Monday, September 24, 2012

What Are the Preoccupations of Our Time?

In August, 1986, I read an article in Harper's called "Reflections in a Glass Eye:  A Videocassette Best-Seller List."  From the themes of the ten, top-selling videos, the author, David Black, drew conclusions about the preoccupations of the late 1980s:  the zeitgeist.  Black showed how all 10 videos, which included Jane Fonda's workout video and Rambo, shared themes which pointed to the struggles and values of the day.

One can attempt this exercise with any selection of current cultural artefacts, from top ten iTune songs to current best-selling novels.  Because of its international flavour, the just-concluded Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) might be an excellent lens through which to view our times.

TIFF screened 289 feature films from 72 countries.  I attended 13 of these.  My films were chosen somewhat randomly by friends curious about international trends and familiar with the track records of various directors.  Spoiler Alert:  The spoilers are minimal - but with the exception of Argo and Midnight's Children, it is unlikely very many of these films will come your way.

What was the weather of your film selections?
My films overall were quite stormy and dark - not a single comedy.  The funniest was Argo which involved rescuing Americans who were hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador during the 1979 hostage taking.  It had sharp, humorous banter, but overall very dark.

What was the "season" of your film selections?
Arab spring (After the Battle) quickly becomes Arab winter; A Few Hours of Spring:  winter; A Late Quartet:  winter.

Does anyone win?
People mostly lose or gain a bitter victory.  For example, in A Few Hours of Spring, a woman takes advantage of a company in Switzerland that offers death with dignity to terminally ill patients.  While she fights with her son throughout the entire movie, they are only able to express their love for one another after she takes the life-ending concoction.

In Out in the Dark, a gay Palestinian student and an Israeli lawyer develop a beautiful love relationship, but the student's family want him dead and the Israeli military want him to betray the militants in his family.  Lose-lose-lose

In After the Battle, angry, frustrated Egyptians want freedom from dictatorship.  In the end, it seems one set of generals are replaced by another set.

The Attack begins with an Israeli-Palestinian surgeon being acclaimed by the Israelis for his contributions.  We gradually discover that he's not really trusted by the Israelis nor by his Palestinian relatives.  Meanwhile, his wife becomes a suicide bomber.  Dark dark dark.

What is the dominant imagery of the films?

Walls and borders - all kinds of walls:  walls around the pyramids, separating villagers from a source of livelihood; walls around the Palestinian territories; walls of small rooms where people are crowded; walls preventing communication between mother and son, between men and women; and borders thrown up between India and Pakistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh; borders thrown up all over post-war Germany.

Walls suggest separation, and walls also imply prisons.  People in these films are trapped and, if they transcend their own prejudices, they are trapped by the prejudices of their society.  Sarah Polley's mother in Stories We Tell feels trapped in her marriage; the characters in Midnight's Children are all trapped by the circumstances of their birth. Shira in Fill the Void feels trapped into a marriage she doesn't want.  To a certain extent, all the characters of all the movies are trapped by their socio-economic status, race, and religion.  Escape is attempted, but only occasionally successful.  Hannah Arendt escapes from Nazis and goes to Eichmann's trial to try and understand the evil she faced.  Wandering through the landscape of post-war Germany, Lore, a child of Nazis, gradually escapes from the tyranny of the beliefs she inherited.  In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez  escapes from the greed and materialism of the corporate world.

Does redemption seem possible?
Midnight's Children is on some level a search for home and family.  Saleem creates a surrogate family, a baby lives, and magic is alive.  (In Inch'Allah the baby dies.  InThe Attack a lot of babies die.  Note:  No matter what the genre, babies represent hope; dead babies represent hopelessness.)  Fill the Void is redeemed by the compassion of the rabbi.  He will not perform a marriage if Shira's heart is not in it.  In A Late Quartet, the power of beautiful music redeems all the characters.

Can you draw any conclusions about our times?
  • These are dark times.
  • Dictators fall, but there are always more dictators.
  • The country you love will not necessarily protect you.
  • Your birth family will not necessarily protect you, but any family based on love and compassion is your true family.
  • Humans seek peace and freedom through politics, but also through love and art.
The films were
  1. After the Battle (Egypt, Yousry Nasrallah)  Poor people living outside the wall around the pyramids are befriended by one of the rich activists who is protesting against Mubarak in Tahrir Square.  
  2. Out in the Dark (Israeli/USA, Michael Mayer) A gay Palestinian falls in love with an Israeli.  
  3. Stories We Tell (Canada, Sarah Polley)  Sarah Polley goes in search of her bio-daddy and finds her mother.
  4. Inch'Allah (Canada, Anais Barbeau-Lavalette)  A French-Canadian works in the West Bank, but lives on the Israeli side.
  5. The Attack (Lebanon/France/Qatar/Egypt/Belgium, Ziad Doueiri)  A successful Palestinian surgeon working in an Israeli hospital finds out that the latest suicide bomber was his wife.
  6. A Few Hours of Spring (French, Stéphane Brizé)  A trucker screws up his life and ends up in jail.  The film begins with his release from jail when he moves in with his terminally ill mother who is seeking an assisted suicide.  They have some communication issues.
  7. Midnight's Children (Canada/UK, Deepa Mehta)  The political events in 20th century India as experienced by the children born at midnight the day India gained independence from Britain.  Events include the separation of India and Pakistan and the war in Bangladesh.
  8. Lore (Australia/UK/Germany, Cate Shortland)  After their Nazi parents are arrested, five children, led by the oldest, a 14-year-old daughter, cross the destroyed German landscape to their grandparents home.
  9. Fill the Void (Israel, Rama Burshtein)  An orthodox Jewish girl is looking forward to her wedding when her older sister dies in childbirth.  Her family wants her to marry the widower.
  10. A Late Quartet (USA, Yaron Zilberman)  When the cellist and leader of a famous string quartet becomes ill, each member of the quartet has to adapt.
  11. Hannah Arendt (Germany, Margarethe von Trotta)  An examination of the trial of Eichmann through the eyes of Hannah Arendt.  Her conclusions challenge the philosophical community.
  12. Argo (USA, Ben Affleck)  The US government chooses the least worst solution to rescuing six Americans who are hiding in the Canadian embassy after all the others in the US embassy are taken hostage.
  13. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (India/Pakistan/USA, Mira Nair)  A brilliant South-Asian American rises to the top of the financial world, but the all-profit mentality of it (merging companies, slashing jobs) combined with the post-911 harassment of American Muslims, causes him to return to Pakistan.


  1. from newgreen at

    "One can attempt this exercise with any selection of current cultural artefacts, from top ten iTune songs to current best-selling novels."
    -I think if we were to look at the top 10 books, we'd be shocked at the influence of one particular person. I was talking with a manager of a Barnes and Noble store recently and she told me that when Oprah releases her current pick for the Oprah Book Club they will sell close to 100 of them the same day it's announced. Keep in mind it's not announced until 4:00pm. Now thats some major market influence.
    We live in an era of celebrity, when people can tweet "read this" or "see this" and millions follow suit. Crazy.

    I don't think the times we are living in are overly "dark" in reality, I do think this is how they are reported to us via the media. Over 90% of the news and information we receive is "negative". Do you think that over 90% of your interactions and experiences outside of media are negative? I sure don't.

    Hope you enjoyed the festival.

  2. I don't believe the darkness is just a construction of the media. Artists are witnesses to our times. They select one lens through which to view the whole. They create, they interpret, they focus, but they also reflect.