By Mary Summerbell
Themes. Common themes. Unifying ideas. Universal experiences and feelings. These are what I like to look for in cinema when I attend the Beloit International Film Festival. Since these films are mostly quite current, with such diverse subjects and perspectives from all over the world, and addressing issues that contemporary moviemakers find most relevant, I find it a good place to take the pulse of humanity, to check in on what current consciousness is focusing on. What are the trends, if any, and what do they mean for the evolution of our planet? How can they help me, help us, fit personal daily intentions and activities into the relevant changes taking place here and now in our world?
As I’m watching I look for what I like to call evidence of Spirit at work in the world. Stories that are positive, optimistic, uplifting. Stories of the human spirit triumphant over all obstacles. Inspiring stories, no matter how dark or sad. Transformation stories.
From this past season there are four that I’d like to highlight here.
The first is “Beneath the Blindfold” – a documentary of four case studies of torture survivors. It presents “the reality of life after torture,” of people “building new lives, new careers, and new relationships” while trying to “heal deep physical and psychological wounds.” It tells how they overcome trauma to speak out against any form of torture in the world.
The next is “Refuge: Stories of the Self-help Home.” This film profiles six people from a Jewish retirement home in Chicago, now in their eighties and nineties, who are among the few final survivors of Nazi persecution. They are part of a group showing incredible courage, resilience and character in their efforts to create a new, supportive community in America after losing homes, careers, family and friends in World War II.
“They Drew Fire” comes also out of World War II – as seen through the eyes of soldier artists who were then in the American armed forces. It showcases the many drawings and paintings created from combat experiences by those enlisted to do so by the United States military.
“Things We Don’t Talk About: Women’s Stories from the Red Tent” is a contemporary feminist look at a worldwide movement of women creating red fabric sacred spaces where they can safely “gather to rest, renew and often share deep and powerful stories about their lives.” These protective environments each uniquely provide a place where women honor, support and celebrate each other.
In each of these films there were many individualized ways that each person came to move past their particular personal trauma into a new, better reality. Each person’s situation and responses are unique. But what I saw in all of them was a common theme of people using art and community, and art in community, to heal from all wounds. Most were not professional artists, but different people throughout used writing, drawing, painting, theater, music and dance as avenues of healing.
In “Beneath the Blindfold” a woman used poetry and speeches to give voice to her story, her feelings and her political views. Another person wrote a one-man play in which he repeatedly recreates his own ordeal in an effort to prevent it from happening to anyone else. Another victim of torture wordlessly joined in drumming and dancing at a support group meeting. One of the women from “Refuge” is a well-known artist, with paintings on display in museums. She had nightmares from her Holocaust experience. The nightmares stopped after she started painting. One of the soldier artists from “They Drew Fire” spoke movingly of the brotherhood, the camaraderie he felt with his fellow soldiers, saying that he wanted his art to honor those lifesaving bonds.
Healing touch and the healing arts were also tools of renewed health. One woman in “The Red Tent” who had been badly traumatized was simply held in silence by a circle of women for as long as she wanted and needed to be held. Most of these women were strangers to her, but the tent made way for this healing connection. Afterwards, the woman said that once you have been loved that much, all you want to do is give love back.
What a story. So many deeply touching stories. Dark and sad, but ultimately victorious in telling of ongoing efforts to cope with, to overcome personal loss and pain to gain a new balance, and heal, and be happy in society. These are not stories of people living in desperate isolation, but of people finding and creating encouragement and support in community. Of people reaching out through all forms of art to tell their stories, making every art the ultimate art of storytelling.
Art creates community. Community creates art. Each inspires the other in infinite cycles, in mutually reciprocal relationship, like a figure eight. Even when an individual creates alone – and creativity can be a solitary endeavor – sharing creates a bond between creator and observer. I am alone, writing these words. But, as you read them, they are a link between you and me. A connection of community. A connection that can be between friends, acquaintances, or absolute strangers. A connection, as in every art, that can overcome distance and age and differences and continue into time in deep and lasting and profoundly healing ways. We touch each other in community through art. We touch each other through art in community.
I pose the question of whether art can be without sharing. Without a witness, is it art? Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, making or not making a sound, depending on how we define sound, maybe the presence of community defines art. But that’s fodder for another day’s discussion. For now, what can we take from these four film festival movies that we can apply to our lives, to change our daily behavior in an uplifting way? How can we be Spirit at work in the world?
According to “Blindfold” there are 500,000 survivors of torture currently living in the United States. That’s an average of 10,000 per state. Odds are we’ve all unknowingly met someone who is one. It could be our neighbor. Or the person standing next to us in line at the grocery store. Or in the car in front of us in traffic. People don’t wear tags or signs that identify them as being survivors of, or currently in, trauma or abuse. You never know what burden the person standing next to you is carrying – what they’ve been through, or what they’re going through now. And we all have bad days.
So let’s be nice to each other. Let’s practice the art of kindness in our daily lives. Many times I have been lifted by simply, silently, making eye contact with someone, sometimes each greeting the other with the slightest nod of acknowledgement as our paths cross in daily activity. My heart feels ever the slightest flutter, and I hope the other person feels it, too. We may never see each other again, but we connected a bit in that instant. Sometimes that’s all it takes to make life a little better, a little more meaningful. Let’s do it.