The pleasure of a good conversation

Anticipating the 71st Conference on World Affairs

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CWA brings global experts in myriad subjects to Boulder for one week each spring.
Art by Carlea Kiddoo

For one week each spring, throngs of people overrun the University of Colorado’s picturesque campus seeking the pleasure of a good conversation at the Conference on World Affairs. Despite the highfaluting name, the Conference on World Affairs (CWA to regulars) has no prescribed academic bent handed down from upon high, does not bestow visiting scholars with awards and has no defined direction. For these reasons and more, there is little about CWA that is dull. Talking during a movie is encouraged, dancing breaks out in Macky Auditorium during the annual jazz concert and no one nods off during a lively debate about the merits of sex with robots.

And what do CU students and the community get out of this? Almost 200 panels, performances and movie screenings completely free and open to the public. Try shaking a stick at that.

How does CWA do it? By inviting over 100 speakers and performers from all over the globe (19 countries will be represented this year) to make their way to Boulder on their own dime and having them stay in guest bedrooms provided graciously by local supporters. Speakers are asked to add their voices to panels covering a wide range of topics — some of which they are experts in, others in which they are not. And for this, they receive no remuneration.

An odd set of rules, sure, but they have come to define the soul of CWA. And experts across the globe come; they come to discuss science and technology, politics and media, art, business, international affairs and the human condition. Many of them come back year after year. In keeping with a strategic plan set a few years back, nearly 60 percent of this year’s speakers will be first-timers. Bummed your favorite from last year isn’t coming back? Fret not; they were most likely asked to hold off until next year so the program committee could make room for new faces and ideas.

And who puts this all together? The Boulder community and CU students, volunteers all. Helmed by CU associate professor of political science John Griffin as faculty director, Laurie Hathorn as community chair and Margaret Hollingsworth as program chair, the CWA team invite speakers, envision topics, build panels and program the conference. In the interest of full disclosure, I was on the program committee from 2015–2018 as the chair of the Film Subcommittee. This year I join the conference merely as an invited moderator, hence why I, with shameless self-promotion, open this batch of recommendations with one of the conferences’ signature events: Ebert Interruptus.

Thanks to the advent of DVD and Blu-Ray technology, watching a movie a frame at a time can be an everyday activity, but the beauty of Ebert Interruptus is the discussions that ensue. Named in honor of Roger Ebert — Chicago Sun-Times film critic and longtime CWA speaker — the Interruptus program was first brought to Boulder in 1975 with a weeklong discussion and dissection of Citizen Kane using a stop-action 16mm projector — the kind football coaches used to study game film. The idea was simple: While watching the movie, if anyone in the audience saw something noteworthy, they yelled, “STOP,” and the movie was brought to a halt while the person spoke. Others jumped in to contribute or contradict, and once the mini-conversation concluded, the movie rolled on, usually for another 20 seconds or so before someone else saw something and yelled, “STOP!”

“Every year we find something absolutely amazing, totally amazing, in the films. It’s not there, but we find it,” Ebert once said. CWA founder Higman called it “Democracy in the dark,” and it has gone by many other names: Persona, How to Read a Movie, Decoding a Movie, Analyzing a Film, Cinema Interruptus and, after the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s death in 2013, Ebert Interruptus. The name has stood ever since.

Guiding this year’s Ebert Interruptus is returning CWA favorite Josh Larsen, a Chicago-based critic and co-host of the popular podcast Filmspotting.

2019 is Larsen’s third year at the conference, and like his previous two Interruptuses, Larsen once again breaks new ground by selecting Wall-E, Disney/Pixar’s 2008 masterpiece.

Wall-E © Disney/PIXAR. All Rights Reserved.

Previous Larsen picks include: Rushmore, the first time a comedy was given the Interruptus treatment; and Mad Max: Fury Road, the first time an action movie was discussed, Wall-E will be the first animated movie to take center stage. And considering Wall-E’s remarkable images, spectacular story structure and clever cultural commentary, few films are as worthy of such a dissection.

According to director Andrew Stanton, Wall-E was born as an idea roughly 10 years before the little trash-compactor graced the silver screen. At the time, the concept of humanity fleeing Earth as the refuse piled higher and higher was a perfect science-fiction idea. Over the 10-year development, fiction slowly became fact, and in the eleven years since Wall-E’s release, the movie’s ecological bent seems even more prescient.

Practically all CWA panels are family friendly — consult your guide to be on the safe side — but Wall-E, in particular, is the perfect entry point for students and younger community members interested in what the conference is all about. Join the conversation in Macky Auditorium, Tuesday–Friday, 3:30–5 p.m. Larsen will be hosting our discussion in the dark; I’ll be the one running the Blu-Ray player.

