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Tatiana Maslany plays Sarah, as well as some other characters, on BBC America's Orphan Black. (BBC America)

Tatiana Maslany On Looking Herself In The Eye

Apr 18, 2014

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Tatiana Maslany plays Sarah — and some other people — on BBC America's sci-fi show Orphan Black. On Friday's Morning Edition, she speaks to Kelly McEvers about how she manages to play all those different women from different cultural backgrounds, not to mention women with different mixes of malevolence and likability. And technically, it's no picnic: just ask the tennis ball that sometimes plays her head.

But it's not all about the technology: Maslany also talks about the discovery at the end of Orphan Black's first season that some of her characters may be, in a sense, someone else's property. "That always resonated for me as a woman to have this idea of our bodies not being our own," she says. "That they're owned by someone else. That the image of them is owned by someone else. I feel that's a very resonant theme for young women like myself, and especially women in this industry."

Orphan Black returns Saturday, April 19 at 9:00 Eastern.

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Cristina Peña was born with HIV. In high school, she was afraid to tell her boyfriend, Chris Ondaatje, about her illness. The couple have since been together 13 years. (StoryCorps)

Born With HIV, Building A Future

Apr 18, 2014

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Cristina Peņa was born in 1984 with HIV. Her father died from AIDS, and her mother is still living with HIV. Cristina was told she had HIV when she was 9, but she and her family kept it a secret from her schoolmates and friends.

In high school, she started dating Chris Ondaatje. One day, Chris decided to tell Cristina that he was in love with her.

That's when Cristina sat him down for a revelation of her own.

"I remember sitting on your living room floor, and I could tell something was wrong," Chris tells Cristina on a visit to StoryCorps in San Francisco. "You started off telling me your dad had passed away of AIDS, and I thought to myself, 'Ah, that's the big secret.' But then you kept going. And you said your mom was HIV-positive. And then you told me that you were born HIV-positive."

"I remember saying to you, 'I'm OK if you don't want to keep dating me,' " Cristina replies. "And you could have reacted any way. You could have gotten up. You could have called me horrible names. You could have ran out. But you said, 'Babe, I'll pick you up for a date tomorrow.' You gave me a big squeeze, and that meant so much to me."

"We really learned how to communicate with each other," Chris says. "It's definitely forced us into having to grow up faster than we probably would have otherwise. I struggled with telling my parents about it. And my dad, he was pretty upset. He tried to talk me out of dating you."

"I remember I'd walk into your house and he'd get up and leave, without saying anything to me," Cristina recalls. "That was the first time I had ever realized that I was actually a threat to someone."

"I said, 'Look, here's this piece of paper. I get tested every six months. We're safe. I love this girl. I want to be with her,' " Chris says. "All I wanted was acceptance. It was a few years of being really distant with my mom and my dad, and really only in the last five or six years have we started to mend those issues. And we have a great relationship now. Their biggest concern is when we're going to get married and start having grandkids for them."

Cristina and Chris are both 29 now, and have been together for 13 years.

"You know, when I found out I was HIV-positive at 9, I had no idea what my future looked like," Cristina tells Chris. "And now, as an adult, obviously still HIV-positive, but I have a future, and I have a future with you. And we've built that. And you've made me feel so beautiful and loved. And I didn't think I could have that."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Katie Simon.

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Iraqi Sunni masked protesters burn tires to block the main highway to Jordan and Syria, outside Fallujah, Iraq, on Dec. 30, 2013. Violence has returned to Iraq's Anbar province, with discontented ordinary Sunnis joining forces with al-Qaida-linked militants battling the Iraqi government. (AP)

Sunni Discontent Fuels Growing Violence In Iraq's Anbar Province

Apr 18, 2014

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Tribesmen and Iraqi police forces hold a position in a street of the city of Ramadi, west of the capital Baghdad, on Jan. 30, during a military operation against anti-government fighters.

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Violence has reignited in western Iraq, with Islamist fighters taking over much of Anbar province three months ago. A renegade al-Qaida group has set up its headquarters in Fallujah - the city where hundreds of U.S. soldiers died a decade ago, trying to wrest it from insurgent control.

