Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Morning within Ourselves

Long Night’s Journey into Day - Frances Reid, Deborah Hoffman, 2000

To what extent can a human being forgive the killing of her beloved ones? Why should one chose amnesty instead of punishment, forgiveness in the place of revenge?

A sensitive and haunting look into the functioning of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, The Long Night’s Journey into Day documents four cases of violent killings in apartheid-ruled South Africa. It starts rather unexpectedly with the killing of a young white anti-apartheid American activist by an enraged black man with no knowledge of his victim. The reaction of the young woman’s parents, who decide to continue her work in South Africa and come to meet the killer’s family in an attempt of healing through forgiveness, is one of the most successful outcomes of this whole reconciliation process. We sense that, by this measure, each and every instance of success is invaluable.

In the stories that follow, the victims are alternately black and white, while the perpetrators are either apartheid officials or national liberation fighters. The perpetrators’ testimonies range from acknowledging the facts, owning the guilt and apologizing, to acknowledging the facts but not seeing any guilt (contradicting therefore the main purpose of the declaration) to denying the victims’ description of the facts. The victims who do not get any moral acknowledgement, let alone apologies, are likely to question the purpose of this whole process, as not only there is no real benefit for them, but they need to uncover painful memories. This is one of the aspects the commission has been criticized for.

The film speaks to us on several levels: an informative one, a moral and philosophical one, a psychological and emotional one. We are informed, put in the context of the facts, meeting the victims and the perpetrators. Their testimonies and apologies (at times) bring the moral notions into discussion: Is the political motivation enough for an excuse? To what extent the political is often overcome by a personal uncontrollable rage? How would the criteria of a “proportional relationship between the political objective and the violations” apply in each context? On the psychological and emotional level, we face the victims’ reactions to the perpetrators’ testimonies, their turmoil in going from reliving the hell of the past to the reality of the men in front of them, and the ordeal of putting a long postponed cry of despair into words of forgiveness. We can’t help but ask ourselves: are we ready to empathize with the perpetrators of violence, see them as human, forgive them for the killings we just acknowledged? We watch them going back to their homes, churches, families, getting on with their lives. Can we (who are not the victims!) put all these together, without a feeling of frustration and un-accomplishment? Once we get to these questions, we touch on the controversy of the whole TRC process, of the stated choice of restorative justice over retributive justice, of its distancing from a prosecution process.

The movie suggests a compelling answer to these questions: it is possible, we can do this, as being all human, and therefore fundamentally the same with the group of mothers who, with tears in their eyes, tell their son’s killer they forgive him; or like the white couple who embraced the family of the young man who killed their daughter. Although not in our comfort zone (as I continue to believe that the first human reaction to such a violence is of revenge and fight back), our ability to transcend our primal reaction, to reach out through our humanity, is still there ready to be activated, with a bit effort of overcoming our atavistic condition. As some of the people interviewed in the movie point out, including Arch. Desmond Tutu who put forth this concept, there is a cathartic value to the process of acknowledging facts and guilt, for both victim and perpetrator. There is a potential of human transformation through this, towards a larger goal of learning the history and not repeating it. Talking about what affected her most during the making of this film, Deborah Hoffman said in an interview taken by Donna Carter: “Meeting just these wonderful, and terrible people, and meeting these commissioners and meeting these perpetrators and realizing they were just, at each extreme, they really were just regular people. At a certain point they either made the decision to be incredibly weak and stupid, or they made the decision to be incredibly committed, and they made a difference.
I just came away being incredibly inspired and I realized that we all have a lot more power in the course of the world than I understood before.”

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Solution: Acknowledging the History and Owning the Guilt

Lessons in Fear – James Cullingham, 2006

This Canadian documentary portrays the fear and hate as states of mind, being a picture of a group of people living in constant tension and conflict. It shows the efforts made by different communities (both Israeli and Palestinian) to come out of this situation, focusing mostly on youth and their educational experience. The teachers in these communities think the kids, the teenagers especially, need to know the history and to understand the frame of the past events, even if this past reality is hard to be accepted. The hope of a possible peaceful cohabitation of these populations remains only in the educated ability of overcoming the differences through dialogue, in an open minded approach of the other not as an opponent but as a possible friend, partner, neighbor. It takes a real commitment for the Jewish girl to be able to put aside the common perception of Palestinians as violent and dreadful, but once she makes it, she is surprised to discover in the Palestinian boy she agrees to meet a human being very much like herself – they both share an inherited conflictual perception of each other as representatives of their peoples, perception artificially nurtured by fear, preconceptions and hate. The film is about the concerted efforts of a few to eliminate this heritage of hate. It’s also about the reality of the huge gap between these grass-roots efforts and the politicians/leaders’ interests.

We meet teachers, students, scholars, researchers, political leaders – we accompany most of them at school, at work, at home, on the street. Their interviews are illustrated with images of their daily life. Some are Palestinians, some are Jews, all have to deal with the same fearful, violent present day reality. The film does not keep sides, doesn’t point one way or another, it doesn’t look for the guilty. It communicates the frustration and anger of the people. It shows the power of human contact, the wonder of acknowledging the humanity in all of us. The change, it seems to be said, could come from this level of person to person interaction. But what are the real chances of these humanist undertakings, in the bigger picture of the political and economical interests of the ones in power?

