Constant Listener Weekly—Love in Guantanamo, and the best “best movie” podcast.
This week, CBC podcast Love Me dropped an exceptionally moving episode, “To My Heart,” featuring a former Guantanamo detainee expounding upon the persistence of love against all odds.
Still a few months out from the official launch of their third season, last week saw the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation original podcast Love Me drop an episode that practically defines unexpected, in terms of its release, its content, and the complex feelings it engenders. Titled “To My Heart,” the episode is devoted entirely to one very special interview, with former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mansoor Adayfi. Love Me is already one of the more quietly intense storytelling podcasts around. In another column I described it as being “punch-you-in-the-nose good.” Outside of the bookending commentary from genial host Lu Olkowski, the show largely eschews any interviewer presence in order to imbue a more richly confessional quality to its storytelling. That is on full display in this episode.
The first thing that listeners note is the ebullient tone to Adayfi’s voice. Despite the fact that Adayfi has spent nearly half of his life wrongly incarcerated—never even being charged with a crime—his story isn’t one of rueful anger. Instead, it is one suffused with a message of hope, about the indomitable power of love in the face of unspeakable inhumanity. That within the bonds of his enclosure Adayfi found a great many things along the a spectrum of emotions, but his indomitable spirit kept him from succumbing to negativity.
In fact, we find that within the walls of the prison, life at Guantanamo continued as it does everywhere in the world, regardless of harshness of the circumstances faced. For want of human connection and a means to pass the time, prisoners began to educate one another on a kaleidoscopic array of topics. With a roster of detainees that included such diverse individuals as a journalist for Al-Jazeera, a mafioso, a chef, and a professor of Arabic literature, their lessons end up covering a wide gamut. The sessions that really stuck with Adayfi were those on romance. It seems only natural. Having been behind bars since age 19, the subject for him was likely as theoretical as quantum mechanics. Adayfi found that these thematic explorations manifested in him a sort of Cyrano de Bergerac quality, as he began writing florid correspondence on behalf of his fellow prisoners to their respective wives and girlfriends.
The camaraderie these lessons engendered among the detainees led to some other, more surprising developments as well. Particularly as Adayfi tells it, they grew to develop a very feminist mindset within the prison, deconstructing the socially monolithic concept of “woman” in much the same way as they themselves were subverting the idea of “prisoner.” As well they also held a traditional wedding ceremony as a bonding exercise, and kept incidental pets like kittens and iguanas, feeding them in secret.
This sense of optimism and unwavering belief in love make the episode an altogether uplifting affair. Adayfi’s unique and abundant sense of humor adds an additional log to that fire as well. By the time that Adayfi giddly tries to explain the plot of The Notebook, having only watched it while locked up, it is a cherry on top of this deliciously subversive piece. It is evident that producers Cristal Duhaime, Mira Burt-Wintonick, and Sarah Geis recognize just how wonderful the audio is, allowing Adayfi’s effervescent charm to color the experience in shades of warm pastel, knitting the segments together with only a well mixed, muted electronic score that is heavy on dreamy reverb. Their production stands out in stark contrast to the cement grays and prison oranges of Guantanamo, underscoring the sensitivity of the man at the heart of the story.
Of course, as an American listener, there is something of a trap inherent in taking joy in the experience. One of the side effects of listening to great volumes of documentary audio is a sort of circumspection of one’s own consumption. How is one to square the intense feelings of joy and human connection that well up in hearing Adayfi’s tale, with the barbarism of a government willing to hold him in extrajudicial purgatory? What salient takeaway could be gleaned from an ordeal of seeming random cruelty? Perhaps it is just that, in this increasingly polarized world, those we seek to castigate for difference of opinion may come to surprise us in time.
Compounding that curious mix of feelings is the circumstance surrounding the episode’s special release. Adayfi has been living conditionally in Serbia for two years following his time in Guantanamo Bay, but following this interview and his arrest by the Serbian secret police, his contract to stay there will not be renewed. Adayfi will have little recourse but to return to his native Yemen, where his fate is extremely uncertain to say the least. For their part, Love Me has released the episode early with the specific intent of calling international attention of Adayfi’s plight. It is my sincere desire that the exposure of his story, and the deeply touching message about the persistence love in the face of adversity find the audience it deserves. Wrapped up in this relatively brief piece is a lifetime’s worth of empathy and wisdom.
As an addendum, listening to this episode brought to mind last fall’s “Anna In Somalia” from NPR’s Rough Translation podcast. It features the story of two men, incarcerated in a Somali prison in the ‘80s, who kept each other sane passing messages between their cells with a knock-based alphabet. Eventually one got ahold of a book, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and “read” all 800 pages of it through the same knocking system. While they share a similar message of finding solace in the darkest of places, the two pieces are rather different in their approaches. I suggest checking out both pieces back to back as an easy exercise in analyzing narrative audio storytelling structure and techniques.
The relatively new Earwolf podcast Unspooled with Paul Scheer and Amy Nicholson is a movie discussion program that feels like the culmination of four years’ worth of development at that prestigious studio.
