Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Open Bethlehem

This 2014 documentary is written and Directed by Leila Sansour who left her home town of Bethlehem at the age of 14 because it was too small and a backwater in the shadow if its neighbour Jerusalem. When she learns that the city is about to encircled by a wall she returns and begins a fight to keep Bethlehem open.

This film captures Sansour's energy and dynamism as she recruits family and friends to support the cause. As the wall is imposed on people going about their daily lives in their home country, the hegemony of US backed Israel is made plain for all to see. The eight meter high wall creates an apartheid that the world seems disinterested in and impotent to challenge. Some Palestinians are doing unspeakable things to Israelis - but it is the few and not the many.

We see Palestinian farmers showing their ancient olive groves that have been destroyed by the Israelis. We see houses being destroyed - longstanding family homes - simply to make way for polished new homes for Israeli settlers who will be connected by the antiseptic umbilical of new roads directly into the heart of Jerusalem whilst the locals have to queue at the checkpoint from 03:00 to stand even a chance of getting to work. Many won't make it because the number of daily permits is limited.

The intifada began in Bethlehem amongst students at the university - founded by Sansour's father. This together with her regret at having abandoned Bethlehem earlier in life drive her to extraordinary lengths as she builds a coalition of unlikely backers to campaign for Bethlehem to be made an open city. As part of the campaign the Mayor agrees to the creation of a Bethlehem Passport and these are distributed to celebrities and politicians to gain publicity. There are high level visits to the UK and the USA but ultimately the campaign runs out funds and money and fizzles out. The film ends in 2014 as Sansour tries to reinvigorate the campaign and take on the Israeli state.

This is a desperately sad film that depicts callousness on the part of the Israelis as they annex one of Christianity's holiest sites. Many Christian leaders are shown visiting the Church of the Nativity in the film - including Archbishop Rowan and Bishop Tutu also puts in an appearance on the film.

Please take a moment to check out the project's website and consider your own response - or buy the DVD from them and show it to a group of friends or in your place of worship. This is a solid film documenting a worthy cause. I'll give it 7/10.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Notes on Blindness

Another film watched with a group of friends from church but this time the viewing was curated by a colleague - who had been a student of the film's central character. John Hull (Dan Skinner) was an academic theologian at Birmingham University and latterly also at The Queen's Foundation Theological College. I was expecting much more direct 'God-talk' - God doesn't get a mention until the 48th minute! This docudrama is about the man, the husband, the father and the son John Hull. What sets it apart is that as his sight failed, he took to recording a detailed diary on audio cassettes and the dialogue in the film features the actors lip-synching with the diaries as they are played back.

Hull's mind was always in need of being fed. His voracious appetite for new ideas and information propelled friends, university colleagues and students to begin recording academic texts onto audio cassette so that he could listen to continue his research and lecturing. After a series of medical and surgical interventions, complete blindness came in 1980. The last image he recalled seeing was appropriately a church spire.

In making the film, Directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney no doubt had to make editorial decisions about which extracts from the diaries to use in order to give the documentary and biographical elements of the film continuity. I wonder what their rationale was and what they chose to leave out. The result is a very down-to-earth, almost matter-of-fact film that treats blindness and its onset in an analytical way. This film does not indulge sentimentality. Hull works hard to develop new way of seeing which do not use the optic nerve but nevertheless stimulates the optical cortex of the brain. This enables Hull to describe the onset and effects of blindness with an accessible realism that is educative as well as being inspiring.

Much of the laboratory of his ongoing experimentation was his family - he had five children and was originally an Australian with his own family back in Victoria. His wife Marilyn (Simone Kirby) is portrayed very positively to be the rock that keeps the family going despite her constant fear of her husband entering another period of depression. It is not until a major epiphany, in part visualised as a dreamlike sequence, that Hull is able to come to terms with his condition and receive it as a gift - not a gift he wanted, but nevertheless a gift. The central question becomes for him not 'why' but 'what am I going to do with it?'. It is interesting to see how rainfall becomes a carrier of ideas when its analysed sound seems to heighten Hull's sensory acuity and power of reasoning. It is as though rain becomes for Hull a 'thin place' as followers of Celtic spirituality might say - where the immanence of God is felt more keenly.

Hull's approach to theology is through it's dialogue with sociology and as such he is portrayed as a very 'human' being. He is driven by questions about how different kinds of people can understand their differences young and old, rich and poor, male and female, sighted and the blind. As Hull's blindness was eventually 'seen' to be a gift to him, the film makers have in turn shared that gift with us in a generous and inspiring way. As well as introducing us to an extraordinary person, this film also invites us to consider what it actually means to 'see'.

