Documentary Film and the Power of Empathy


I’ve mentioned previously that one of the things I enjoy most about attending good film festivals–besides the concentration of quality films–is the way in which watching a lot of films in a short period of time will allow works to be in dialogue with one another. When watching one film, the proximity in time to viewing another film can prime the imagination or the intellect, allowing insights to flow to the surface. Or, to use another metaphor, it can frame themes and add depth to topics that reach outside the film and help us to contemplate not merely how any particular film works as a self-contained statement but also how it participates in helping us mediate and negotiate the questions and issues that make up our lives.

It is possible to try to manufacture these sorts of resonances, usually by programming a lot of films with similar content or about complementary subject matter. In my experience, though, the insights are more surprising and reverberate more strongly when the coordinators simply pick good individual films and let the connections emerge organically as the the particular works act as spotlights pointing us to a broader canvas–life–than when the films are presented to us with connections premade.

The films at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival were varied in their subject matter. There were advocates of weather modification, a history of the American-Indian Movement, and a portrait of the exiled queen of Iran. We saw Jews in the city of Thessaloniki, troop greeters in the city of Bangor, advertising executives on Madison avenue, and Christian prison administrators in Argentina. There was a reporter in Africa trying to get us to remember Darfur and a father in America who was either trying to remember anything or forget everything. There was a blind couple using music to communicate love, a deaf boy at the center of a very loud controversy, and a horde of mute Japanese-American detainees whose only voice was a stranger’s camera. Oh, and there was Superman–turns out he’s Muslim and he lives in India.

Despite the diversity of subject matter, several key themes did emerge that held the films that were most effective in my memory: the power of absence to shape and affect our immediate environment, the power of empathy to transform our minds and, maybe, perhaps, our hearts, and the elusive longing we have for control of our environment and our lives.

Barbara Kopple is a documentarian of rare insight. In curating a retrospective on sports films, Steve James chose her (incredulously unavailable on DVD) Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson as his first choice. Listening to James and Kopple chat about documentary film making after the screening was alone worth the cost of the trip, and Kopple gave the audience some insight into her approach to a difficult subject. When she was called to make the film, Tyson was already in jail for raping Desiree Washington. Kopple said her first step in making the great documentary was “letting everything go,” by which she appeared to mean releasing preconceived notions about the subject.

When discussing the ways in which her gender affected the way she perceived the material, she mentioned that a male making the film might not have gotten the same responses because he would be presumed to know the things men in the film shared with her. As such, the natural curiosity of the filmmaker–the desire to understand–is (or was) often perceived by those she approached as genuine. The result of seeking first to understand rather than judge was in this case a film which oddly, perhaps amazingly, provokes empathy for Mike Tyson even as it refuses to apologize for him.

Not to belabor this point, but the number of films or filmmakers who talked about empathy and curiosity spurred an “aha” moment in me regarding why so much “Christian” art (especially film) is so mediocre. Christian films (or proselytizing films, if you prefer) so rarely adopt a posture of listening or seeking to understand. Evangelism is a core value in American Christianity, and that means proclaiming, not discovering nor uncovering. This isn’t to say that there aren’t–or can’t be–great Christan films. Only that there is a world of difference between Christian filmmakers and people making “Christian films.” The Christian filmmaker can be incarnational in her work, as can be the Christian stock broker or Christian farmer. But to me, that would mean allowing one’s faith to inform the way one looks at and to mediate the way one interacts with the world rather than just having it dictate the message one proclaims to it. In that sense, I tend to think that most contemporary Christian art is really just Christian entertainment (by which I mean entertainment for Christians not entertainment of a Christian character) and that, as such, it lacks the ability for or sees no need for empathy. That’s a shame, because I’m greatly challenged by Shelley’s argument that the imagination is the root of morality, since so many of the commandments (especially “love thy neighbor”) require the capacity for empathy, a quality that, like many virtues, isn’t easy for us and so must be practiced.

By this I don’t mean to suggest that Kopple was overtly mentioning religion in her speech. These were thoughts that were spurred in my mind by listening to someone who creates great, compassionate, complex art talk a little about how she does it. Neither do I mean to suggest that empathy is the same as sympathy. One source of empathy, in fact, came from the presence of too much sympathy. When Teddy Atlas is the only one in the D’Amato circle to tell Mike that sexually propositioning a minor is unacceptable behavior, Tyson is sent back to detention for a brief period and then returns to find Atlas dismissed. The message is clear: as long as his talent has no boundaries, so too will there be no boundaries on the acceptability of his behavior. This incident becomes the narrative illustration of the point Elizabeth Fox-Genovese makes later in the film: a woman’s “no” can be empowered and backed by the culture in which she lives, but it can also be undercut by that culture.

Often in our mass media, the description of rape is bowdlerized, in part to make it easier to accept. The film gives the details of the rape in some detail, which is necessary, I think, to counterbalance the sea of apologists who say it is all or in some part the woman’s fault. Alan Dershowitz claims there is an unwritten contract of groupies that “everybody knows” and Washington violated. Louis Farrakhan explicitly says that “no” often means “yes” and openly mocks the woman’s claim that she was raped to a crowd of men who laugh raucously and appreciatively at the suggestion that any woman who agrees to go to a man’s hotel room at two in the morning has no right to complain about what happens to her in it.