One doesn’t necessarily need to understand all of the history that has led up to Unspooled in order to fully enjoy the podcast, but every element of the show feels like a brick in a path that was paved long ago, helping to make the show such a gratifying listen.
This relatively new Earwolf podcast, focused on analyzing each of the movies on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list, feels like the kind of piece hosts Paul Scheer and Amy Nicholson have been working towards for years. That seems like a bit of an overstatement for a film discussion podcast, but as an avid follower of the medium the elements that coalesce in Unspooled are at once very familiar and yet feel brand new. It is interesting to unpick that feeling, tracing the path which led to this program.
As an inflection point, I look back to 2014. It was in that year that the aforementioned podcast studio Earwolf—beloved for its improv and alt-comedy shows like Comedy Bang Bang, Improv4Humans, and Never Not Funny—launched a pop culture vertical by the name of Wolfpop. The network was curated by none other than Scheer himself. The sister network would adopt a slightly more serious tone than Earwolf’s offerings, focusing on providing entertaining and intelligent examination of the arts while bringing many more interesting voices to the podcast fold like Leonard Maltin and W. Kamau Bell.
One of the shows that debuted on Wolfpop to much fanfare was The Canon, featuring longtime movie critics Amy Nicholson and Devin Faraci. The podcast was aimed at developing a brand new canon of modern film through spirited, sometimes acrimonious debate. The show’s format included some rather novel offline listener participation as well. Within each episode Nicholson and Faraci could merely make their case for a particular film, but its fate would come down to a vote held in the show’s forums. It was a wonderful move, engaging listeners to participate and driving return traffic to the following week’s episode to learn the result fo the vote.
In 2016 Faraci left the show following an accusation of sexual assault. This led to the program going on hiatus for six months. In the show’s retooling, Nicholson became the sole ringmaster, welcoming on a different guest each week. Scheer’s first appearance on the show was as her debut guest marking the show’s return. It was a distinct change on a few levels, notably for the way Nicholson and Scheer’s easy chemistry stood in stark contrast to the more adversarial dynamic between her and Faraci that had been the show’s calling card. That relaxed air to the show continues to this day, making it a bit more of a celebratory, convivial affair than its previous incarnation.
Jumping back, at that time of the Wolfpop launch Scheer was already a few years into hosting How Did This Get Made?, the wildly comic bad movie dissection podcast over on Earwolf. In podcasting there is no shortage of shows seeking to make mock of confoundingly misdirected artistic works, especially films. And while How Did This Get Made? seemingly fits that bill, there is a much more playful quality to the commentary from Scheer and co-hosts June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas. My colleague Becca James chalks this up to the show’s desire to explore films whose creators “earnestly attempt to produce a classic but instead ended up delivering a labyrinthine mess.” In between the series’ regular biweekly releases, Scheer always records solo “minisodes” which exist ostensibly to address corrections and omissions from the last episode while teasing the forthcoming one. However, in Scheer’s hands they act as an incubator for his curiosity, allowing him to continually stretch the format’s boundaries. For instance, over the past few years now they regularly feature listener voicemails asking Scheer for personal advice, which he answers with aplomb. It is in these moments that listeners glimpse the depth of his love for movies, as well as his desire to experiment with the podcast format.
Listening to Unspooled, all of these elements from The Canon and HDTGM start to rise to the surface, making it suddenly clear that this show isn’t just a classic film chat show, but a culmination of Nicholson and Scheer’s podcast experiences. It makes for a remarkably kinetic show, one long enough to be genuinely satisfying, but fleet enough as to feel quite lively. This is achieved through the overall variety of segments, each of which helps to give a more complete understanding of the film in question. These elements include hallmarks like listener participation—in the form of an engaging weekly voicemail question—and deep-dive analysis of the film, from both Nicholson’s critical standpoint as well as Scheer’s well-researched layperson view. Episodes also feature an interview segment with a tangentially related guest (i.e., for their King Kong episode, the pair talked with a zookeeper overseeing the care of primates), and contextual information about what was occurring contemporaneous to the film’s release. These discussions aren’t simple regurgitation of the film’s plot but instead a more holistic analysis of the world within each picture and each picture within the world as well, down to finding published negative reviews for every entry on the list, as well as references made to them on The Simpsons.
The framework of the AFI Top 100 list is a gift as well, providing Nicholson and Scheer fodder for discussion on any given film’s position on the list, including whether it deserves to be there in the first place. Even more interesting is their method for exploration. Rather than adopt a bottom-up approach, the series has been moving rather randomly through the list, removing the element of direct comparison and injecting the show’s arc with a delightful air of unpredictability.
I’ll cop to the fact that when the show was announced I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It felt like a lateral development rather than a step forward. Nicholson was already tackling great films with The Canon, how was this show going to be any different? What I failed to consider was how the pair’s talents and experiences within the medium would catalyze the development of a more focused, refined take on the genre, and that it would be this compulsively enjoyable.