FIFA Removes Indonesia as Host of U-20 World Cup 2023

Indonesia was stripped Wednesday of its hosting duties for the 2023 FIFA Under-20 World Cup, sending shock waves through the soccer world just weeks before the tournament was scheduled to begin.

FIFA, the international soccer federation, did not spell out the reasons for its decision, saying only on its website that it decided, “due to the current circumstances, to remove Indonesia as the host of the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2023.”

The decision followed a meeting between FIFA President Gianni Infantino and President of the Football Association of Indonesia (PSSI) Erick Thohir, where the topics under discussion included demands from some Indonesian officials that the Israeli team not be allowed to participate in the tournament.

However, the FIFA statement also alluded to “the tragedy that occurred in October 2022,” an apparent reference to a riot at an Indonesian soccer match that killed 125 people in Kanjuruhan, East Java.

FIFA said a new host will be announced as soon as possible, and the dates of the tournament — May 20-June 11 — are currently unchanged. Potential sanctions against the PSSI also may be decided at a later stage.

Earlier this week, officials postponed the draw, which had been scheduled to be held Friday in Bali to determine the matchups in the first round of the tournament. That came after the governor of Bali refused to host Israel’s team.

Governor I Wayan Koster sent a letter early this month to the Youth and Sports Ministry asking it to “adopt a policy forbidding the Israeli team from competing in Bali.” Ganjar Pranowo, the governor of Central Java and the front-runner for the 2024 presidential election, subsequently joined calls to block the Israeli team from playing in the tournament.

The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a key issue for Indonesia as the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, which broadly supports the Palestinian cause for religious reasons and in keeping with an anti-colonial sentiment dating to its independence.

In his written statement, Thohir said, “I have tried my best. After delivering a letter from [Indonesian] President Joko Widodo, and having a long discussion with FIFA President Gianni Infantino, we must accept FIFA’s decision to remove Indonesia as the host of FIFA U-20 World Cup 2023.”

Widodo on Tuesday asked those who protested the Israeli team not to mix sports and politics, underscoring that Israel’s participation in the U-20 meant no change to Indonesia’s foreign policy position toward Palestine.

The loss of hosting rights is a major setback in Indonesia, where football has a huge following, despite the lack of international success since qualifying for the 1938 World Cup as the Dutch East Indies.

Protesters marched in the capital, Jakarta, this month waving Indonesian and Palestinian flags and demanding that Israel not be allowed to participate.

As hosts, Indonesia automatically qualified for the U-20 World Cup, but the country has not played in the tournament since 1979.

Some information from Reuters was used in this report.

Protests Staged in Brazil Against ‘Zip Lines’ on Rio’s Sugarloaf Mountain    

Protesters gathered underneath Rio de Janeiro’s famed Sugarloaf Mountain earlier this week to protest construction of four cable lines that will carry tourists over the surrounding forest.

The cables, commonly known as zip lines, will carry individuals connected to them by safety harnesses at least 755 meters over the forest to the nearby peak of Urca Hill at speeds of 100 kilometers an hour.

But demonstrators who gathered near Sugarloaf Mountain Sunday say the zip lines will cause environmental damage to the mountain and the surrounding area. Opponents are also concerned the zip lines will lead to an expansion of the visitors center at Sugarloaf’s summit. An online petition against the zip lines has collected more than 11,000 signatures.

Sugarloaf, known in Portuguese as Pao de Acucar, attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each who take cable cars to the peak to take in breathtaking views of Rio’s famed beaches and the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue. UNESCO ((the U.N.’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)) named Sugarloaf a World Heritage Site in 2012.

Parque Bondinho, the company that operates the 110-year-old cable car system, is installing the four zip lines. It says the lines will have limited impact on the environment, even as it brings in even more tourists to Rio. The company says it has obtained all necessary permits for the project.

The zip lines are scheduled to be completed by the middle of this year.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse.

Spain, Morocco Hope Joint Bid for World Cup Will Patch Up Differences

When Morocco stunned Spain – and the world – with a dramatic penalty shootout victory in last year’s World Cup, authorities feared riots would break out.  

None did and Morocco made history by becoming the first African nation to reach the semi-finals in what is arguably the world’s biggest sporting event. 

Now, with the dust barely settled, Morocco has launched a joint bid with Spain and Portugal to stage the same competition in 2030.   

Close neighbors who at times fall out over issues like immigration and autonomy, Madrid and Rabat want to join forces to host the World Cup, in a move analysts say signals closer relations between the two countries.  

“The Kingdom of Morocco announced, together with Spain and Portugal, a joint bid to host the 2030 World Cup,” Rabat announced in a statement on March 15. “This joint bid, which is unprecedented in football history, will bring together Africa and Europe, the northern and the southern Mediterranean, and the African, Arab and Euro-Mediterranean worlds. It will also bring out the best in all of us – in effect a combination of genius, creativity, experience and means.”  

