The Common Good
July 2011

Claiming Our Power

by Gareth Higgins | July 2011

Gareth Higgins reviews Submarine, Project Nim, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

A funny thing happened at the Nashville Film Festival in April -- one of the most welcoming, community-oriented festivals in the U.S., where it’s easy to slip into conversations with Hal Holbrook, Kris Kristofferson, or Susan Sarandon in between mouthfuls of barbecue and Jack Daniel’s. And then there are the films -- a vast range from around the world, a huge music film selection, and unexpected masterpieces that you might not see anywhere else.

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The funny thing was that I was transported back to the grey Northern Irish skyline of my childhood by a film set across the water in Wales, but in a secondary school setting so resonant with my own that it might as well have been filmed in my classroom. In Submarine, we follow Oliver, a 15-year-old boy, on a convincing journey of discovery that's a delight to watch. It’s like Wes Anderson's Rushmore directed by a working-class Woody Allen after reading Kierkegaard. Oliver’s discoveries, on the surface, are typical -- love, fear, himself. But it's the discovery of his own power, and what he can do to others, for their good or ill, that marks Submarine out as one of the year's smartest films.

Project Nim, from the team that made the exhilarating documentary Man on Wire, about Philippe Petit's astonishing high-wire walk between the Twin Towers, is another story of human risk-taking in 1970s New York. This time we follow scientists as they attempt to raise a chimpanzee to develop human language skills. The tragic consequences of not following through raise serious questions about responsibility for others, care for the Earth, and underestimating the power of being human. This makes Project Nim a pretty decent companion piece to Submarine, taking in, as both do, the nature (and limits) of our potential.

Limits are stretched by the protagonist of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, the Thai film honored with the Cannes Film Festival's top prize last year. It's a remarkable visual depiction of a gentle man looking back on his life, experiencing regret for his involvement in violence, and hoping for a "good death," in which he can love and be loved. It's a rare wonder, prepared to reveal awe where our minds have previously been trained to adopt cynicism.

All three of these films are worth your time, because they reveal something profound: Each of us is the same -- we have similar hopes, we make similar mistakes, we have similar loves. And one of our most important tasks is to figure out what to do with our own power. Because the worst thing you can do with power is to deny that you have it.

Gareth Higgins, a Sojourners contributing editor, is executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Carrboro, North Carolina.

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