The Common Good
September/October 2009

A National Emergency

by Gareth Higgins | September/October 2009

WE’RE IN A national emergency, and it’s not swine flu.

WE’RE IN A national emergency, and it’s not swine flu. While we were being mobilized by an illness whose power was more media- than pathogen-induced, the fact that more than 100,000 people have been killed by guns in the U.S. since 9/11 seems to be just business as usual. Violence is clearly a public health crisis, yet our culture is ambivalent about murder.

This ambivalence is closely connected to the stories we tell about it. The recent film The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is a good example. The movie does nothing more than most other films in the hostage-taking action genre subset: It makes us feel afraid, hits us in the face with imaginary bullets, and “resolves” the superficial good versus evil conflict at the film’s core with the audience’s surrogate (in this case Denzel Washington) becoming vengeance on our behalf.

We are so used to fictional violence as a source of fun that we are unable to see the continuum between the myths we expect in storytelling and the realities we are prepared to accept in real life.

The English writer Geoff Dyer says that “You have to be a stranger to the landscape to regard it as a view.” Maybe we should change our perspective on how we tell stories rather than hide from the truth by, for instance, boycotting violent films. I felt this while watching The Cove, which for me is the best film of the year so far. It offers a new vision of what a campaign documentary can be, in which intrepid oceanographers expose the slaughter of dolphins in Japan. The Cove is as exciting as the best thrillers—full of human drama and the vicarious inspiration we take from watching other people’s courage.

The strange thing is I’ve become so inured to human killing on screen that I was more moved watching violence against sea mammals. The Cove manages to evoke the interdependency of life on earth, and challenge the part of each of us that wants to use creation’s resources for selfish ends. There’s even a moment of Gandhi-esque nonviolent confrontation, when an old man simply—and literally—reveals the truth about injustice to people with power. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that the most life-affirming film I’ve seen all year is about dolphins and not people. But a film that makes me feel the power of being human, captures a vision to change the world, and asks me what difference I could make in it? It’s a start.

Gareth Higgins, a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, is the author of How Movies Helped Save My Soul.

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