Relations improving 

The move to share the bid between Spain and Morocco comes after Madrid last year changed its policy on the disputed territory of Western Sahara and backed Morocco’s claim to create an autonomous region under its control.   

Co-hosted bids from either Latin America or Europe are likely to be picked in 2024.  

Haizam Amirah-Fernandez, a senior analyst for the Mediterranean and Arab world at the Real Institute Elcano, a think tank in Madrid, said the idea for the three-country bid was not new.  

“This has been an idea since 2018. (Spanish prime minister) Pedro Sánchez suggested the idea. But at that time FIFA (football’s world governing body) did not admit joint bids by different countries, so they discounted it,” he told VOA.   

He said if the joint bid proves successful, it could bring dividends.  

“For neighboring countries, with very tense relations on so many levels, it is always positive to have joint projects, especially projects which have an emotional level like football,” Amirah-Fernandez said.  

He said it was “interesting” that the announcement was made separately by both Morocco and Spain, but it was not clear why this happened.  

If part of the 2030 World Cup is held in Morocco, it remains to be seen whether any matches are played in the disputed territories of Western Sahara.  

Any games in a territory which has been subject to military action and political controversy may risk prompting security risks and attracting the wrong kind of headlines for FIFA.  

Political, economic advantages 

Paul Brannagan, a professor of sports management at Manchester Metropolitan University, jointly wrote a book examining Qatar’s bid for the 2022 World Cup, with Danyel Reiche, visiting professor at Georgetown University in Qatar.  The book is called Qatar and the 2022 FIFA World Cup: Politics, Controversy, Change.  

“You cannot ever take out politics from sport. For countries to survive these days, they must operate like businesses. Of course, to stage the World Cup, they are going to look at the political advantages,” Brannagan told VOA.  

“What we are seeing now is a drive to co-host these World Cups. In part this is to try to limit political controversy. If Qatar had shared the World Cup with the United Arab Emirates, it would have taken the heat off Qatar.” he noted.  

World Cups spread over three countries, like the 2026 competition in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, may not be very easy for fans to enjoy given the logistical problems of attending games.  

“Fans are not at the forefront of FIFA’s mind. (FIFA) will go where there is new markets and new money. (For FIFA) this idea of sharing is great because you get a lot more for your money,” Brannagan said.  

He said the bid by Morocco, Spain and Portugal may appeal to FIFA because they would see it as an opportunity to improve political and trade relations between Rabat and Madrid.  

Artist Paints Contemporary Native American Life

Artist Danielle SeeWalker says she is attempting to paint an accurate and insightful representation of contemporary Native American life. Her work is on exhibit in the Western U.S. state of Colorado. VOA’s Scott Stearns gives us a look.

Camera: Scott Stearns

Army Pulls Recruiting Ads after Jonathan Majors’ Arrest

The arrest of actor Jonathan Majors has upended the Army’s newly launched advertising campaign that was aimed at reviving the service’s struggling recruiting numbers. 

Majors, who authorities said was arrested Saturday in New York on charges of strangulation, assault and harassment, was the narrator of two ads at the heart of a broader media campaign that kicked off at the start of the NCAA’s March Madness college basketball tournament. 

Army leaders were hopeful that the popularity of the star of the recently released “Creed III” and “Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania,” would help them reach the youth audience. 

In a statement Sunday, the Army’s Enterprise Marketing Office said that the Army was aware of Majors’ arrest and was “deeply concerned by the allegations.” It added that while Majors “is innocent until proven guilty, prudence dictates that we pull our ads until the investigation into these allegations is complete.” 

New York City police said the actor was involved in a domestic dispute with a 30-year-old woman. “The victim informed police she was assaulted,” a police spokesperson said in a statement. 

A lawyer for Majors, Priya Chaudhry, said in a statement Sunday there was evidence clearing Majors and that the actor “is provably the victim of an altercation with a woman he knows.” 

The Army ads, titled “Overcoming Obstacles” and “Pushing Tomorrow,” are part of the plan to revive the Army’s “Be All You Can be” motto. They highlighted the history of the Army and some of the many professions that recruits can pursue. 

The “Be All You Can Be” slogan dominated its recruiting ads for two decades starting in 1981. A nearly two-minute preview video, made available before the campaign rollout in early March, featured soldiers jumping out of airplanes, working on helicopters, climbing obstacle courses and diving underwater. A voiceover said: “We bring out the best in the people who serve, because America calls for nothing less.” 

In the Army’s worst recruiting year in recent history, the service fell 25% short of its goal to enlist 60,000 recruits in 2022. The new ads were a key element in the Army’s drive to find creative new ways to attract recruits and ensure that the service has the troops it needs to help defend the nation.

Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said the Army has set a difficult goal for this year: aiming to bring in 65,000 recruits, which would be 20,000 more than in 2022. 

