It’s rare that a piece of art – music, film, sculpture, performance – really gets to me. And I don’t just mean “gets to me” like that I want to chat about it on the drive home or talk about it briefly at work the next day when someone asks about my weekend. I mean really reaches into me and makes me physically crouch with emotion. Some music has done this. Some paintings have. Some films – especially films, for they mix several mediums to enable it – drive themselves into my mind to the point where the cinema walls, seats, other patrons, carpet are suddenly truly absent from the experience. The film is all. The film has you. This was the case for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave.
Growing up on the northern beaches in Sydney, I was never really touched by poverty or hardship. We weren’t wealthy compared to other families in the area though, of course, we were almost immeasurably wealthy compared to my fellow people in other communities and in other countries. Though one side of my family had come from war-torn Europe to make a new life and the other side bled rivets due to entrenched working class experience, I never had to deal with anything severely traumatic in my history.
The film I viewed last night boiled the often placid and comfortable historical mindset I hold: that of a typical, middle-class Australian educated professional. House, career, all that.
To watch humans treat other humans with a deliberate, callous and brazen lack of humanity is confronting to me. To hear the screams – so very well documented in thousands upon thousands of records and therefore not all artistic license – of those victims of circumstantial and historical white supremacy affronts my values of fairness, equality and progress. One of the greatest features of Steve McQueen’s directing is, in my wife’s words, that “he doesn’t let the audience get away with it.” This being the ability of a director to hint or suggest or cut away from confronting material. When you watch any of his films, in particular Hunger, Shame or 12 Years a Slave, you will see what we mean.
So for me, the spoilt and wealthy result of decades of western democratic and capitalist progress in a stable and prosperous nation, I can only imagine what this history does to those who have suffered personal or societal trauma of this kind. Our wonderful tour guide Leroy, who’s family have lived in both the South and Washington D.C. for generations.. what would he think of the film? What contribution would it make to his already deep understanding and empathy of the time? What about those for whom slavery is merely a chapter in a textbook? Or for those who deny that it was a blight on the modern world?
I hesitate to begin listing other national or global tragedies, for each one has different significance to different people. For some the death of a family member is much more burdensome than the Holocaust, for one happened to me, the other happened to them. For Germany, who have a word for such concepts as “dealing with the difficult past” and “making good again” (http://hanskundnani.com/2010/11/21/memory-and-moving-on/) how do they incorporate the terrible events of the 1930s and 1940s into the structure of government, the morales of society, the minds and hearts of individuals? Should the current German government or people feel any kind of guilt? Should the current US government or people? Should the Australian government or people feel guilt at the treatment of our indigenous brothers and sisters both in colonial times and more recent?
How we deal with the past reflects present values and concerns. It is so simple and easy to merely employ that most effective of guilt-erasers: forgetfulness. We don’t print that book.. we remove that painting from the gallery.. we decline to fund that film.. we give employment to that lecturer rather than this one.. we choose that topic to teach rather than this one.. we close the book of history and put it on a hard-to-reach shelf.
Of course we can’t think about the difficult parts of our history and societal experience with every fibre of our being at all times. Those who teach or work in the fields of difficult history know they need an emotional and mental break from time to time. Not least because we fall into the pathetically ironic human state of numbness and apathy should we be exposed to too much tragedy and shame.
Some may query why films about Nazi Germany or slavery in America or awful traumas suffered by individuals or societies must be made. Some query why both fiction and non-fiction shelves are heaving and increasingly piled high with historically-based texts. Some deplore how Hollywood keeps falling back on history as a means to tell stories.
It isn’t, I hope, to inoculate us from the past. It isn’t to deploy that weapon of forgetfulness. It’s to resurrect, on a regular and timely basis, the very darkest moments of humanity. It’s to keep our modern societies reminded that though history books may be clean and neatly staked on shelves, the past is certainly not neat nor clean. Though forgiveness and compassion are certainly needed to bridge traumatic divides, we cannot and must not let ourselves forget what has happened (and is happening) to our global family. The only way we forget is if we choose to be blind to the shadow selves stretching back through time, some more enlightened than others. We can walk forward blindly into the future, hands firmly clasped around our eyes and ears. Or we can, from time to time, pause. From time to time, we must turn around. We must face our most base and vile ancestral shadows with a simple but powerful phrase: I know you.
If we don’t, we may keep walking.. but we will become just another shadow.