Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Parrhesia in Children of Men

Children of Men - Alfonso Cuarón (2006)

"There is absolutely no social criticism, of even the most implicit kind, in science fiction films. No criticism, for example, of the conditions of our society which create the impersonality and dehumanization which science fiction fantasies displace onto the influence of an alien It."

- Susan Sontag, "The Imagination of Disaster," in Gregg Rickmann, ed. The Science Fiction Film Reader (New York, NY: Limelight Editions, 2004), p.111

Writing in 1965, Sontag did not have the opportunity to see Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men. If she had, I'm guessing she would not have been able to make the above statement. Children of Men is most definitely a science fiction film: set in the year 2027 in a world staring down impending disaster because women can no longer become pregnant. And yet the film also operates as a mirror for the present in highlighting problems facing society.

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek relates how the film holds up this mirror to the present:
In Children of Men, there are no new gadgets, London is exactly the same as it is now, only more so— Cuaron merely brought out its latent poetic and social potentials: the greyness and decay of the littered suburbs, the omni-presence of video-surveillance… The film reminds us that, of all strange things we can imagine, the weirdest is reality itself. Hegel remarked long ago that a portrait of a person resembles it more than this person itself. Children of Men is a science-fiction of our present itself.1

What is the present the film is trying to mirror? Compare the screenshots from the film (including the one above) with a couple of U.S. news items that have found significant play recently:

Al Jazeera, Monica Villamizar reporting, Apr 24, 2010

Al Jazeera, Tom Ackerman reporting, May 9, 2009

In Children of Men, in the wake of the political chaos and mass migration caused by humanity's infertility, Britain has shut down its borders and imposed strict penalties on illegal immigrants and those harboring illegal immigrants. The police and military have been given free reign to treat the immigrants as brutally as they wish. And the government is running a propaganda campaign through the media to win over the public to its cause. Clearly, as seen above, the images we get from the film are not unknown to us. We have seen imprisonment, humiliation, and torture of outsiders labeled "illegal immigrants" and "terrorists."

It is happening today, due to a climate of fear. Žižek says that fear is the mode of politics, the mode of mobilizing political groups made up of people who are afraid of immigrants, radicals, too strong of a state, and taxation.2 Fear plays a significant role in how we treat one another as populations come into closer contact in light of globalization. Franco-Bulgarian philosopher, Tzvetan Todorov, adds to this point:
This new contact of populations is, I think, dominated by two major passions, and these two passions come out of a reaction to our inequalities. These two passions are called humiliation and fear. Humiliation is experienced by the powerless toward the more powerful. It encounters on the other side, fear, and fear is just as powerful a source of violence. In fact if we think of major violences of the recent times, they all come out of fear. It is because we were so afraid of what will happen that we accepted torture. And if you are really frightened you get accustomed to different transgressions of the rules of normal life between human beings.3

This climate of fear, Žižek says, is the infertility of today's global society which Children of Men is representing literally. What does our theology have to say about this crisis of fear and injustice and how does Children of Men fit into the theological discussion?

When struck down with a sense of helplessness about these matters, when perhaps, the suggestion that the world is heading for disaster does not seem so far-fetched, it is not inappropriate to question humanity's role in the disaster. However, it is perhaps also apt to wonder: where's God in all of this? The question of theodicy will always, to some extent, indict God. If God was God, why would God allow disaster and evil to run amok?

Eschatology might have an answer to this question. Clearly we are in a time of "not yet." Sin and evil abound. Yet God does not impose on the freedom God granted creation. Eschatology points to the future when God will draw creation back into God's fullness. German theologian Jürgen Moltmann says, "God's being is coming, that is, God is already present because his future decides what becomes of the present. But this also means that he is not present in the way of his unmediated and immediate eternal presence. His future is our presence, and his presence will be our future."4 History, then, says Moltmann, is the time of hope.5 Faith is belief that God will be God, and not only that, but that God will be God for us in bringing creation into God's fullness. It is a matter of faith to stand with the Marys at the empty tomb and in fear and amazement, receive the angel's news that Jesus is going ahead to Galilee and that we will see him, just as he told us.