But this time, the enemy isn't the U.S. and it's not just extremists fighting. Ordinary Sunnis in Anbar, furious at what they call years of discrimination by the Shiite-dominated government, have joined the militants' battle against the Iraqi army.

There's another difference: This group has better training and weapons, drawing strength and fighters from the chaos across the border in Syria, where it is also active.

In northern Iraq, I meet a group of young men who are among the 400,000 people who have fled the fighting in Anbar.

They say their brothers, cousins and friends are among those fighting against the army in Anbar — not because they like al-Qaida, but because they hate the Iraqi army so much. They've heeded the call by tribal sheikhs that each family leave one son behind to fight.

The men who have fled are staying in a faded tourist hotel in the mountain resort of Shaqlawa. Piled into a room full of mattresses, smelling of socks and gas heaters, these Sunnis are brimming over with stories that explain why they would fight their own government.

"In Fallujah, the soldiers would come at night, take people away and leave," says Taha Fadel. Men and women would be detained for long periods without charge, and tortured, he alleges.

For more than a year, they held huge protests every Friday, demanding that the Shiite-dominated government address their issues. There were tents set up with permanent sit-ins in Fallujah and in the provincial capital of Ramadi.

Then, in December last year, the army moved in. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that members of al-Qaida were hiding in the camps. The young men in the smelly hotel room say they're not al-Qaida, they're civilians whose homes were leveled out of nowhere.

Ihab Ibrahim, a craftsman, shows a video on his cellphone that he says was his home. Now, it's rubble. The army fired two shells at it five minutes after the family left, he claims.

These young men deny that there are any extremists fighting in Anbar - they say it's all tribal revolutionaries.

'They Want To Overthrow The Region'

But U.S. officials say that several hundred heavily armed men are the main fighting force for the militant group, known as ISIS or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. And ISIS itself seems to confirm that assessment with victory videos like this that it posts online.

Between the extremists and the tribal fighters, the group has been able to hold on to much of Anbar - and is even creeping east to Baghdad and the provinces around it. Abu Ghraib prison on the outskirts of Baghdad was evacuated this week as they approached — out of fears it could be overrun by Sunni insurgents.

In Baghdad, I run into the funeral of a young soldier in the Shiite suburb of Kadhimiya.

"May God have mercy on his soul," intones a singer whose doleful voice pours out of speakers into the dusty chaos of the street.

The soldier's brother, Issam Ghazi, talks about how his brother was killed by extremists in Salahaddine province north of Baghdad. He's a soldier, too, and says that ISIS is more fearsome than ever.

"There is a significant increase in operations, more than before," he says. "Now jihad has spread in Iraq on a wider scale; they want to overthrow the region."

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Sophie Fairbairn attends Northridge High School. (ProPublica)

Six Words: 'Segregation Should Not Determine Our Future'

Apr 18, 2014

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Ryan Foster attends Central High School. Jazmine Thompson attends Central High School. James Niiler attends Northridge High School. The student population at D'Leisha Dent's high school, Central High in Tuscaloosa, Ala., is almost entirely African-American. Dent says she and her peers wish they had more opportunities to interact with white students.

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The investigative journalism group ProPublica, with reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, has just completed a year-long project, Segregation Now, exploring the re-segregation of schools in the U.S., with a particular look at Tuscaloosa, Ala.

In partnership with ProPublica, The Race Card Project went to Tuscaloosa to collect resident's six-word stories about changes in the racial makeup of their city.

NPR Special Correspondent Michele Norris, curator of The Race Card Project, joined Morning Edition host David Greene to share what she and NPR producer Walter Ray Watson learned in Tuscaloosa.

Sixty years after the landmark Supreme Court ruling that desegregated American schools, Brown v. Board of Education, a year-long ProPublica investigation found that many schools across the country are back where they were under Jim Crow segregation: racially isolated and under-resourced.

In Tuscaloosa, Ala., the story of the Dent family underscores what's happened to schools in that city over the past three generations.

James Dent, a 64-year-old African-American, described watching the roller coaster of integration in his city — from segregation to integration and now back to segregation, Norris says.

His six-words for The Race Card Project: "We went to all-black schools."