Hundreds Gather in Madrid to Sing for Peace in War-Torn Ukraine

Choirs from across the world joined their voices to sing for peace in Ukraine Sunday, with nearly 300 singers gathering in Madrid where the initiative began a year ago. 

Under cloudless blue skies, singers from 46 choirs in and around the Spanish capital gathered outside the Reina Sofia art museum and began singing at midday (1000 GMT) in an event involving thousands of others across Europe and Latin America.

This year, choirs joined from 81 locations in nine countries, with 1,000 singers from Ukraine joining their voices with others from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Denmark, Germany, Portugal and Venezuela.

Standing in the museum square, they sang “Dona Nobis Pacem,” the Hebrew slaves’ chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco and finally “Sing an Anthem for Our Peace,” which was written specially by U.S. composer Jim Papoulis. 

The simultaneous event, which was broadcast live on YouTube, was organized by Choirs for Peace, an initiative started by Madrid choir a month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine whose first event drew over 25,000 singers. 

“We are here to support Ukraine and say we need peace now, that we have to stop this war,” said Elvira Polyenova, a 48-year-old Ukrainian soprano who used to perform at the Odesa opera house, and who sang the opening solo in “There is Peace.” 

“Music unites people, so the choir is a perfect instrument for spreading messages of peace and unity,” said Mariano Garcia, choir director at Santiago Apostol church which started Choirs for Peace last year.

“Although its power of influence is limited, we believe all choral music has the capacity to make us all a little more aware … and might even reach those with the capacity to decide,” he told AFP.

After seeing last year’s event, Elena Redondo, 54, decided to join a choir so she could be part of this year’s initiative.

“We all forget there’s not only this war in Ukraine but others all over the world, and we seem to get used to it. So, events like this are an important wake-up call,” she said. “Music changes many things, not only on a global level, but also on an individual level, it really changes the way you see things. I think it’s important to join together with other voices.”

‘John Wick: Chapter 4’ Film Comes Out Blazing With $73.5M

“John Wick: Chapter 4,” the fourth installment in the Keanu Reeves assassin series, debuted with a franchise-best $73.5 million at the box office, according to studio estimates Sunday.

The Lionsgate film, starring Reeves as the reluctant-but-not-that-reluctant killer John Wick, exceeded both expectations and previous opening weekends in the R-rated franchise. Since first launching in 2014 with “John Wick” ($14 million on its opening weekend), the Chad Stahelski-directed series has steadily grown as a ticket-seller with each sequel. The 2017 follow-up opened with $30.4 million, and the 2019 third chapter, “Parabellum,” debuted with $56.8 million.

But “Chapter 4,” running two hours and 49 minutes and costing at least $100 million to produce, is the biggest film yet in the once-lean action series. Critics also said it was a franchise high point, scoring 95% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. The film, which drew a 69% male audience, added $64 million overseas. It’s Lionsgate’s biggest success of the pandemic era.

“When you make a fourth in an action franchise, you have to expect it to go down. That is the nature of these franchises,” said Joe Drake, chairman of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group. “But we kept seeing signals and it was wonderful to see the movie they delivered. We saw the audience wanting more.”

Though “John Wick” has been bigger at the box office with each new release — an enviable and rare trajectory among Hollywood franchises — “Chapter 4” brings some finality to Reeves’ character. The actor hasn’t entirely dismissed continuing the series, telling interviewers, “Never say never.”

Regardless, the franchise is set to keep humming. A spin-off titled “Ballerina” starring Ana de Armas and co-starring Reeves has already been shot. The miniseries “The Continental,” with Mel Gibson, is upcoming on Peacock.

“Chad and Keanu have created this world and that world continues to expand. I don’t know what all the edges of that world are, still,” said Drake. “As best they can, they’ll continue to try to seduce Keanu to come back and do things. He gets beat up in these shows. He really does. And at the end he’s like, ‘I’m not doing it anymore.’ Then you watch him sit in the theater and feel that audience.”

“So, we’re going to continue to look for ways to meet that demand.”

The release of “John Wick: Chapter 4,” which included a surprise premiere at SXSW, was also bittersweet. Lance Reddick, who plays the Continental Hotel concierge, Charon, in the films, unexpectedly died at the age of 60 a week before the film’s release.

But the success of “John Wick: Chapter 4” adds to a strong start in 2023 for Hollywood. After ticket sales rebounded to about 67% of pre-pandemic levels last year, the release lineup is steadier and more packed this year. Sequels have led the way, including “Creed III” and “Scream VI.” Ticket sales are up 28% from last year, according to the data firm Comscore.

But there have been some exceptions. After its disappointing $30.5 million debut last weekend, the superhero sequel “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” slumped to second place with $9.7 million in its second weekend. The Warner Bros. release dropped steeply, tumbling 68% from its launch.

