Faith and film pilgrim and new Pop Theology contributor Kenny Dickson gives us an overview of a selection of films at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival that take oppression and individuals’ efforts to break free as their central themes.
After King David coveted and took Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a loyal soldier fighting the King’s battles, David tried and failed to cover up his offense. When that planned failed, he had Uriah killed in a last gasp attempt to hide his sin. Knowing what happened, God sent the Prophet Nathan to pronounce judgement upon David. To do so, Nathan used a story to lift a mirror before King David so the King could see and convict himself of his sin.
Story-based art forms such as music, literature, plays and film also serve as a mirror reflecting to society its brokenness and distance from God and God’s desires for humanity and all of creation. In addition, film and other story forms offer prophetic words and visions of hope, grace, and new life within the brokenness.
In a macro sense, society needs no reminder of its brokenness, but on the micro level film lifts up the specific, often subtle evidence of it’s brokenness as well as the glaring–if sometimes underground–shards of a humanity at its most depraved. Film also measures the pulse of society by projecting the burdens and fears as well as hopes, needs, and dreams humanity and societies live with and express.
An overview of humanity’s brokenness and longings of those directly victimized by such fracturing was on display during the first 4 days of the Tribeca festival. Though there have been several themes thus far one that has been evident in multiple films is oppression and the struggle to escape. The Festival has shown oppression in several forms, oppression that is human trafficking: women, captured by false promises, isolated from family, moved between countries and sold repeatedly from one owner to another. There is also oppression that is prostitution: where women, made vulnerable by “life,” are exploited by predators who spin webs camouflaged by attention, acceptance, and love that ensnares rather than lifts up.
While there has been greater attention in recent years to the reality that human trafficking and slavery exists in first as well as second and third worlds, it is important that the reality of what has been going on under the radar of first world attention continues to be exposed and brought into the light where efforts to reduce or eliminate such tragedy can be launched and continued. Therefore, while the reflection of oppression of individuals and groups is tragic and hard to watch, it also fosters a growing awareness of the problem and in so doing the first steps and hope of ending the practice.
Hyena, written and directed by Gerard Johnson and starring Peter Ferdinando is a brutally gritty story of drugs, corrupt police, and East European human trafficking. Named after what is considered by most as the lowest, most vile and opportunistic animal on the African plain, Hyena is a mixture of the “ultra violence” and disregard for human beings from A Clockwork Orange and the grimy 1970’s corrupted cop films such as Serpico and The French Connection. Hyena shows how little regard individuals and groups can have for persons outside their close-knit families and communities. Whereas Clockwork was set sometime in the future and Serpico and The French Connection are true, 40 years old stories, Hyena shows that the future is now and we have not progressed, and perhaps have regressed, from the crime and corruption of 40 years ago.
Sunrise depicts the plague of children, primarily the 100,000 young girls, who go missing each year in India and are forced into prostitution and other forms of exploitation. Sunrise was written and directed by Partho Sen-Gupta, and stars Adil Hussain as Laksham Josi. Laksham is a social services police officer whose task is to investigate kidnappings even as his own daughter was kidnapped when he was late picking her up from school. The film depicts the torturous life he endures as each case reminds him of his daughter’s disappearance. With very limited dialogue, past and present for Lakshman converge as he pursues a shadow through endless rain falling in the deepest dens of Mumbai’s seediest neighborhoods. At the less-than-happy ending, the statistic of the 100,000 children kidnapped each year is captioned as well as a dedication to two children. As dark, literally and figuratively, as a film can be, Sunrise shines a light on what is a problem of epic proportions and tremendous pain for all the families touched by it.
Closely related to films about oppression are those with characters that show bravery and determination to escape from or fight for those victimized by oppressors. Bleeding Heart, written and directed by Diane Bell, stars Jessica Beal as May, a yoga instructor dedicated to helping others find inner peace through yoga and meditation. Bleeding Heart reveals the terror, oppression, and tragedy of domestic abuse and prostitution. May’s peaceful life is disrupted when she searches for and finds her lost half sister. As refined and tranquil as May is, Shiva (Zosia Mamet) is raw and revved up, always on guard from her explosively violent boyfriend and pimp. While urged to turn her back on her sister by her well-off, adopted mother and her controlling, peacenik, zen boyfriend, May becomes more determined to stay connected to her sister, even as her growing presence produces more conflict in her sister’s life and resistance by Shiva and her brutal boyfriend. May refuses to yield to the pressure and finds strength she never knew she had in offering love that Shiva never knew existed.
Other forms of bondage are those that come through grief, guilt, and the popular remedy of drugs, which, like the pimps and human traffickers, offer the hope of escape from pain while only leading to further suffering and helplessness. Franny stars Richard Gere as a philanthropist who is responsible for the accidental death of his two best friends and the parents of his college-bound goddaughter Olivia (Dakota Fanning.) Following the accident, the film moves forward in time to portray an unkempt Franny, who has disconnected from most of his past activities and community. Olivia calls to tell him about her new husband, a physician, and asks if Franny could get him an interview at the children’s hospital of which he is chairman of the board. The call rejuvenates Franny, who seems to pop back into his hyperactive, positive personality and spontaneous ways of living. Empowered by prescription pain killers, the resurgence masks Franny’s ongoing struggle with guilt and depression. Franny demonstrates the oppression and guilt that depression can wield over individuals. While the conditions can be masked for a time, they eventually become too much for even the strongest narcotics and can only be overcome by addressing and confronting the precipitating event(s) and accepting grace and forgiveness from others and one’s self.
Far from escapist fare, these films do offer a glimpse into humanity and the tears in society’s physical, ethical, and spiritual fabric that fosters oppression in all its forms. In so doing, such films can echo the prophetic teachings, the lamentations of the Psalms, and the corrective teaching of Christ, by casting light into darkness, naming sins, offering hope, and revealing the first steps to healing that brokenness.