Yet, what does our hopeful expectation of this future have to do with the present? So far, this eschatology seems rather lukewarm on addressing the dire matters outlined above. Moltmann has an answer to this too: one must view together the expectation for the future and the predicament at hand. He says, "Christian eschatology is not an apocalyptic explanation of the world and also not a private illumination of existence, but the horizon of expectation for a world transforming initiative through which 'the renewal of the world is anticipated in this age in a certain sense."6 We are enlisted through Christ's life and death to be "construction workers" in the Architect's world transforming initiative.

The initiative, if we look to the Bible, always finds God on the side of the humiliated, outsider, and immigrant. Insofar as we participate in sinful societal structures in which fear allows us to turn a blind eye to injustice against the "outcast" among us, we find ourselves indicted. Moltmann says that the proper response to this accusation is "through the verum facere of the Christians [and all others] in their various vocations directed to the world of misery."7 The Latin phrase Moltmann uses means truthful action, action that speaks to the truth of God's loving initiative. Part-and-parcel with this truthful action is truthful speech. Truth speech and action can be practiced by anyone in myriad vocations.

Brazilian theologian Vitor Westhelle also has a word for our discussion when he analyzes the Greek word for truthful speech parrhesia. He uses the word in light of its connection to the cross' full disclosure of the unjust nature of societal and human relations. Parrhesia also means: to speak the truth boldly, or plainly saying it all without reserve.8 Parrhesia has a transgressive quality to it; speaking the truth in this way requires one to be unafraid of breaking the boundaries of the ruling societal narrative and exposing the systems of knowledge, convictions, and power that are propped up by the ruling narrative. 9 As such, parrhesia points to an alternate narrative, one full of hard truths but grace as well. Westhelle notes that the cross, in pronouncing the death of the old narrative, the "law of this age," empowers one to truthful action.10 I would add in eschatological terms: in that we believe in God's fulfilling action throughout history, as well as hope for God's final consummating activity, both of which reveal God's transforming initiative, we are freed and empowered to speak truthfully to the sinful structures of this world.

The next question, then, for this post is: in what way does Children of Men fit in with this eschatological truth-telling? I hope I have made it somewhat clear already that I believe the film engages powerfully with the issues of our time, especially in its imagery. When many Hollywood films shirk from provocative issues, Children of Men is set on exposing them for all to see. Cuarón did not have to feature this particular background to his action-heavy, sci-fi foreground. Already well known for previous work, Cuarón could have played the genre straight, the way Sontag would expect. However, Cuarón took the risk that the film would speak to people despite the "downer" factors in play. Indeed, even though Children of Men met with critical acclaim and three oscar nominations, it lost money at the box office. The Hollywood Reporter’s Risky Business Blog called it "another grim dystopian look at our future that simply cost too much money to make a profit."11 In this way, as a risky bit of filmmaking that holds up a mirror to the ruling societal narrative, I would argue that Children of Men is a form of parrhesia.

A couple of points to support this suggestion. One point to emphasize is Cuarón's use of one-shots, continuous shots of a longer duration, the longest of which runs 454 seconds. In response to the question of why one-shots in an interview with Kim Voynar, Cuarón said:
"Another thing is not to use editing or montage, trying to seek for an effect. It is to try to create a moment of truthfulness, in which the camera just happens to be there to just register that moment. So that leads into the long shots. Because then you just register the moments as they go. So what becomes important, then, is not the camera, but the moment. If you are going through life and something happens, you don't have the luxury of going, 'Stop, stop, guys, and let me get a close-up!'"12

In attempting to create these moments of truthfulness, Cuarón allows the material of the film to speak rather than trying to control it. The gritty, documentary feel of these shots (which are also the result of the set design) add a somber air of realism to the scenes; they are unblinking in their portrayal of this future/present dystopia. Holding onto the truthfulness of the moment, rather than cutting away, Cuarón creates a tension that draws the viewer into the filmic world. Perhaps the idea is that, having been drawn into the world of the film, the viewer can more easily become involved with the ways in which this world reflects back on the world off-screen. Thus, accusations of the film being a "downer" betray real involvement on the part of the viewers; the film is hard to watch because it touches a nerve in its viewers. They also reveal Cuarón's commitment to speaking the truth about our times.