“Scream VI” took third place with $8.4 million in its third weekend, bringing its total thus far to $90.4 million domestic and $139.3 million worldwide. “Creed III” followed in fourth with $8.4 million. Michael B. Jordan’s sequel is up to $140.9 million domestic.

The weekend’s other new releases were more modest.

Zach Braff’s “A Good Person,” starring Florence Pugh and Morgan Freeman, opened at 530 theaters. The MGM release grossed $834,000. IFC Films’ “The Lost King,” with Sally Hawkins and Steve Coogan, debuted with $575,000 in 753 locations.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

  1. “John Wick: Chapter 4,” $73.5 million.

  2. “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” $9.7 million.

  3. “Scream VI,” $8.4 million.

  4. “Creed III,” $8.4 million.

  5. “65,” $3.3 million.

  6. “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” $2.4 million.

  7. “Cocaine Bear,” $2.1 million.

  8. “Jesus Revolution,” $2 million.

  9. “Champions,” $1.5 million.

  10. “Avatar: The Way of Water,” $1.4 million.

Former F1 Champ Fined Nearly $1 Million for Racist, Homophobic Remarks

A former Formula One champion has been fined nearly $1 million in damages for racist and homophobic remarks about Lewis Hamilton, the sport’s only Black driver.

Nelson Piquet, 70, a three-time Formula One champion, used a Brazilian racial and homophobic slur in a 2021 television interview about a crash, involving Hamilton and Max Verstappen, who is in a relationship with Piquet’s daughter.

Piquet’s comments went viral, and he has since apologized.

World champion Hamilton called for “archaic mindsets” to change after footage of the interview emerged.

A court statement noted that Piquet has apologized, but it also said his words “affect not only the individual rights of the victim, but the values of the entire community, and of the black population and the LGBTQIA+ community in particular.”

Judge Pedro Matos de Arrudo said the nearly $1 million fine was allotted “so that, as a society, we can someday be free from the pernicious acts that are racism and homophobia.”

Four human rights groups brought the charges to court.

Indigenous Artists Help Skateboarding Earn Stamp of Approval

Years ago, skateboarding was branded as a hobby for rebels or stoners in city streets, schoolyards and back alleys. Those days are long gone.

Skateboarding, which has Native Hawaiian roots connected to surfing, no longer is on the fringes. It became an Olympic sport in 2020. There are numerous amateur and professional skateboarding competitions in the U.S. And on Friday, the U.S. Postal Service issued stamps that laud the sport — and what Indigenous groups have brought to the skating culture.

Di’Orr Greenwood, 27, an artist born and raised on the Navajo Nation in Arizona whose work is featured on the new stamps, says it’s a long way from when she was a kid and people always kicked her out of certain spots just for skating.

“Now it’s like being accepted on a global scale,” Greenwood said. “There’s so many skateboarders I know that are extremely proud of it.”

The postal agency debuted the “Art of the Skateboard” stamps at a Phoenix skate park. The stamps feature skateboard artists from around the country, including Greenwood and Crystal Worl, who is Tlingit Athabascan. William James Taylor Jr., an artist from Virginia, and Federico “MasPaz” Frum, a Colombian-born muralist in Washington, D.C., round out the quartet of featured artists.

The stamps underscore the prevalence of skateboarding, especially in Indian Country where the demand for skate parks is growing.

The artists see the stamp as a small canvas, a functional art piece that will be seen across the U.S. and beyond.

“Maybe I’ll get a letter in the mail that someone sent me with my stamp on it,” said Worl, 35, who lives in Juneau, Alaska. “I think that’s when it will really hit home with the excitement of that.”

Antonio Alcalá, USPS art director, led the search for artists to paint skate decks for the project. After settling on a final design, each artist received a skateboard from Alcalá to work on. He then photographed the maple skate decks and incorporated them into an illustration of a young person holding up a skateboard for display. The person is seen in muted colors to draw attention to the skate deck.

Alcalá used social media to seek out artists who, besides being talented, were knowledgeable about skateboarding culture. Worl was already on his radar because her brother, Rico, designed the Raven Story stamp in 2021, which honored a central figure in Indigenous stories along the coast in the Pacific Northwest.

The Worl siblings run an online shop called Trickster Company with fashions, home goods and other merchandise with Indigenous and modern twists. For her skate deck, Crystal Worl paid homage to her clan and her love of the water with a Sockeye salmon against a blue and indigo background.

She was careful about choosing what to highlight.

“There are certain designs, patterns and stories that belong to certain clans and you have to have permission even as an Indigenous person to share certain stories or designs,” Worl said.

The only times Navajo culture has been featured in stamps is with rugs or necklaces. Greenwood, who tried out for the U.S. Women’s Olympic skateboarding team, knew immediately she wanted to incorporate her heritage in a modern way. Her nods to the Navajo culture include a turquoise inlay and a depiction of eagle feathers, which are used to give blessings.

