine, we were obviously going through this really sad part of history, and then a couple of weeks later revolution started,” Barks said.

Historical events that gave rise to the film, its creators say, seemed to collide with current affairs, in a way that they hope can help Western audiences better understand the deeper context of tensions left in the wake of a Russian invasion.

Although the film’s first reviews are not all positive, director Mendeluk says such an epic undertaking would challenge even the most seasoned cinematographers.

“There is such a huge, huge canvas,” he told VOA. “We had a love story. We had Holodomor. We began with Bolshevik Revolution. We had so many things that we needed to explain, and we had to edit it down.”

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Ukraine Service.

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Little Big Town’s Momentum Grows With Ryman Residency

Please excuse singer Phillip Sweet if he gets a little emotional when Little Big Town performs Friday night during the first-ever residency in the 125-year history of the Ryman Auditorium, a venue that helped popularize Country music.


“I know I am going to get so choked up that it’s going to be hard to sing,” Sweet said in an interview this week. “It’s a really emotional time for the band. It’s a lot to celebrate.”


Little Big Town marks a return to their roots with the album “The Breaker,” out Friday, with the No. 1 single “Better Man,” written by Taylor Swift. It’s the first single off their new record.


The four-piece Grammy-winning country group is also celebrating an addition to the family – singer Kimberly Schlapman recently announced that she has adopted a daughter, Dolly Grace.


Sweet said the timing of these milestone events has given him pause.

“It’s almost like this moment is marked by this beautiful little life that has come into our world,” he said. “And it’s so precious and special and I think it makes us truly stop and enjoy that moment in our real lives.”


Sweet and Schlapman, along with husband-and-wife Jimi Westbrook and Karen Fairchild, make up the vocal band that hit a career high in 2015 with the multiplatinum hit “Girl Crush,” which earned accolades at the 2016 Grammys. They also experimented outside the genre with a pop record “Wanderlust” produced by Pharrell Williams in 2016.


And the band didn’t let that momentum fade.


‘We didn’t want people to know who wrote it for a little while because we wanted everyone to hear the song with no subtext,” Sweet said of “Better Man.” “I feel like people listened with different ears because of that.”


In a departure from previous records, the band members only had a hand in writing three songs on the album. “Don’t Die Young, Don’t Grow Old,” co-written by Fairchild and Schlapman with “Girl Crush” writers Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose after Westbrook’s sister Joyce died in 2015 due to cancer, has a poignant message for the band.


“It was kind of therapeutic for them obviously to write it,” Sweet said. “This is what you would say to someone you loved. Just a reminder to always live in the moment every chance you get.”


The group has a tradition on release week to play their entire album beginning to end. Friday’s show will be the first of at least nine dates they have booked at the Ryman throughout the year, with more dates likely to be added.

Built in 1892 as the Union Gospel Tabernacle, the building has become synonymous with country and bluegrass and served as the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974. Musical icons from Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, Patsy Cline, Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe have all graced its stage over the past 125 years.


Sally Williams, general manager of the Ryman Auditorium and vice president of concerts and entertainment at Opry Entertainment Group, said the Ryman wanted the first residency to reflect the diversity of the musicians who have performed there.


“We wanted to be working with someone who was genre bending, who was very firmly rooted in Country music, which is Nashville, but also very open and creative and inclusive of other genres,” Williams said. “And Little Big Town is so much that.”


Swift, who has said she’s not touring in 2017, performed “Better Man” during a special performance in Houston as part of the pre-Superbowl festivities, but Sweet said the band is ready if the pop star ever wants to perform the song with them.


“I mean, come on, Taylor,” Sweet said. “We would love to do it. If she’s up for it, we’re up for it.”

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East-West Collaborations Excite Me, says Indian Pop Star Chauhan

Sunidhi Chauhan, one of India’s biggest pop stars, wants to collaborate with megastars like Justin Timberlake and Usher as she looks to push her career beyond Bollywood.

“Collaborations excite me. The whole blend of two cultures coming together is a beautiful thing,” Chauhan told Reuters in London ahead of her 2017 U.K. tour with Rock On Music.

Hailed across the Indian film industry for her versatile voice, Chauhan has already produced a song with singer-songwriter Enrique Iglesias.

“It turned out to be good. People liked it and I’m so happy about that,” said the singer who started her career as a teenager and has delivered hit after hit in the last two decades.

At home, she’s widely regarded as the ‘Queen of item numbers’ – Bollywood movie dance tracks that are then lip-synched by leading actresses in films.

But in 2017 she wants to branch out further.

“This year I’m definitely going to pay attention to singles that I want to do. You know, some independent music, not just stick to films but also show a different side of my personality through my music,” the softly spoken singer said.

Chauhan also wants to advance her acting career after making made her debut in the short film “Playing Priya” late last year.

She’s eyeing bigger roles and says she would love to do a biopic on the late actress Madhubala, who viewed by many as India’s Marilyn Monroe.

