The Common Good

Gareth Higgins on Peace, Politics, and Our Nation's 'Cinematic States'

Lots of people like movies; Gareth Higgins loves movies. But the founding director of the Wild Goose Festival and long-time peace activist engages popular culture with a different eye than most of us. And he’s used that keen eye for deeper meaning to create his latest book.

Courtesy of Burnside Books
'Cinematic States' explores fifty films that help define something about each state. Courtesy of Burnside Books

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I asked Gareth about his new book on American film, his peace work, and what it’s like considering American culture both as an insider and as a non-native. Here’s what he had to say.

You just published a new book with Burnside Books called Cinematic States: Stories We Tell, the American Dream Life and How to Understand Everything that explores fifty films that help define something about that state. How does that help us understand everything?

In my experience, cinema is the art form that is most like dreaming, so to understand the U.S., we should pay attention to America’s dreams of itself. 

I took one movie (or more) from each state and tried to write about what I saw: how U.S. artists have understood the place that they’re from — not just what The Wizard of Oz says about Kansas and Gone with the Wind about Georgia, but Fight Club and Delaware, and A River Runs Through It about Montana. Along the way it became clear to me what many already know: there are many U.S. Americas, and that the gifts of this enormous — and enormously misunderstood — land are often ignored in favor of superficial, flag-waving (and intimidating) patriotism on the right, or slightly embarrassed denial on the left. 

Your previous book is also about movies and how they saved your soul. Why are films so important to you personally?

Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 70s and 80s shaped me into someone who invited escape through fiction. So while other kids were playing rugby, my childhood was catechized by Spielberg and Superman and The Goonies. By my mid-teens I had been seduced by the wonders of independent cinema. 

Now, cinema has become for me what music is for many people — a comfort, an inspiration, a provocation, a friend, a confounder, a lens through which I understand more of the world, and the subject that I write and speak about the most as a way of engaging with readers about a lens through which I think we can understand more together.

You describe yourself as a peace activist. How are you engaged in addressing big issues like peacebuilding, religion, violence, and conflict?

The greatest gift of growing up in Northern Ireland was to experience, and perhaps to be a fellow traveler with, the incredible courage of people who were surviving against the odds and later to participate in the peace movement. The conflict in and about Northern Ireland is not a religious conflict per se — people weren’t killing each other over their theology of the Eucharist, for instance — but religious communities and ethnic identities certainly overlapped. The role of religious leadership in underpinning sectarian identity and communal injustices was significant, but the role of religious peacemakers in challenging those same injustices is possibly without parallel. 

These days I think one of the most important things any of us can do to reduce violence is to find new ways to tell the story of who we are: dominant, mainstream narratives tend to be wedded to ‘closed-set’ ideas of the world, of who is in and who is out, and how we are winning or losing the battle with our neighbors. Seeing the world through this lens is a recipe for continued tension and retribution. But I’m looking at the same thing as Fox News (and, lest we get too puffed up about the ‘liberal media,’ CNN et al are often just as guilty of dividing the world into ‘good’ us versus ‘bad’ them), and I’m seeing something different. 

As both a cultural insider and outsider, how do feel the rest of the world sees our current political state of affairs?

The rest of the world is scared, and hopeful. 

I think one of the reasons that so many people overseas seemed to respond to 9/11 with inadequate sensitivity was that we were so horrified that our fears had been realized: that unbridled power used overseas in an unaccountable way had eventually led to such a barbaric act being committed in the name of avenging it. We knew that it was unjustified, but we also experienced dread about the response. 

One of the paradoxes of the U.S. is that while it’s fashionable to criticize it, many people still want to visit; it’s easy to see what’s ‘wrong’ with America, yet there’s so much that everybody loves about it. And the idea of the U.S. as a nation of fifty very different states is almost totally unknown outside the country itself. ‘Cinematic States’ is a small attempt at offering a way of thinking about the nation that allows for its own diversity and invites readers to consider what is alive and good about the U.S. as well as what lies within its shadow.

What do you see as Christianity’s primary role today in realizing the visions of peacebuilding that you seek in your work?

Facing the past with hope for the future, including taking what the 12-step movement calls a fearless moral inventory and making amends for what we realize has caused suffering, and telling a better story about what it means to be human: especially about our interdependence as people made for love and not competition.

What projects do you have on the horizon?

I’m beginning work on a book about fear and an exciting project that aims to broaden our understanding of cinema as a global, definitely not just American, art form (I figured ‘Cinematic States’ was just a start!) I’m also hoping to visit every state in the next couple of years to host workshops and screenings about the films in the book, exploring how we can understand ourselves better in dialogue with the art that tries to represent us.

Gareth Higgins isa Belfast-born writer, film critic, and co-author of several works on peacebuilding, religion, violence, and conflict. He is a contributing editor at Sojourners Magazine, has written for publications including The Independent, The Irish Times, and Third Way, and presented on BBC Radio. He also holds a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast and co-hosts the award-winning podcast www.thefilmtalk.com. Gareth is founding director of the Wild Goose Festival and blogs at www.garethhiggins.net.”

Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

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