“I was born and raised with my great-grandmother, who looked at a stamp kind of like how a young kid would look at an iPhone 13,” Greenwood said. “She entrusted every important news and every important document and everything to a stamp to send it and trust that it got there.”

Skateboarding has become a staple across Indian Country. A skate park opened in August on the Hopi reservation. Skateboarders on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in eastern Arizona recently got funding for one from pro skateboarder Tony Hawk’s nonprofit, The Skatepark Project. Youth-organized competitions take place on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Dustinn Craig, a White Mountain Apache filmmaker and “lifer” skateboarder in Arizona, has made documentaries and short films on the sport. The 47-year-old remembers how skateboarding was seen as dorky and anti-establishment when he was a kid hiding “a useless wooden toy” in his locker. At the same time, Craig credits skateboarding culture as “my arts and humanities education.”

So he is wary of the mainstream’s embrace, as well as the sometimes clique-ish nature, of today’s skateboarding world.

“For those of us who have been in it for a very long time, it’s kind of insulting because I think a lot of the popularity has been due to the proliferation of access to the visuals of the youth culture skateboarding through the internet and social media,” Craig said. “So, I feel like it really sort of trivializes and sort of robs Native youth of authenticity of the older skateboard culture that I was raised on.”

He acknowledges that he may come off as the “grumpy old man” to younger Indigenous skateboarders who are open to collaborating with outsiders.

The four skateboards designed by the artists will eventually be transferred to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, said Jonathan Castillo, USPS spokesperson.

The stamps, which will have a printing of 18 million, are available at post offices and on the USPS website. For the artists, being part of a project that feels low-tech in this age of social media is exciting.

“It’s like the physical thing is special because you go out of your way to go to the post office, buy the stamps and write something,” Worl said.

Artwork That Secretly Honored Hong Kong Dissidents Removed

A Hong Kong department store took down a digital artwork that contained hidden references to jailed dissidents, in an incident the artist says is evidence of erosion of free speech in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.

It was unclear whether the government played a role in the decision to remove the artwork, it came just days after a slasher film featuring Winnie the Pooh, a figure often used in playful taunts of China’s President Xi Jinping, was pulled from local cinemas.

Patrick Amadon’s “No Rioters” was put on display on a billboard at the SOGO Causeway Bay Store for an exhibition that started last Friday, as the city was promoting its return as a vibrant cultural hub following years of pandemic travel restrictions. Art Basel Hong Kong, a prominent art fair in Asia, began this week, alongside other art events.

Hong Kong is a former British colony that returned to China’s rule in 1997, promising to retain its Western-style freedoms. The city was rocked by a massive pro-democracy protest movement in 2019, which ended after China imposed a “National Security Law” that criminalized much dissent. The city’s government has since jailed and silenced many activists.

Amadon said he had followed the protests in Hong Kong closely, and he wanted his work to show solidarity with the protesters and remind people about the new reality of the city.

“It was too much watching Art Week in Hong Kong pretend the Chinese government didn’t crush a democracy and turn Hong Kong into a vassal surveillance state… because it’s a convenient location for a good market,” the Los Angeles-based artist said.

Amadon said he knew the work would be controversial and was surprised it had been displayed in public for days. It featured a panning surveillance camera.

Flashes of Matrix-like text showcased the names and prison sentences of convicted activists and other prominent figures in the pro-democracy movement, including legal scholar Benny Tai and former student leader Joshua Wong, who were both charged with subversion in the biggest case brought under the National Security Law.

These details were shown too fast to be seen by the naked eyes Amadon said, but viewers could see the details if they used a camera to capture stills. It also referred to journalist-turned activist Gwyneth Ho who was assaulted when she was live-streaming a mob attack in July 2019 during the massive protests sparked by an extradition bill.

The gallery that arranged the exhibit did not know whether the government ordered the work taken down, Francesca Boffetti, CEO at Art Innovation Gallery said in an email.

“Our intermediary told us that the owners of SOGO were concerned about the sensitive political content hidden behind Patrick’s work, so they decided to remove the work from the exhibition immediately,” Boffetti said.

No one mentioned any law or threatened them with fines, she added, but SOGO’s legal team asked the gallery whether it was aware of the content and message of Amadon’s work.

Local police and SOGO did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau told the Associated Press that it did not contact SOGO.

Amadon said the gallery told him in an urgent call that it was very concerned about its legal exposure after a conversation with SOGO.

Since the passage of the National Security Law, the city’s art and media communities have learned to be wary of crossing vaguely defined red lines. Pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily was forced to close after authorities arrested its top editors and executives and accused them of foreign collusion. Some artists known for their political work left Hong Kong under the shadow of the law. Some filmmakers have stopped showing their work in the city. Even those producing non-political content have become cautious. But the government insisted that its residents continue to enjoy promised freedoms after the enactment of the law.

Amadon said what happened to his work showed that the city had lost its freedom of expression and artistic freedom.