Chauhan’s confident she can juggle both singing and acting.

Her passion knows no boundaries: She’s sung in languages she doesn’t understand, including French, and has crossed over into the Pakistani music industry.

“I’ve sung for so many Pakistani jingles and films. It’s like performing at home in India. There’s no difference,” Chauhan said. “The politics and everything, I honestly don’t get into all those things because it upsets me, and at the end of the day, life is too short.”

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Librarian of Congress to Make Huge Collections More Accessible 

As riots convulsed the city of Baltimore, Maryland, in 2015, Carla Hayden kept a library in the heart of the chaos open. She says people in the neighborhood lined up outside the library to get in, even as a drugstore across the street was being looted and burned.

“The people did not touch the library, because it was the resource center in that community,” Hayden told VOA. “It’s beloved. It is protected. It is the place of hope in a community that needs hope.”

One year later, President Barack Obama elevated Hayden from her post as CEO of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library to head the Library of Congress, which was established more than 200 years ago as the research arm for congressional officials.

Hayden has made history as the Library’s first woman director as well as the first African-American. And unlike the mostly politicians or academics who came before her, she is a professional librarian.

She took over an institution that has been criticized, in recent years, for mismanagement, a lack of leadership, and falling behind in technological advances.

Hayden’s focus is on upgrading the library’s technology to make the eclectic mix of 160 million items — from books and photos to sheet music and maps, even baseball cards — available to people everywhere.


“I want the Library of Congress to open its arms to people around the world, to let people know it is available to them,” said Hayden, who colleagues say is warm and determined.

Library’s collections

Considered America’s library, the Library of Congress contains more than 30 million books and print materials from around the world in more than 450 languages. It houses a 1400s Gutenberg Bible, and owns the world’s largest comic book collection.

While the public can view materials in reading rooms, they cannot check them out. Because the materials can’t be checked out, Hayden wants to make the library materials, especially those online, more accessible and interactive by using the latest technologies. 

“We have things on our website that bring the collections to people wherever they are,” she said. “They can download materials, and participate in a 3-D virtual reality tour of the library.”

Hayden sees herself as “getting on the train that had already been started in the 1990s,” when the library first began digitizing its items. She is now developing a digital strategy to significantly increase the amount of online content. 

She says the volume of items the library receives is enormous, with at least 10,000 items added to the collections every day of the workweek.

Connection with books, libraries

During an interview with VOA, Hayden, 64, held her favorite book, Bright April, which she recalls checking out of a library when she was about 8. It’s about a young African-American girl who is a Brownie, a younger level of a Girl Scout, and experiences racial prejudice.

Hayden says she identified with the moral of the story — that even though people are different on the outside, they are the same on the inside. 

“I thought this little girl just reflected me,” she said.

Her love for that book, and many others, propelled Hayden to become a children’s librarian. She also became chief librarian for Chicago’s public library and the president of the American Library Association. By working in libraries with diverse patrons, she learned that it’s important to “recognize the cultural heritage of the neighborhoods.”

Traveling exhibits

Besides increasing online services, Hayden wants to make Library of Congress materials available through traveling exhibits, especially beyond city limits.

“The library is working on re-establishing a mobile service, taking an 18-wheeler truck and loading it up with facsimiles, sometimes with electronic information and devices, to help people connect with the Library of Congress directly,” she said.

Hayden has a proven record of expanding outreach programs and technology in libraries. 

More than 20 years ago, she paved the way for Baltimore’s public library system to become the first in Maryland to provide internet access.

Now she wants to ensure that millions of items in the world’s biggest library are accessible to everyone.

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NY Times to Air TV Ad During Oscars for New ‘Truth’ Campaign

The New York Times will air its first TV ad in seven years on Sunday’s broadcast of the Academy Awards on ABC, as the 166-year old newspaper looks to highlight independent journalism amid U.S. President Donald Trump’s attacks on the media as “fake news.”

The Oscars are among the pricier ad buys on television, with 30-second commercials going for between $1.9 and $2 million, according to ad-tracking firm Kantar Media. While ABC, owned by Walt Disney, does not comment on how much it receives from advertisers, a source with knowledge of negotiations said the Times’ ad buy was in that range.

The Oscars is traditionally the most-watched non-sports event broadcast in the United States.

Since Trump’s November 8 election victory, the Times has seen an uptick in digital subscribers and revenue even as its business on the print side declines. During the Times’ most recent quarter, the paper added 276,000 digital subscribers and grew digital ad revenue by nearly 11 percent, accounting for more than 40 percent of its overall ad revenues.

Building online readership

The New York Times, the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and Gannett are building on the online readership they gained during the 2016 presidential election by marketing unbiased reporting as a sales strategy.

Trump has repeatedly bashed the press. In a tweet last week citing The New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN, he said the media was “the enemy of the American People!”