Dent and his wife were part of a generation that saw promise in school integration. And for a time, the local high school, Central High, was a model for integration. Central produced National Merit scholars and winning baseball, football, basketball teams. The school dominated the math championships. Dent's daughter went there and had a great experience.

But as ProPublica found, it very was hard to maintain that level of integration. First, white families started to peel away. Then, over time, something else happened: "bright flight." Middle-class black families also peeled away from the neighborhood, leaving it not just racially isolated, but economically isolated as well.

'A Lot Happens Over Here'

Those shifts had a tremendous impact on the Tuscaloosa. Today, schools in the Dent's neighborhood, like Central High, have a white population of less than 1 percent.

"You see Central getting smaller and smaller," James Dent says. "I don't know why. Central High School is getting smaller and smaller."

Dent's wife, Beverly, has some opinions as to why. "A lot happens over here, for one thing," she says. "You know, like shootings, robbery and stuff like that — that happens over here. Now, it might happen on [the white] side too, but I think it happens over here a lot more than it does over there. And the whites are scared."

There are other schools in the city with more resources than Central. Those schools, like Bryant High, have relatively large white populations. And the larger community views the schools differently, Beverly Dent says.

"I think Central is not — what's the word I'm looking for? They look at Central lower than they do Bryant," Beverly says. Once upon a time, she says, "when you went out in the world and said you were from Central, people would say, 'Wow, that's a good school' ... You got a lot of good people coming out of there, going to college and stuff."

But James Dent's granddaughter, D'Leisha Dent, has had a different experience. She's about to graduate from Central High, and has her own six words for The Race Card Project: "Segregation should not determine our future."

The 17-year-old is very proud of her school, with its large brick building just a stone's throw from the University of Alabama.

But as the neighborhood changed, the school changed. D'Leisha says she's especially aware of that when she hears her mother, Melissa Dent, talk about Central High's heyday — during that brief period when it was integrated. Melissa had friends of all races, including people she still keeps in touch with today.

But things are different for D'Leisha.

'I'm Gonna Stay On It'

"Me and my friends always talk about how we wish the schools were not segregated. And, like, we wish we could interact with more Caucasian people, 'cause they seem fun," D'Leisha says. "I don't really know how they are outside of school, but I wish we could have interacted with more people."

And the community, D'Leisha says, doesn't "expect much" from Central students. "They have low expectations from us. ... It's just some people — they expect low. They don't expect anything from Central High School."

But D'Leisha has her own inner compass, Norris says. And like so many other high school kids right now, D'Leisha runs to the mailbox every day, looking for a college admission letter.

"I do what I have to do," D'Leisha says. "I'm in honors class, AP — advanced placement — and don't settle for less. So when it comes down to my work, I'm gonna stay on it."

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Colton Burpo (Connor Corum) tells Todd (Greg Kinnear) about heaven in Heaven Is For Real. (Sony Pictures)

Is 'Heaven' Real, Or Just A Place On Earth?

Apr 17, 2014

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Ryan Foster attends Central High School. Jazmine Thompson attends Central High School. James Niiler attends Northridge High School. The student population at D'Leisha Dent's high school, Central High in Tuscaloosa, Ala., is almost entirely African-American. Dent says she and her peers wish they had more opportunities to interact with white students.

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Linda Holmes

Heaven Is For Real has an earnestness and an inertness that make it something of a bulletproof fish in a barrel. It's easy to take shots at because it's utterly artless and corny, but it's immune to criticism because it's not intended to be otherwise. It's simply intended to be affirming to people who go to church a lot, encouraging to people who go to church a little, and inoffensively irrelevant to people who don't go to church at all.

There's no question that Hollywood does a woefully poor job representing people of faith in any sort of nuanced way in mainstream films. Watching the opening scenes of Heaven Is For Real, there's actually a certain charm in its inclusion of scenes of American life that are hugely underrepresented in movies relative to their importance to the potential audience.

Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) and his four-year-old son, Colton, horse around listening to the ladies from church singing hymns in the living room with Todd's wife, Sonja. Todd goes in his sweatpants and T-shirt to the bedside of a dying man and quietly and compassionately prays with him. Todd and Sonja curl up on the couch and talk about how broke they are and the limitations of the house that came with Todd's job. It feels sort of ... fair, to put it simply, to people for whom prayer and church are important. It feels reasonably organic for those first moments.