“This objectively shows that they are no longer here in the same way that they once were,” he said. “From a narrative standpoint, I mean, it did have to get censored and taken down, I feel like, to be a completed piece.”

Africa’s Premier Basketball League Aims to Empower Women

The Basketball Africa League has been around since 2019. It is part of the U.S. National Basketball Association or NBA and expanding basketball into Africa with its first season in 2021. A new initiative is opening the way for women players as well. Seydina Aba Gueye has this report from Dakar in this story narrated by Salem Solomon.

Basketball Artists School Helps Youth Development in Namibia

In Namibia, the German-supported Basketball Artists School (BAS) has been helping develop the sport while giving hope to at-risk youth. Beyond basketball, the program teaches life skills to disadvantaged youth and offers after-school meals. Vitalio Angula reports from Windhoek, Namibia. Camera: Dantagob Geingob

Biden Honors Springsteen, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Mindy Kaling

U.S. President Joe Biden made an observation when conferring the National Medal of Arts on rocker Bruce Springsteen on Tuesday:

“Bruce, some people are just born to run, man.”

Springsteen and a host of actors, authors, singers and other artists joined Biden in the White House East Room where they received either a National Medal of Arts or National Humanities Medal for their contributions to American society.

Comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose “Veep” show made light of the vice presidency — an office Biden once held — was also honored.

“She embraces life’s absurdity with absolute wit, and handles real life turns with absolute grace. A mom, a cancer survivor, a pioneer for women in comedy, she is an American original,” Biden said.

Actress Mindy Kaling, a main character on the long-running television show, “The Office,” set in Biden’s hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, received a medal as well.

When Biden introduced author Colson Whitehead to the crowd, he noted that Whitehead had won back-to-back Pulitzer Prizes for his books and gave a hint of his own ambitions.

“I’m trying to go back to back myself,” said Biden, who has said he intends to run for reelection in 2024.

Singer Gladys Knight, the “empress of soul,” was an honoree, along with clothing designer Vera Wang, historian Walter Isaacson and authors Amy Tan, Ann Patchett and Tara Westover, among others.

‘Winnie the Pooh’ Slasher Film Pulled from Hong Kong Cinemas

Public screenings of a slasher film that features Winnie the Pooh were scrapped abruptly in Hong Kong on Tuesday, sparking discussions over increasing censorship in the city.

Film distributor VII Pillars Entertainment announced on Facebook that the release of “Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey” on Thursday had been canceled with “great regret” in Hong Kong and neighboring Macao.

In an email reply to The Associated Press, the distributor said it was notified by cinemas that it could not show the film as scheduled, but didn’t know why. The cinema chains involved did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

For many residents, the Winnie the Pooh character is a playful taunt of China’s President Xi Jinping and Chinese censors in the past had briefly banned social media searches for the bear in the country. In 2018, the film “Christopher Robin,” also featuring Winnie the Pooh, was reportedly denied a release in China.

The film being pulled in Hong Kong has prompted concern on social media over the territory’s shrinking freedoms.

The movie was initially set to be shown in about 30 cinemas in Hong Kong, VII Pillars Entertainment wrote last week.

The Office for Film, Newspaper and Article Administration said it had approved the film and arrangements by local cinemas to screen approved films “are the commercial decisions of the cinemas concerned.” It refused to comment on such arrangements.

A screening initially scheduled for Tuesday night in one cinema was canceled due to “technical reasons,” the organizer said on Instagram.

Kenny Ng, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s academy of film, refused to speculate on the reason behind the cancellation, but suggested the mechanism of silencing criticism appeared to be resorting to commercial decisions.

Hong Kong is a former British colony that returned to China’s rule in 1997, promising to retain its Western-style freedoms. But China imposed a national security law following massive pro-democracy protests in 2019, silencing or jailing many dissidents.

In 2021, the government tightened guidelines and authorized censors to ban films believed to have breached the sweeping law.

Ng said the city saw more cases of censorship over the last two years, mostly targeting non-commercial movies, such as independent short films.

“When there is a red line, then there are more taboos,” he said.

Ukrainian Artists Use Their Craft to Counter Russian Messaging in Africa

Ukraine is supporting artists painting murals in Europe and Africa to counter Russian disinformation about Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Dubbed ”The Wall,” a nod to the album by British rock band Pink Floyd, the project was recently launched in Kenya’s capital and also employs local artists. Victoria Amunga reports from Nairobi. Kenya footage by Jimmy Makhulo.

Adam Sandler Receives Mark Twain Prize for Lifetime in Comedy

A host of comedic and entertainment royalty gathered at Washington’s Kennedy Center to present comedy icon Adam Sandler with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. 

Among those scheduled to honor Sandler on Sunday night were Jennifer Aniston, Judd Apatow, Drew Barrymore, Steve Buscemi, Dana Carvey, Luis Guzmán, Conan O’Brien, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, David Spade and Ben Stiller. 