This is another film that lends itself to group reflection and discussion. It raises a number of issues and offers a unique insight into blindness and its effects. It also shows how it can be embraced, coped with and even offer new possibilities not previous available. I would encourage you to see it - at 86 minutes it's about the right length. I'll give it 8/10.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

The Shack

The lens through which you view this film will totally determine your response to it. For those who try to live without faith it will disappoint and frustrate. For those with a living faith it will be interesting and may even provoke questions. For those Christians who have an active faith, it will engage and possibly even excite and challenge your view of God. If you read and liked the 2007 book on which it is based, you will like the film.

The story feels contrived, the plot clunky and some of the acting a little odd. However, I would still advocate going to see this - maybe with a group and have a discussion over pizza (or cuisine of your choice) afterwards. Not only is it imbued with the cultural ethos of (North American) Evangelical Christianity in its theological outlook, it also sets out an apologetic response to the good old question 'why does God let bad things happen?'. Whether the contrivance of these two things work for you is only something you can determine.

The structure of the film works differently to the book but the central premise is the same. The background is familial child abuse that then is overtaken by child abduction and hinted at murder. The themes that the film explores are guilt, grief, love, sacrifice, forgiveness, Trinity and the nature of God. Because the film deals with heavyweight theological and Biblical themes, everyone will have a view on how they should be set out. Not everyone will agree with the stance the film takes, but I feel they did a good job. Rather than being critical of the film's content and style, I would invite viewers to reflect on their own response and how the film, may or may not have challenged and changed their view of God and these big areas of Christian doctrine. How would you make a film that featured the Christian Trinity?

Much of the film is predictable but there is also a playfulness about how a Trinitarian God is depicted and how the persons of the Trinity interact. For me, the film portrays the role of wisdom much more helpfully than the book does - but again that's down to a different structure and sequence of encounters. I had problems with a lot of Sam Worthington's mumbled diction - I simply couldn't understand what he was saying which was a pity as he played the central character Mack. However the other characters and wonderful locations in the film more than made up for it.

This will be a great film to watch for church groups and then discuss afterwards - perhaps it will appear as a 2018 Lent course? I imagine it will only be in the cinema in the UK for a limited time and as yet I haven't found a scheduled release date for the disc version. Do go and see it - and allow yourself to be surprised. As a film 6/10, as an attempt to visualise complex theology 8/10 so it scores 7/10 on here.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Life and Debt

I watched this film with a group of friends and we were shocked at our collective appalling inability to learn lessons from history. This film is about Jamaica's transition to independence from Britain and the economic 'assistance' that was required to move to a free market consumer economy. It is a documentary that helpfully sets out the context of the founding of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the aftermath of World War Two. Keen to avoid a scenario that developed into World War Three, these institutions - dominated by the USA - set up vast funds to loan to countries to help them reach prosperity. Sadly the opposite is what has happened. Tragically the world is filled with too many Jamaicas - one is one too many.

The whole aim of colonialisation is to make money for the colonising nation and its entrepreneurs. Jamaica had sugar, bananas and a wonderful natural beauty and climate that lend themselves to tourism. The economic plan ignored its greatest resource - its people.

To become a productive consumer led economy required huge investment in infrastructure that was beyond the scope of this tiny nation to raise internally. So they tied themselves into the only banking regime in the West that was able to help and took out loans from WB/IMF. It soon became clear that to service the interest payments on the the loans, more loans were required and with each successive round of borrowing the debt spiral increased in speed and depth. Whilst the USA subsidised its farmers and industries to produce for the world market, Jamaica was hit by punitive interest payments and cowardly trade tariffs. They didn't, and never have stood a chance. The playing field is not level.

Even something as modest as a banana was used as an economic weapon. The giant US owned corporations harvesting and exporting bananas in Central America were supported by their government which then through the WB/IMF imposed tariffs on exported Jamaican bananas to the UK - its principle historical market and not one which competed with Central American produce to any great extent.

Over the decades Jamaica's economy has dwindled as the USA established free trade areas on the island to enslave workers (see picture above) with tax free and subsidised production of goods that were then returned for sale in the USA at a knock-down price because of the low production costs. As a consequence most Jamaicans are caught up in subsistence low scale agriculture dependent on the weather and the seasons to guarantee enough a food to put on the table. Unemployment is high and social problems and drug use are widespread.

All of this is in stark contrast to the smiling bright and happy Jamaica that the tens of thousands of tourists see who arrive by liner and plane every week. They stay in luxury hotels and dine of fine food until they've had their fill. Tours take then past McDonald's, KFC and Baskin Robins to sanitised ghettoes that offer the consumers an opportunity to sample the 'real Jamaica' sold to them by the tour brochure.

Who said the slave trade had been abolished?