Lastly, the film portrays a sensitivity to the underdog (running parallel to God's world-transforming initiative). For one, the film gives special attention to the background characters. The caged immigrants and refugees are not only part of the landscape in which Cuarón's protagonists move; they are the silent soul of the film, driving Theo (Clive Owen) to protect Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and her baby as a hope for all, but especially for the downtrodden. Second, there is the character of Kee, a young woman who comes to be pregnant when no one else is so blessed. Kee and her baby should be the miracle the world is waiting for. Yet Kee is an immigrant, black, single mother, ostracized from society. Even though it is the first birth in 18 years, we wonder whether the government would recognize the baby since the baby comes from ignoble origins. Cuarón plays up this aspect of the narrative as part of his truth-telling; society rarely treats outsiders with respect, and even less so in times when fear rules. The story is as much about Kee and her baby as it is about the anti-hero Theo, who stumbles into the task of protecting them.

It is the baby that gives Todorov optimism for the future of humanity, even as we sink deeper into self-perpetuated disaster:

"If we have reason not to be fully pessimistic, it is because of basic features of human beings. The human child only becomes independent after something like six or seven years. This means that during one-tenth of our lives we are dependent on others, which is not true of other mammals. So for a long time, we all know that our small ones are completely helpless and we have to protect them, to nourish them, to take care of them. This attitude, of which every single human being has been the beneficiary, is inscribed if not in our genes, at least in our minds. This means that we in some instinctive way know that we can only survive if we take care of the weaker ones, of the baby."13

Indeed, one scene in particular points to Todorov's hope. Theo, Kee, and the baby, find themselves in the middle of a war between the British military and rebel forces. All hell is broken loose, as the military fires shells into the apartment building in which the rebels have taken roost. The three are stuck on the third floor. Yet, the baby begins to cry, and everyone in the building is stunned by the sound; they have not heard a child crying in so many years. Calls for cease-fire ring through the building and out onto the broken streets. As Theo, Kee, and the baby make their way out of the building, the buildings' beleaguered residents reach out to touch the baby. The military men and women give way as well, with looks of wonder on their faces. Some, still clutching their weapons, drop down on their knees while crossing themselves. The baby is more important than their war. There are no questions asked of this vulnerable party of three. Yet as they leave the scene, the gunfire starts again.

It is refreshing to find a film that doesn't flinch from portraying the challenges facing our society. Children of Men does not have easy answers, yet there is hope portrayed in new life. The sound of a baby crying can remind us most viscerally to put aside our worldly concerns and care for the least among us. Christians remember the beginnings of another child of questionable origins every Christmas. Throughout the rest of the year, we trace the child's adult ministry. We note that Jesus was never afraid to say and do the things that would bring about a better world. Truthful speech and action become more attainable in light of the fact that Jesus and God go before us to show the way.

1Slavoj Žižek, “The Clash of Civilizations at the End of History,” 2006.
2Commentaries by Slavoj Zizek, Tzvetan Todorov, Naomi Klein, Saskia Sassen, and Fabrizio Eva, “The Possibility of Hope” bonus feature, Children of Men, DVD. Produced by Alfonso Cuarón et al., Interviews by Riccardo Romani. Universal Studios, 2006.
4Jürgen Moltmann, "Theology as Eschatology," in Frederick Herzog, ed. The Future of Hope: Theology as Eschatology (New York, NY: Herder and Herder, 1970), p.10.
5Ibid., p.21.
6Ibid., p.36.
7Ibid., p.47. Brackets mine.
8Vitor Westhelle, The Scandalous God: The Use and Abuse of the Cross (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), pp.84, 86.
9Ibid., p.90.
10Ibid., p.91.
11"Children of Men: Brilliant But Expensive," The Hollywood Reporter Risky Business Blog, November 19, 2006.
12Kim Voynar, "Interview: Children of Men Director Alfonso Cuaron," Cinematical, Dec. 25th, 2006
13“The Possibility of Hope” bonus feature, Children of Men, DVD.

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