“Who has lasted this long and stayed this beloved?” Carvey said as he arrived on the Kennedy Center red carpet. “Nobody keeps this up for this long.” 

Buscemi, known largely for dramatic and often violent roles, portrayed a string of comedic characters in Sandler movies. 

“He takes his comedy very seriously. I laugh hard at everything I do with him,” he said. 

Buscemi also singled out Sandler’s musical comedy, including “The Chanukah Song,” which became a multiplatinum hit. “His comedy songs alone deserve this reward,” he said. 

Sandler, 56, first came to national attention as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live.” After being fired from the cast following a five-year stint, Sandler launched a wildly successful movie career that has spanned more than 30 films, grossing over $3 billion worldwide. 

Sandler’s top hits include “Happy Gilmore,” “The Wedding Singer” and “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.” Although primarily known for slapstick comedy and overgrown man-child characters, he has excelled in multiple dramatic roles in films such as “Punch Drunk Love” and “Uncut Gems.” 

Guzman, who co-starred in “Punch Drunk Love,” praised Sandler’s “total commitment to something that was so far our of his element.” 

Mark Twain recipients are honored with a night of testimonials and video tributes, often featuring previous award winners. Other comedians receiving the lifetime achievement award include Richard Pryor (the inaugural recipient in 1998), Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett and Dave Chapelle. Bill Cosby, the 2009 recipient, saw his Mark Twain Prize rescinded in 2019 amid multiple allegations of sexual assault. 

The long-running comedy institution “SNL” has provided more than its share of the 24 Mark Twain recipients. Sandler is the seventh cast member to receive the prize, joining Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Will Farrell, Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, Julia Louise-Dreyfus. Show creator and producer Lorne Michaels won in 2004. 

The ceremony will be broadcast nationally on CNN on March 26. 

Vatican Unveils New Ethnographic Display of Rwanda Screens

The Vatican Museums officially reopened its African and American ethnographic collections Thursday by showcasing intricately restored Rwandan raffia screens that were sent by Catholic missionaries to the Vatican for a 1925 exhibit.

The display at the Anima Mundi Ethnological Museum featured a scientific presentation of the restoration process as well as the research that preceded it, with consultations with Rwanda’s own ethnographic museum, a UCLA graduate student and Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa. It came as ethnographic museums in Europe and North America are grappling with demands from Indigenous groups and former colonies to return artifacts dating from colonial times.

The Rev. Nicola Mappelli, curator of the Anima Mundi museum, declined to comment on calls for restitution of the Vatican’s own ethnographic holdings, saying these were questions for the museum leadership. Speaking to The Associated Press during a visit to the new exhibit, he noted that the Vatican last year returned three mummies to Peru and a human head to Ecuador in 2017.

The museum director, Barbara Jatta, didn’t refer to the issue in her remarks at the opening, emphasizing, however, what she said was the Anima Mundi’s commitment to transparency and “dialogue with different cultures.”

She said the unveiling of the Rwandan panels was a moment to celebrate the reopening of the African and American section of the museum as well as the 50th anniversary of the transfer of the entire collection into the Vatican Museums itself.

The issue of the Vatican’s ethnographic collection came into the spotlight last year, when Indigenous groups from Canada came to the Vatican to receive an apology from Pope Francis for Canada’s church-run residential school system.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has said the policy of forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families in a bid to assimilate them into Christian Canadian society amounted to “cultural genocide.” The First Nations, Metis and Inuit delegations visited the Anima Mundi and were shown several Indigenous items in the collection, and representatives later said they wanted them back or, at the very least, to have access to them so Indigenous researchers could study them.

The Vatican has long insisted that the basis of its ethnographic collection stemmed from “gifts” to Pope Pius XI, who in 1925 staged a huge exhibit in the Vatican gardens to celebrate the church’s global reach, its missionaries and the lives of the Indigenous peoples they evangelized. Catholic missionaries around the globe sent him artifacts, but some researchers today question whether Indigenous peoples were able to consent to such “gifts” given the power dynamics of the time.

The informational labels on the new exhibits emphasize the Vatican’s view. The Canada label, for example, reads: “There is a long tradition of gifts sent by the Indigenous peoples of Canada to the popes,” noting that a headdress in the exhibit was given to Francis during his 2022 trip to Canada by Chief Wilton Littlechild.

What Really Helped Michelle Yeoh Win an Oscar

As tough as action film star Michelle Yeoh is, it still might have been hard for her to clinch the best actress Oscar and become the first Asian woman to win the coveted award in its 95-year history—if everything hadn’t fallen into place.

Besides her hard work and talent, Yeoh’s history-making win Sunday is a culmination of many forces, according to film experts and critics.

First, Hong Kong’s film industry made her a well-known star in Asia long before Hollywood noticed her.

