Saturday, January 31, 2009

Finding Humanity on Film

Yesterday I went to see 'Milk'. There was much to admire in the film and many reasons to feel inspired by the story. Sean Penn was stunning in the depth and nuance of his performance and the man he portrayed shone with warmth, intelligence and unyielding integrity. His story was uplifting, despite its tragic end, for showing a man who fought the good fight against mindless prejudice, who began with a handful of supporters and inspired many more to join a movement, who persisted in the face of hatred and eventually won - small victories that paved the way to greater freedoms. You wanted all your elected officials to be more like Harvey Milk. You wanted to be more like Harvey Milk - a kind, passionate and deeply humane person fighting in a just cause.

And yet I came away unsettled, even disturbed. Because, much as the film celebrated the humanity of its subject, it denied the very same quality to those who fought against him. Anita Bryant and John Briggs, who campaigned to have gay rights repealed and gay teachers in California fired, were portrayed as ignorant, arrogant, Bible bashing bigots - the very antithesis of Milk. And while of course the instinctive reaction of anyone holding liberal views to someone who equates homosexuality with pedophilia is repulsion and condemnation, the minute you strip such people of their humanity you do to them exactly what you accuse them of doing to others. We cannot only empathize with those with whom we agree. The far greater and more important challenge is to find the humanity in those who are not likable, who commit heinous acts, who hold obnoxious views, who dare I say it - blow themselves up for their religious beliefs. Finding their humanity is our only defense against becoming what we purport to oppose.

The last film which I saw with Sean Penn did just that: it found the humanity in someone who your instinct told you to abhor - a murdering rapist. Dead Man Walking, which I finally got around to seeing this summer, was for me an example of one of the supreme ambitions, even duties, of art: it told a story that enabled the viewer to empathize with a character who all our social conditioning has told us to see as inhuman. Although right until the end we did not know whether or not he had committed the crime, and even if he hadn't he was a troubled character, at the last, regardless, his pain and anguish and terror of death were so visceral that you could not but feel for him, could not but be moved to compassion and pity.

I thought for a long time afterwards about how this film in particular and art in general manages to achieve this feat. And I think that it is simply this: it finds the nodes of emotions that we have all felt and uses these as the poles through which to route the connection between viewer/reader and character, a circuitry that enables us to imagine being in someone else's shoes. At a reading this week by Irish Writers protesting the situation in Gaza, one read out an extract from a conscientious objector during World War I in which he made an appeal to rationality as being that which fundamentally separates man and beast. But in many ways this is wrong (or at least only half the truth): that which makes us human is our ability to feel love, hate, shame, anger, hope, despair, our ability to express these emotions in our stories and our art and most crucially of all our capacity to imagine what it must be like to be in someone else's place . None of us has taken another's life but we have all done things that we are ashamed of and we can project this outwards and so grasp the enormity of guilt and remorse that Matthew Poncelet must have felt. None of us has had to sit in a room, handcuffed, and say goodbye to our families, but if we were in that position we would probably feel an impulse to crack a joke. And though none of us have been on death row, we have all at some point felt fear of death and so can imagine the terror of knowing that at a set, appointed time we were going to cease to be. It is this capacity - to feel ourselves and to feel for others - that is ultimately what makes us human. And it is the commonality of that capacity that unites us.

My objection to identity politics is that it denies this. At one point in Milk, after the landmark defeat of Proposition Six, Harvey Milk declares that this is 'a victory for all the us's out there' - the African Americans, the Latinos, the women and the disabled. But setting up binaries of 'us' and 'them', so that 'our' victory is 'their' defeat is so clearly destructive that I feel bored even making the point. Much as it is understandable to emphasize an identity when that identity is used to discriminate against you as a human, it creates a dialectic that drives both sides to the extremes. People often comment on the polarized nature of American society - the liberal havens on the coasts and the deeply religious and conservative interior. But this is no paradox - they feed off each other. And much as I celebrate the victory of the gay rights movement and the hope that it brought, casting it as a victory of the 'us's' rather than a victory of us all is almost as divisive as the acts of discrimination it sought to overturn.


Paul said...

