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The Powerful Banality of Goodness

The cinema finds the allure of revolutions irresistible because the seventh art is built on the attraction of the instant, the breaking point that accompanies protests. Whereas it is harder to tell the story, on the big screen, of the long period following revolts that is needed for the building of democracy and the quest for political compromise. And yet there are people who can do it.

Were we to have to encapsulate the present mood in a single example, the choice would fall on a Chinese film, Touch of Sin. Branding the great confusion residing in China (and not only there) with the unusual label of ‘sin’, the title is interesting in itself. Like the four stories, full of cruelty and extremes, that the forty-year old director, Jia Zhangke, narrates whilst specifying in the initial caption that they are taken from ‘events that really happened’. Bloody events and brutal acts of violence that turn normally comfortable lives upside down in a China that up until yesterday was wretchedly poor and now, suddenly, finds itself rich enough in opportunities to send people mad. In one of the dialogues between two boys, one confesses that he wants to go away and the other replies, “But where could you go? All the countries in the world are bankrupt….” All of them except China, where sudden wealth mixes with the old corruption and the continual changes that turn the country’s history and geography upside down, provoking the explosion of a new malaise that coincides with a loss of identity. The crisis is not just a question of bankruptcy, to judge by this and other films. It resembles, rather, a revolution (whether it be individual or collective), a rapid and radical transformation, a change that hopes that some pre-existing order will be overcome. And the money - that suddenly grows, making poor people rich and those who were already rich richer in China, or that slips through the fingers of those who handle it, like the white powder that condemns Scorsese’s broker, the “future owner of the universe”, to hell in The Wolf of Wall Street - is only a symptom of this.

 

 

“I believe in the Image”

 

 

Cinema adores crises and courts revolutions. It loves that movement frozen in time where anything can happen. Every avant-garde movement, from the Soviet one onwards, has marched in step with revolts. Cinema is an art that is in love with an instant or a breaking point, when what is old is no longer and what is new cannot yet be seen. Long periods of time and the betrayal of an ideal are difficult to narrate on the big screen. There are many films on the seizure of power but very few narrate its aftermath with the same radiant passion. Only occasionally, when it is truly great, does cinema reach beyond the rhetoric, seek out and restore to us - in the precision of an instant - that eternity that is meaning. This is what the director, Rithy Panh, means when he entitles his film on the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in Cambodia L’image manquante (The Missing Picture). Mixing the few archive sequences remaining from the era with figures moulded in clay from his country, Panh organizes the panels of a Via Crucis that alludes (without being able to reproduce it) to the missing image; the one that ought to tell the story not of the numbers but of the faces of those two million people (a third of his people) who were killed between 1975 and 1979. A prize-winner at Cannes and put forward for an Oscar, the film is the third in a trilogy that coincides with the personal and professional life of this director born in 1964: the child who, imprisoned at the age of 11 in the notorious ‘re-education’ camps, saw his whole family die. ‘I believe in the image, even if, certainly, it has been reproduced, enacted or manufactured, if you like. One can shoot a ‘right’ image, in spite of the dictatorship’, writes Panh, in his multiple prize-winning book, L’élimination. If the image is missing and if eternity - that truth-full eternity that only a Catholic critic like André Bazin could uncover - eludes the instant captured by the camera, there is, the Cambodian director suggests, a way of ‘asking ourselves questions’ that at least reminds us that something that we need, that spurs us on and can save lives is missing.

 

 

Before the Revolution Evaporates

 

 

It is certainly easier to tell the story of revolution than that of democracy already achieved (or, possibly, suffering an identity crisis, as is occurring in our part of the world). Revolution that is violent even when, paradoxically, it declares war on violence, as claimed by all those slogans we have seen blossoming in the Arab springs and political movements that have marked the last few years, months and days. And spectacular, like the images of the square, those natural choreographies that the Egyptian film The Square (by the Egyptian director, Jehane Noujaim) narrates so well with its rooftop shots. A space frozen in the filming of the action and a brief period (even if it lasts years) purified of the empty moments that mark the rhythm of daily life. The new world, before the revolution evaporates, as Kafka wrote, ‘leaving behind it only the filth of a new bureaucracy’.

 

 

It is quite another thing to tell the story of the birth and growth of a democracy: the length of time involved, the compromises, the patience during the wait and the hard work of educating. Rithy Panh enlists the help of Hannah Arendt’s genius to describe the paradox of goodness. He, too, tells the story of the butchers whom he interviews: nit-picking employees who are bored by the insistence with which they are asked to give an account of their actions. He, too, narrates the bureaucratic impassiveness, telling of the famous phrase attributed to Stalin, “No man, no problem”. If the banality of evil exists, however, there also exists a sort of banality of goodness. It has the face of a father who allowed himself to die of hunger: ‘In our democratic societies, the man who believes in democracy seems to us to be the order of the day. Almost boring. For this reason, I keep a rather yellowed photo of him on my desk in my Paris office: because the powerful banality of goodness exists. This will be his victory’.

 

 

 

Politics after the Protest

 

 

The difference between revolution and democracy is not always clear: the former is attractive, the latter taken for granted. As in the movements that are shaking Europe and its confines, it can happen that a protest becomes imbued with ambiguity. And the two words are there, together, in the chants heard in the squares, seeking to fill the gap between denunciation, deprivation and the urgent need for change and the will, ability and intention to get to work. Because passing from the promise of a new heaven and earth to the effort of building a cultural, political and administrative route to them is not painless. The Square tells the story of this effort extremely well through the stories of its protagonists. Highly effective in the way it personalizes the protest through the faces and stories of the young men bringing the square to life, the film avoids the moment of reckoning by constantly fluctuating between ingenuousness and denunciation and this is probably one of the reasons why the film failed to win an Oscar.

 

 

Because change there must be: Ahmed, former street child and now a witness to the revolt tells us this by candlelight during the film’s opening images re-evoking January 2011. In the dark night of a capital where not even the electricity supply is working, a few words are enough to tell how the story began: “Injustice reigned. Young people passed from one job to another. I had been working since I was eight. I sold lemons in the street without any hope of a better future”. Ahmed and his friends meet in the square, amidst the slogans and the bivouacs and there they will return every time that the movement decides to protest against the regimes that gradually follow one another. Every now and then, the problem of ‘afterwards’ emerges: there’s a new Constitution to be written, someone to be brought to power and dialogue between the parties to be got going. But it always ends in the same way: “Politics is different from revolution. If you want to be involved in politics, you have to make compromises. We can’t do that. We really can’t. We have no organization”. Strindberg wondered whether demolition ‘in order to let in air and light’ was not, ‘perhaps, enough’. It is certainly something: the expression of a people’s will, the declaring of a malaise and the opening of a dialogue. Perhaps also the alarm bell warning of a crisis that is already under way elsewhere. But, then, more is needed. Camus noticed this in 1951, when he wrote l’Homme révolté: ‘Beauty, doubtless, does not cause revolutions. But there comes the day when revolutions need beauty.’

 

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