“I think her Hong Kong experience definitely is crucial to her latest success,” Timmy Chen (陳智廷), director of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, said of the Malaysia-born Yeoh, commenting that there were few opportunities for Chinese actors in Malaysia’s Malay-dominated film industry at the time.

Hong Kong cinema cast her in many action and martial arts films — from Yes, Madam to Police Story 3: Super Cop — nurturing her acting and fighting skills, which enabled her to land the role as a Bond girl in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, her first Hollywood film.

Yeoh also benefited from trailblazing Asian-American directors who boldly made films with an Asian theme and cast her in them, including Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Jon Chu’s box office hit Crazy Rich Asians, both of which boosted her fame.

The success of Yeoh, her co-star Vietnamese American Ke Huy Quan — who became only the second Asian to win an Oscar for best supporting actor — and their film Everything Everywhere All at Once, which won seven awards including best picture and director, is part of a growing trend in the past few years of “trans-Pacific” Asian directors producing works that are popular not only in Asia, but also the United States, says Jason Coe, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s (HKBU) Academy of Film.

These are people who “are working both in the U.S., but also in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, taking the sort of best of both, and making films that can appeal to audiences in Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China and Southeast Asia, but also in the United States,” Coe noted.

This has led to more opportunities for actors such as Yeoh and has made it possible for the making of the sci-fi comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once, in which Yeoh plays a middle-aged Chinese American immigrant laundromat owner determined to save the universe and her family, all the while showing off her martial arts skills.

Movie streaming platforms such as Netflix helped to fuel this trend by letting audiences have more say.

“Because streaming platforms like Netflix and even YouTube are able to make and distribute so many different types of content, they’ll eventually find their audience, and because their audiences are so diverse, they’ll eventually find their content,” Coe said.

That means a film that might seem niche, like Crazy Rich Asians, a romantic comedy about rich Singaporeans, can find an audience of Asians and non-Asians, “and this can build a momentum that allows for the audiences to have a say in the kind of stories they want,” Coe said. Everything Everywhere All at Once is further proof that stories about Asian Americans can do well at the box office, he said.

It helps to have a theme that resonates with a wide audience – in this film’s case, it’s being overwhelmed and losing touch with what’s really important in life, as well as the disconnection among family members.

But it’s not just the popularity of such stories and the skills of the directors and actors. Yeoh and the film also benefited from the push for diversity in Hollywood in recent years.

“A few years back, they tried to give justice to African American representation, now they are paying attention to Asians. It’s part of the same wave for diversity,” Chen said. “We see more Asian representation, such as award recognitions for films about Asians or made by Asians, including Parasite, Nomadland, Crazy Rich Asians and Farewell.”

Coe agrees, crediting activism within the filmmaking and greater community.

“You’re not going to get a film like Crazy Rich Asians or even Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings without a film like Black Panther,” Coe said. “It takes all of these ethnic minority communities and disenfranchised communities to advocate for greater diversity in order for more [of these] movies to be made.”

It’s taken decades, but Asian actors have come a long way since the days of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American Hollywood actress. She had no choice but to play stereotypical and demeaning supporting roles in the 1930s. When a film version of Pearl S. Buck’s novel about China, The Good Earth, was to be made, Wong was not considered for the leading role; it was instead given to a white actress to play in yellowface.

But many insist there’s still a long way to go.

“Michelle Yeoh is one the few fortunate Asian actors or Asian-American actors to get this recognition. There are countless unnamable talents out there who are struggling,” Chen said.

He noted Yeoh’s co-star Quan suffered a nearly 20-year hiatus in his acting career before he got his latest role. Quan couldn’t get much acting work, despite his talents as a child actor, including playing Short Round, Harrison Ford’s sidekick in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

“It’s hard to tell whether [the recent successes] will lead to a long-term trend. We definitely will see more Asian content and representation on American screens in the future, but I think there is still structural inequality in the system,” Chen said.

What helps is that it’s never been easier to make a movie and it’s never been easier to find your audience, Coe said.

“The gatekeepers no longer have that sort of power, and so if you’re telling a really great story, and there are people who want to hear that story, then you’re much more likely to find them [your audiences] now than ever before,” Coe said.

The hopeful impact is that the film, and more films like it that tell Asian American stories in an authentic way, will lead to fewer stereotypes, a sense of understanding, and a sense of belonging by Asian Americans in the United States.

Already, it’s making an impact among young Asian actors and actresses who are inspired by Yeoh, Quan and their film’s success.

“Before, I didn’t dare to think of going to Hollywood. Asians are a minority there and there are many Asian actors that are underrated because of race and language barriers. I didn’t think there would be opportunities,” said Sheena Chan, a student in HKBU’s Acting for Global Screen Program. “Now that Michelle Yeoh and this film have won many Oscar awards, and it’s not just in English, but Cantonese and Mandarin, I think there are more opportunities. I will start to think of going to Hollywood.”