Spot on Michelle.
I expect people involved in a struggle to always co-opt black and white, them and us, rationale in support of their actions. I guess this is just a natural part of the human socialisation process, to define an identity and then to deny the other. Of course sometimes the distinction is important to make - the White Rose, Harvey Milk - "we do not agree with you". The danger however comes in demonising the other, whoever they may be. For example

this BBC article I would see as an example of demonising "the other".
Otherwise how could you believe that a disproportionate attack was justified. (This logic probably isn't solid but my jaw dropped when I read this quote this morning)

All of that said I think the most crucial and important point that you're making is not about the actors themselves, as how much can we really expect from people in the midst of a struggle to take cog nascence of the other side (in war that's the Geneva conventions, Hague Laws etc... and they're a pretty sobering read), but it is about the reflection process that constitutes the film. The film "should" to some extent be an objective observer, telling a story and to tell it in such binary terms as you've described amounts to propaganda, as you've said the demonisation of the person amounts to the denial of their humanity. The film "should" aspire to more than identity bashing and ask real questions about these people.
Last point, ultimately though maybe the reason most issues are presented in such binary logic is due to pure pragmatics, most people simply think this way in their everyday lives and this is the most disturbing thing. Encouraging that mindset can only be destructive.

Pia Sukanya said...

This is one of the most complex debates I encountered within anthropology and life itself... I agree completely with you Michelle. And perhaps because we're that small percentage of introspective, sensitive types, I'm already playing out the counter-arguments in my head.

The gay community is a community of the 'other', in relation to the mainstream. If I were gay (or any other type of 'other'), I would obviously want to be allowed the same human rights despite my difference. I would ask that I not be discriminated against, be allowed to marry the person i love, or not marry at all and live with the person I choose, and have the same rights as any person in the our man-made 'state' or 'society'.

In choosing a certain lifestyle, my intention would not be to disturb others, or attempt to proselytize, but rather let others live and let me live in peace as well.

And then someone who I am not even disturbing, thinks it is their duty to tell me about me and my choices. About how wrong those choices are, and thus telling me in no uncertain terms that I am not fit to live within 'their' society.

My reaction as a human being would be to fight for my place within the world in which I was born. There are so few people in the this world who are blessed enough to see even their oppressors as people who still retain their humanity. Is it asking for too much from the marginalised to be more humane than the oppressor? Everyone is given that opportunity, but so few have the ability to access that empathy, particularly when they are the ones being persecuted.

I also agree with you that film, as the most wide-reaching medium of entertainment also has a moral responsibility to encourage that hopeful perspective of humanity and compassion. In our small way, it is our personal attempt to make films and tell stories with that very point of view - in fact within all four of our films. Yet some would argue that there is nothing wrong with an honest portrayal of the way human beings react and have reacted through history when put in situations where they are made to assert their identity because they are not allowed to express their natural identity or choices under normal circumstances. Thus continues the vicious cycle where the oppressed soon becomes the oppressor of those 'other' than themselves.

But bravo for reminding us again.

Michelle D'Arcy said...


A lot to process, and thank you for taking the time to respond so fully and deeply. I completely understand how a certain part of your identity can become much more important if it is used against you as a point of discrimination. But I feel that ultimately to retreat into otherness is dangerous. We all have many layers to our identity - gender, nationality, race, religion, sexual orientation - and different aspects come out more at different times. when you are abroad, you become very conscious of your nationality, at a wrestling match of your gender, perhaps. And if someone is constantly emphasizing only one of these, it is understandable that it begins to over ride. But its vital to remember that you are always all of these things and that you do an injustice to yourself, to the richness of your humanity to put one above all the others. The reason why I think we must try to realize that we are human before everything else - that in the ranking of identities it must be first is that this is our only defense against the us and them, and the us and them is the first step on the path to the worst abuses we are capable of. It is asking a lot of the oppressed to see the humanity in their oppressors but it is because fundamentally i have faith in humanity and its ability to construct its own reality that ill set it up there as the bar. And because it has been cleared - perhaps most persuasively by Gandhi. He, each religious text in its purest utternace and every artist worth their salt, realize that empathy is entirely possible, the most incredible and humbling of human emotions. To bow to a view that we must split the world into binaries of us and them just to make sense of it is to begin to create that world and to myopically ignore the many episodes in history that contradict it. Of course the tendency, temptation even, is there. But as with everything else, when presented with evidence of both, you must choose which to focus on, in full awareness that the other also exists, precisely for the purpose of tipping the balance. Art of course can, and must, give honest portrayals of how humans do react, not just how we would like them to. It must hold up the mirror. But I objected to the glorification of it - this for me was not honest or merely reflective, it was editorial. And it is not because I dont passionately defend gay rights - I do - but I strongly feel it should be framed in the language of inclusion - because then I can fight as vociferously for those rights as the gay community. I realize that this may sound naive, or at best the misguided ideas of someone who has never really experienced true discrimination. And while the latter is true I would hope that through film and art and an engaged attempt at empathy, that I could in part understand how it is to be in someone elses place. And if we could all do this a little more, then perhaps it would be harder to distinguish and discriminate against an 'other'.