Sunday, November 22, 2009

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?

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