By some reckonings, only eleven countries in the world are currently “conflict-free.” Everywhere else civil war, rampant gang killings, foreign invasions, or oppressive police states threaten citizens’ lives. In many war zones, most of the victims are children (half of the 100,000 civilian casualties in the recent battle for Mosul, for instance); they die not just of the violence perpetrated around them, but of diseases caused by contamination where water and sewage systems have been destroyed, or by political sanctions that make medication and emergency services widely unavailable. We hear the word “war” so often, it is hard to sustain either the moral outrage or the lively compassion it ought to awaken in us.
Compassion requires imagination. One of the most compelling reasons to see films and read stories about people who live under radically different conditions than those we enjoy, who suffer differently, pray differently, celebrate differently, raise their children, cope with fear, and enjoy humor differently is to bring them into our circle of concern. We can only care deeply about those who do not remain abstractions. Though Susan Sontag raised troubling and important questions about the sometimes numbing effect of war photos or images of others’ suffering in her final, insightful book, Regarding the Pain of Others, she also acknowledges the power of such images, and the way they shape our moral imaginations and direct our sympathies.
These past months have brought more frequently to our collective attention the plight of refugees driven from home countries and threatened in ours. Violence, disease and famine have led refugees to pile into substandard boats that ferry them to their deaths offshore, just miles from relative freedom, or into trucks where some die of heat stroke where they hoped to find work. As these things happen many of us are trying to inform ourselves a little more diligently about what’s going on in those countries, how people are coping, and what we can possibly do to help. Some days it’s hard to summon even the desire to do the reading, since so much of it (though not all, because grace and goodness break through in the darkest places) is about human suffering.
Film helps. A remarkable number of foreign films are being produced and shown at film festivals, over independent media, on YouTube channels, and at gatherings in homes and churches that feature stories, factual and fictionalized, we need to hear about those who live outside our national borders and sometimes beyond the limits of what we have learned or experienced. Janelle Brown in Salon.com says of Middle Eastern films, “The cinema of this region is extraordinarily rich, with intelligent, beautiful, heartbreaking and terrifying films from countries like Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, and Israel.” Pituka Ortega Heilbron, a film festival director in Central America observes of cinema there, ““It’s a very exciting time, a bit like the situation in Asian cinema a few years ago. . . . Film is a form of expression and of protest. It’s such a powerful medium. When a population is presented on the screen, it suddenly exists.” On screens everywhere in this country, we are discovering populations with whom we share “this fragile earth, our island home,” all its beauties and dangers and life-support systems.
One of those screens is located in a spacious upper room at Berkeley First Presbyterian Church. For four Friday evenings this August people will gather there, hosted once again by New College Berkeley, for the pleasure of seeing a film that will open our curiosities and our sympathies in new directions and reflecting on it together. One is a story of native missionaries threatened by violence in Liberia; one of Israeli and Palestinian families brought together in spite of themselves; one of a faith journey in Japan that costs “not less than everything”; and one about the culture shock of relocating to the U.S. Each of them, in its way, will invite us to travel a little (or a lot) outside our comfort zones.
Movies are two-dimensional. The best of them distill, the worst simply reduce, rich, layered stories of complex human lives into two hours, more or less, cutting from scene to scene, eliding long stretches of “ordinary time.” There’s only so much even the best of them can do to bring us face to face with the suffering of a child in Mosul or the tensions of a family of Central American refugees wondering if the next knock on the door will be an ICE agent. It matters immensely that churches organize mission trips for youth or tours for elders to actual places where they wouldn’t necessarily book their next vacation. For those who can’t afford such expeditions, it matters to venture into San Francisco’s Tenderloin, or Skid Row in L.A. and have at least one or two conversations. Even people who grew up here sometimes come from far countries. Every time we can hear one of their stories we are likely to learn something about sorrow and loss. We are also likely to learn something about the cunning it takes to survive, about the deals people make with life to keep living, and sometimes about the profound ways they manage to forge community, love their neighbors in the midst of chaos, and find hope at the very threshold of hell.