Last year’s Oscars broadcast attracted 34.4 million viewers, making it the third-lowest-rated Oscars since 1974. Still, only National Football League games and Fox’s airing of the final game of last fall’s World Series drew more viewers in 2016.

Ad a response to ‘fake news’

The New York Times commercial is part of a broader brand campaign, the paper’s first in a decade, that aims to position the newspaper as a reliable outlet in the face of the rise of the “fake news” epidemic.

The company’s 30-second commercial repeats the words “The Truth Is” on screen, with voices in background getting increasingly louder, with different endings including “our nation is more divided than ever” and “alternative facts are lies.”

The ad ends with: “The Truth is more important now than ever.”

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Home of America’s Space Program Offers So Much More

When people think of Cape Canaveral, Florida, they usually associate it with America’s space program. The Kennedy Space Center is where NASA launched the Saturn V rocket that put the first men on the moon in 1969.

The real Florida

Since then, the area has been the site of many more launches into space. But as national parks traveler Mikah Meyer recently discovered, there is also an abundance of wildlife and other natural wonders to explore and admire in the immediate vicinity.

At Canaveral National Seashore for example, almost 40 kilometers (24 miles) of undeveloped beach is home to more than 1,000 types of plants and more than 300 bird species.

Take a ride with Mikah

Since ancient times, this barrier island has provided sanctuary to many threatened and endangered species, including sea turtles who nest on its shores.

Mikah, who’s on a mission to visit all of the more than 400 sites within the National Park Service (NPS), found it fascinating that Canaveral National Seashore makes up the largest stretch of undeveloped beach on Florida’s East Coast.

“As somebody who drove down the entire coastline, I can tell you that there has been development along the entire Florida coast, such that everywhere either has a house or a condo or a hotel, and this is one stretch where you can go and there is no development,” he said.

That lack of development attracts many locals and tourists, who come to enjoy nature in its most primitive form. And without the pollutants that normally result from development, the water is cleaner too, Mikah noted. That, in turn, attracts fish… and fishermen.

Walking along the dunes during his recent visit, he noted how the waters were “just inundated with fishermen… as far as the eye can see… even though it was a weekday.”

Ancient landscapes

At the NPS sister park, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Mikah and his companion Andy Waldron traveled along the Black Point Wildlife Drive around several shallow marsh impoundments and through pine flatwoods.

“We saw a number of alligators of all sizes and sorts,” Mikah explained. “And a bunch of birds, not just hanging out but actively running across the water and dipping their heads in and eating and catching fish,” he added.

He also saw a wild boar in the distance, wading through the shallow water, but Mikah was most impressed with the ‘gators living so close to the ocean.

“It was very interesting the ecosystems that they live in, the natural versus salt water,” he remarked. “And just seeing a live ‘gator in the wild was so cool because so often we see them in zoos or contained areas.”

Mikah and Andy strolled along a wooded trail and a pristine, undeveloped shoreline, much like the first natives and early settlers must have done. They stayed just a short while, but long enough to imagine just how those lands and waterscapes must have seemed to all who came before them not too long ago.

Mikah invites you to learn more about his travels in Florida and all across America by visiting his website, Facebook and Instagram. natoi

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Young Afghan Photographer’s Work Highlights Plight of Children, Women

At 21, Shagofa Alikozay is a bright woman who isn’t far removed from childhood in Afghanistan, which she illustrates with her photos, sketches and poetry.

Her goal is to bring to light the challenges, problems and miseries of living in one of the world’s poorest countries, a place riven by war and religious extremism, where going to school can take a back seat to earning money and where women struggle for equality.

And now, hoping to foster change, she’s shining the light brightly, with one of her photos winning a national award and being displayed in Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C.

The photo, of an 8-year-old boy named Pardes, was taken during a break in his work washing cars on the streets of Kabul. It is on display at the Smithsonian’s Turquoise Mountain exhibit, showing the youthful exuberance that even the drudgery of Pardes’ job can’t diminish.

“Kids are the future of Afghanistan, and that is why most of my work is focused on them,” Alikozay, who is from Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province, told VOA. “I do all this to bring a positive change in the lives of these kids.”

The photo simultaneously tells the story of the past, the present and the unknown future for the country. The cars in the background belonged to two former kings of Afghanistan, Amanullah Khan and Mohammed Zahir Shah.

Pardes, who accompanied Alikozay to the Smithsonian exhibit, hopes his flash of fame can help improve his life.

“I want to go to school and become a police officer,” he said. “I also want to do photography.”

Alikozay also is an accomplished sketch artist, has written several books, and has a blog where she publishes her own poetry and articles about Afghan kids and women. One of her poems won a BlogHer “Voices of the Year” award.

“I want back my happy homeland, my smiling faces. I want God to erase all this violence, these screaming mothers, this sky of smoke,” the poem says. “I have speech for those who would silence speech. My heart burns to explain these problems, this terror, with honesty.”

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