But then, of course, we come to the central plot, in which Colton's appendix bursts and he nearly dies, and when he recovers, he tells his parents he went to heaven. He doesn't say he saw a light or anything similarly vague; he says he sat on the lap of actual Jesus (whom he later clarifies is a blue-green-eyed Jesus, juuuuuust in case you were wondering), he saw angels singing, he saw clouds, and he met some of his deceased relatives.

In fact, the perfection with which Colton describes not just the religious heaven but the cultural - perhaps the pop-cultural - heaven is part of what makes it a little bit less persuasive. Even Sonja points out that this is precisely the version of heaven Colton got from every story and song they ever sang to him. But Colton confidently begins going up to, for instance, kids who are hospitalized with cancer and, unbidden, grabbing their hands to tell them everything will be fine, which is received as comforting and welcome for whatever reason, and not as perhaps off-putting from a strange four-year-old.

Todd is presented with a crisis, which is just how literally he should take Colton's story of heaven. He consults an academic who tells him that there are plenty of non-heaven explanations for what Colton described, not that she means to take any "magic" away from him. (The way she sneers the word "magic" is one of a few places when the film has a keen ear for the way that religious people are indeed sometimes spoken to that they are perfectly capable of picking up as belittling.) He grills Colton on the experience. He - seriously - Googles "near-death experience." At first, that last move seemed absurd, but I came to think it was charming. I mean, what would you do in such circumstances?

Unfortunately, whatever charm the movie has built to this point is overmatched by the gooey sap that's been slathered all over it, not to mention the endless reminders that this is a Sony product. (Never have you seen so many people using Vaio laptops in one movie.) What starts out as a sneaky warmth quickly is swamped by Jesus Is Hiding In That Lens Flare and other far less thoughtful, far more leaden notions.

As is often the case with movies that aren't very good, there are flashes of something interesting here. When a member of the congregation (Margo Martindale) calls friends to pray for Colton during his surgery, there's ... power in those scenes. It comes to light later that Sonja isn't sure she literally believes Colton visited heaven, so you have to wonder whether she literally believes prayer repairs the body, but she seeks the prayers of her friends anyway, and they mean a great deal to her. Those passages are nice, and they really do happen in lots of communities, and there's a lot that could be said about what they mean to people and why. (My family used to be acquainted with a particular nun whose prayers for us I always found enormously comforting, despite the fact that I'm not Catholic.)

What's more, Kinnear and Martindale have an almost jarringly good moment in which she admits that she's very angry about the fact that Colton lived when her son, who was a Marine, died. It's suddenly a very real scene between these two solid actors, and he builds to the question, "Do you think God loves my son more than he loves yours?" There's something in that scene wanting to poke its head out and be alive, but it disappears back into the mush.

If the script had been willing to take a position on its own central conflict - so, does Todd believe Colton traveled in a Biblically meaningful way to a separately existing heaven or not? — it would have been on more solid footing. But in the end, its desire not to be too provocative, along with perhaps the vagaries of the true story on which the film is based, leaves Todd somewhere in the middle. He gives a climactic sermon that says ... well, yes, it's real, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a literal place, because we've all seen heaven in the support of a loving friend, right? This was Colton's heaven. Maybe you have a different one. In other words, the title of the movie should perhaps have an asterisk after it. Or not! Depending!

So it's okay either way. It's enough for people who absolutely believe that heaven literally is a location and contains clouds and angels and a physical green-eyed Jesus, and not too much for people who believe that Colton's story, at least, is not enough to persuade them one way or the other. (You can both be religious and believe in heaven and still believe what happened to this child was not necessarily heaven, of course, particularly in light of the fact that they're clear that he never died on the operating table even briefly.)

I kind of liked this family. I liked Kinnear, I liked his flock (Thomas Haden Church shows up, along with Martindale), I liked the movie's soft-focus sense of humor in the opening scenes. But it's both too enamored of Colton's heaven and too uncommitted to it, in a way, to really have much to say about faith. Which is a shame, because faith really does remain an underexplored idea.

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