Equally powerful, focusing on the adult population, is a similar undertaking by two journalists living in America. Jamal Dajani, a Palestinian-American, and David Michaelis, an Israeli citizen, decide to go to Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories, and walk the fine line of dialogue, armed with their friendship and the determination to look for any possible signs of change towards peace. They visit scholars – intellectual moderates, as well as extremists from both sides. At times, they have to skillfully enforce and sustain a dialogue, through means of rewording controversial points of view – in order to be recognized by both sides, the relation of Palestinians as victims versus Israelis as oppressors has to be framed within justifiable albeit fabricated reasons. The people have a hard time acknowledging the history, and even understanding the meaning of their own acts (as 18 year-old soldiers are ordered by the Israelis to kill the Palestinian “terrorists” by throwing grenades over the Arab houses), as they are brain washed and kept with the eyes covered. However, there are a few who start to see, who are detaching themselves from the official policy, who start asking questions and taking a different stand. These is were the two filmmakers see the hope, the glimpse of a light at the end of the tunnel.

Occupied Minds – Jamal Dajani, David Michaelis

Sacrifice: A Detail in the Greater Picture of Hope

En Route to Baghdad - Simone Duarte, 2005
Talk Mogadishu: Media Under Fire - Judy Jackson, 2004

Here are two documentaries portraying the heroism of individuals who dedicate themselves to the betterment of the community – be it a people, a larger ethnic group, or the population of a city or country. The family life of these heroes becomes secondary, while their own life is constantly in danger and sometimes lost. Despite these, they remain passionate about what they are doing. This passion is visible in the way they deal with conflict and cope with obstacles, and is nurtured by the confidence these people have in their own mission, in their power to bring about the change.

Rather than mere presentation of remarkable facts and individuals, these films lead us to a close encounter with the characters. For the UN diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello, the ability to connect with people is a gift he has and uses to open up unexplored, even mined territories. We learn about the informal aspects of his negotiations with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, or of his meeting with King Sihanouk of the same country. His actions may seem controversial and are sometimes subject of critiques, but he sticks with his plans and accomplishes the impossible. The film is a testimony about a man who brings his whole persona to the support of the national identity and human rights of different groups of people. We hardly get to know anything about his family, but we still get the feeling we met him personally – as we see him laughing together with the president of newly independent East Timor, or we hear about him hiding his tears after leaving his heart in the place of another successful mission. The strength of the film stands in catching the mere essence of its hero: the humanity of Vieira de Mello touches the humanity of each and every person he encounters, and this micro-dynamic exchange is the ferment of the big, global changes he authors.

For the three Somali-Canadian journalists who build the radio and TV station HornAfrik in Mogadishu, dialogue and communication are the vital ways of taming and socially educating a nation caught in wild violence. They take on a difficult and risky job, as Somalia is the second most dangerous place to be a journalist, after Iraq. But, they are committed to building a civil society by showing the Somali that, in order to be part of the modern world, one has to demonstrate reasons and responsibility for his own acts, and ability to sustain a dialogue and a non-violent debate. We follow these journalists from their homes and families in Ottawa to their office in the middle of the violent Mogadishu. We witness their every day struggle and victories, as they are trying to keep the broadcast up and going under repeated fire attacks. We feel the tension in the live interviews with the warlords, the emotion of the audience involvement during a broadcast presenting homeless children, the suffering of the kids who, back at home, don’t see their fathers for years, their wives’ determination to fully support them. We are thrilled as a nation’s voice is shaping in front of our eyes – we sense that, amidst violence, setbacks, and skepticism, this is a historical beginning. I think the sequence that speaks for the tragic beauty of this film is the one showing the HornAfrik people seating or standing around the one dish from which they are all eating, laughing jokingly as good old friends, while the camera is slowly changing the focus from their food to the tip of the gun held by one of them. We see here, in a nutshell, on one hand the enthusiasm of a nascent community, on the other, the necessary awareness of the constant dangers – both optimism and vulnerability specific to a revolutionary beginning.

The results of a work done with passion remain invaluable. However, there is always a price to be paid, for going all the way. Sergio Vieira de Mello dies tragically, but his legacy of profound changes in the life of so many people remains the living proof of what can be achieved. More intense and actual, the Somali journalists undertaking is a process in the making. The film brings us a moment of this process and with it, the hope of a future long-term transformation of this society. However, stepping out of the film’s moment (2003), we learn that this change is still far away: one of the three journalists founders of HornAfrik was assassinated in 2007. Is there a balance between sacrifice and hope? Can we remain optimistic, and, more importantly, are we ready to take their places?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens - David and Albert Maysles, 1976

The ability to show the beauty hidden behind weirdness.
The embracing look, the loving camera revealing the jewels that sparkle even more, surrounded by trash as they are.
Reality, or fiction? Poverty, or aristocracy?
Choosing to live outside societal rules. Surviving a solitary present enlightened only by a socially glorious past.
Walking the fine line between what we are and what we think we could have been - blaming the others for our perceived failures. Can one actually objectively asses her own evolution? I guess not as we'll always dream of passed what if's...
Detached from the world, serene and contradictory, cultivated - indulging in aristocratic pleasures of book discussions, singing and dancing, swimming in the ocean, feeding the raccoons and the cats, mother and daughter live in a fairy tale, a sad fairy tale glowing with beauty. Their show of self sufficiency and self content is built on nostalgia, regrets and denial.

The Maysles Brothers make us feel about Big and Little Eddie Beale - we are astounded by their contrasts, and as we get to know them, we are torn between joy and awe. We care about them, by the end of the film, and we wonder how our caring would (or would have) change(d) their life, as it is certain that Maysles' gentle eye changed something in their destiny.

What is the effect of the artist on his subject's life?