So I’m certainly not suggesting Kopple wants us to listen to the account of Tyson lifting a 95 pound, Rhode Island teenager into the air by her ankles while performing oral sex on her and say, “Poor guy.” But the curiosity of the documentarian often extends beyond the apportionment of blame to try to understand how and why something happened. In watching the film, I was reminded of my wife’s response to Michael Corleone in The Godfather, when she said what she realized in watching that film was that: “Nobody just wakes up and says, ‘I think I’ll go to hell today.’ It is the little, daily compromises, each a little easier than the last that so often bring us to the point where that which we once thought ourselves incapable of becomes that which now seems inevitable.”

We are all influenced by cultural norms and messages and all responsible for the choices we make. The film does not argue that Tyson should not have gone to jail. What it does suggest, I think, is that some choices are harder when those around us and those who love us think that the highest expression of that love is protecting us from the consequences of our own actions. If the film has empathy for Tyson, I think it takes the form of a sadness at what might have been and an anger at those who cared less about helping another human being succeed than about making sure they got theirs before he failed.

If it seems strange that Barbara Kopple, a woman, could engender empathy for a convicted rapist, the story of the unlikely friendship between Iranian filmmaker Nahid Persson and Empress Farah Pahlavi may seem stranger still. One of the questions I wanted to ask Kopple at the Q&A was “how?” How do you let go of preconceived ideas? How do you make yourself feel empathy or even just allow yourself to feel curiosity? Like many virtues, especially forgiveness, empathy is too often presented as something that either just happens or is the product of one monumental choice that changes everything.

One thing I very much appreciated about Persson’s The Queen and I, one thing I thought was true, was the way it showed how these things are a process (or, to use the artistic or religious language, a discipline). Persson protested against Farah’s husband, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. If the theocratic regime that followed the Shah’s exile was even more brutal–brutal enough to force her family, like so many that protested the Shah–into her own exile, that in and of itself isn’t quite enough to make Persson think she was wrong in wanting Farah’s husband out of power.

Persson appeals to Farah for an interview, and because they share the experience of exile, it is granted to her. What Farah wants out of the interviews, at least to start, is evident enough. What Nahid wants is a bit harder to pin down. So much so that at several points in the filming it looks as though Farah’s advisers are trying to get her to stop the interviews because of suspicions about Nahid’s intent in the film. Does she want the opportunity to speak for and confront Farah (on the record) with the victims of monarchical oppression? Nahid admits at one point in the film the tremendous guilt she feels at her friendship, particularly since she encouraged her brother, who was executed, to be a political agitator. (Nahid’s dead brother and Farah’s dead daughter provide a point of human commonality for the two ideologically different women; they are also two examples of the visible absences that haunted the cores of so many of the films at the festival.)

Because of my own family history, Iranian films are often difficult for me to watch. The discipline of empathy is not merely in tension with the feeling of sympathy, it is also in tension with the culture of victimization. I remember meeting an exiled Iranian woman at a professional conference many years ago and being surprised as how hard it was for me to suppress my instinctive hostility. Intellectually, I understood that she was not the one who injured me or my family, that my antipathy towards her made no more sense than a mob’s argument that my family was somehow personally responsible for tertiary or even more remote causes of government policies I didn’t endorse, much less enact. (And, yeah, this thought occurred to me again while watching Wounded Knee.) Yet emotionally, at the core, there is something in us that abhors another’s suffering as somehow diminishing our own.

Keeping a grievance alive is easy, yet paradoxically it is also hard. Perhaps that is why we say grudges must be “nursed.” I think there is something in the way God makes us that inclines us towards empathy. Or perhaps our souls recognize and reject the corrosive element of bitterness in the same way white blood cells recognize something biologically unhealthy and combat it. In any regard, to hold on to anger and bitterness is work, work which is easier (if no more satisfying) when we have a scapegoat or a specific target to blame for our injury. To feel empathy then, is not just an active discipline, it is a discipline of surrender. How odd, yet appropriate, that Kopple used the phrase “letting go” to describe the first step towards curiosity and empathy.

At one point in the film, Farah recounts the early stages of her family’s exile, including waiting on a runway for several hours while her husband, ravaged by cancer, lies feverish in the plane that will not take off. She believes that during that time, the American government was negotiating with the Iranian power structure to release the American hostages in return for sending the plane that the Shah was on back to Panama rather than to Egypt. Years later, I have a loved one of my own doing battle with cancer and think about what it would be to watch her suffer and die while she was denied access to those who could best offer treatment. No, empathy is not the same thing as sympathy, nor forgiveness, nor excuse. Or at least it is not the same thing as the pale counterfeits that so often pass for these holy things in our culture. Perhaps it is something else. Perhaps it is that which helps us grow to the point where we may become strong enough to offer such things in their higher, burned and purified forms.

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