     

Keeping with the theme of firsts, 2019 will be the first year CWA does not screen the movie in its entirety prior to the Interruptus sessions — thankfully, Wall-E can be found online just about anywhere, and the Boulder Public Library system has 10 DVDs you can check out. 2019 also marks the first year where the conference holds panels on a Saturday (CWA starts on a Tuesday this year) to accommodate those who have always wanted to attend, but couldn’t get away from work or school.

2019 also marks the first time in the conference’s history that half of the invited speakers will be women, a long-held goal for the program committee.

Leyla Acaroglu Courtesy of Conference on World Affairs

Opening and closing the conference this year are two notable keynote addresses: Disrupting the Status Quo… By Design (April 9, 11:30 a.m., Macky Auditorium), delivered by Leyla Acaroglu, an Australian designer, sociologist, entrepreneur and United Nations Environment Programmer Champion of the Earth; and the Molly Ivins Memorial Plenary featuring Amy Klobuchar (April 13, 4 p.m., Macky Auditorium), the senior United States Senator from Minnesota and a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.

Peruse CWA’s schedule — found on pages 32-34 of this edition of the Weekly, online at colorado.edu/cwa, in your phone’s app store or in print at several locations around town — and you’ll notice similar keynotes, panels and roundtable discussions. These are the governing themes of the 71st CWA: Design for Connection, Women and Girls Changing the World, and Disruptive Technology.

From the 2016 presidential campaign to on-demand services like Netflix and Uber, disrupters have changed how we interact with the world. Some look at these and focus on the benefits they provide while many only see the harms they hold. But it makes no difference if you skew optimistic or pessimistic, CWA’s Disruptive Technology track has eight panels to breakdown and illuminate how this shift has and will continue to affect us. From autonomous vehicles (Nobody is Driving Miss Daisy, April 10, 9 a.m., Koelbel Business School 210) to artificial intelligence and blockchain (April 12, noon, UMC East/West Ballrooms). Capping it off will be Berit Anderson, the CEO and editor-in-chief of Scout.ai, at Friday’s keynote: The Internet and Humanity (April 12, 10:30 a.m., UMC Center Ballroom).

Disruption got you down? Check out the Design for Connection: Breaking the Bubble track. This collection of seven panels, Tuesday’s keynote and one film screening look at how our built environment shapes who we are, and how we can shape the future through designing that environment and the objects we use to populate it. Check out the sustainability focused documentary Enough White Teacups (April 9, 2:30 p.m., Boulder Public Library Canyon Theater), and your mind is likely to go immediately to Wall-E. Not bad programming there.

But it is the Women and Girls Changing the World track that is bound to attract attention and fill the seats. Comprising six panels, Wednesday’s keynote address — Our Voices, Our Time (April 10, 11 a.m., CASE Chancellor’s Auditorium) — one roundtable, one film (Brave Girl Rising, April 9, 6 p.m., Dairy Arts Center, Gordon Gamm Theater), and a special presentation from Olympic and World Cup Champion Hope Solo, Sports as a Force for Empowerment, Social Activism and Gender Equality (April 12, 3 p.m., UMC Center Ballroom), this is a collection of conversations you won’t want to miss.

Rony Barrack Courtesy of Conference on World Affairs

And there is more, so much more. Former Simpsons’ writer, Mike Reiss discusses his book Springfield Confidential with local writer and co-author, Mathew Klickstein (April 13, 10:30 a.m., Macky Auditorium), along with a special reading to kids big and small with The Big Kid Who Writes Kids’ Books (April 13, 3 p.m., Old Main Chapel). Former NFL player Chris Borland returns for his second year to talk on six panels, from Is Masculinity Toxic (April 9, 4:30 p.m., UMC 235) to Difficult Conversations: Communicating When the Stakes Are High (April 13, 3 p.m., UMC 235). And no CWA would be complete without the conference’s signature jazz concert (April 10, 7:30 p.m., Macky Auditorium). Joining musical director Brad Goode on stage will be the incomparable talents of Cyrille Aimeé, Bijoux Barbosa, Rony Barrak, Howard Levy, Adam Nussbaum, Thom Rotella and Ernie Watts.

     

When Higman started CWA in 1948, it was meant as a one-off tribute to the newly formed United Nations. Much has changed since. There is more transparency in some areas, and the Boulder community has a stronger voice in others, but there have been a number of disputes along the rocky road. Some become attached to particular aspects of the conference and refuse to let go. Others have been unceremoniously left behind. Those clouds will hang over CWA in the years to come, but they won’t linger forever. Each year new participants and new attendees will come along and find something that they love about the conference. They will then nurture that aspect and allow it to blossom and grow, and CWA will change with them.

It is crucial that those who build the conference and those who attend allow it to change further still. Writing in 2008, Ebert reflected on the creation and success of the Interruptus program with thoughts that best capture the spirit of CWA: “The results were beyond my imagination. I wasn’t the teacher and my students weren’t the audience, we were all in this together.”

ON THE BILL: 71st Conference on World Affairs. April 9–13, multiple times and locations. See pages 32-34 for a full schedule.