Captain Fantastic

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This is a great movie: from the gut reaction of shedding some tears to laughing out loud, it has us also wonder about some basic questions of parenting. Above all, this little jewel underscores the generally well-observed fact which almost no one adheres to: do not make value judgements about people and their actions, since you don’t know the whole truth. In the case of Ben, the truth is that he  made his 6 children live in the forests of the US Pacific Northwest because he wanted his wife to get better by attempting to make her lose the chains of mental illness, not because he was some type of freaky hippie.

Here are three questions-considerations stemming from some scenes in the film which made an impact on me:

  1. Is knowledge acquired from books such a bad thing?  Ben’s oldest son (Bo)  claims that he does not know anything that has not been written in a book:                                     I know nothing! I know nothing! I am a freak because of you! You made us            freaks!  And mom knew that! She understood! Unless it comes out of a fucking book, I don’t know anything about anything!                                                                                  This is interesting, since nowadays, teachers often say  that students don’t know anything because they do not read and therefore are not appropriately familiar with any topic.  Furthermore, Ben’s 4-year old daughter knows not only what the Bill of Rights is, but she can also quote the individual amendments. Ben’s sister’s children (boys over 10) do not know what the Bill is. One could ask what the utility of knowing the Bill of Rights is while living in the wilderness. Either everything written has a value no matter where one lives (and therefore one can actually think about many, many topics and put arguments together, making one’s own mind  naturally), or nothing has a value and therefore making one’s own mind does not come easily (and one is easily persuaded). The film clearly leans on the side of usefulness of books for the cognitive growth of children, especially as the father asks the children to talk about the ideas that the book evoke (not to describe the plot).
  2. When will a “controlling” parent stop being such a parent? In the film, Leslie’s  father controls the way her body is to be disposed of,  even though it is contrary to her last wishes. What does it exactly mean when a parent/caregiver says to his/her child: “I am doing this for your own good”? Different parents have differing opinions of what this “good” means. The film attempts to give children the right to express their own “good”. In this meaning, the title of the film may be misleading.
  3. Is spirituality always connected to giving/receiving gifts? Noam Chomsky is the spiritual godhead in the film and celebrating his “birthday” means Ben’s children get gifts. Gifts which are bought in the store; therefore, the film seems to be saying that even a “wild” education falls prey to  consumerism.                                                                                                                                                                                                          One of the most entertaining  lines of the film mentions Marxists, Trotskyit, Trotskyist, and Maoist almost all in one breath, the other reflects the mother’s desire to have her body cremated according to the Buddhist tradition and then flush the ashes down the toilet.  A number of American cultural traditions and problems are either made fun of or questioned (giving some wine to children, obesity, consumerism, hypocrisy, ostentation of wealth, etc.). It would be most instructive to hear what children and young adults think of the film.  All in all, since the idea to live in wilderness as a family was not really the initial push toward this type of unconventional education, it is difficult to make judgements about it. Suffice it to say that good parenting is never just parenting: it is also (maybe above all) the relationship between the parents. The dynamics may be unpredictable (one child or more? one parent or more? religious background or atheistic or agnostic? right-leaning or left-leaning politically? etc. etc.) but in conclusion, parenting is always unwitting experimentation.
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3 notes on the film HUMAN by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

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There is no doubt that this film reaffirms (through stunning cinematography and amazing colours)* the long-standing characteristics of human individuals: immeasurable dignity, limitless capacity for unbearable suffering, superhuman ability to inflict extreme violence, and also great intelligence, kind simplicity, conscious appreciation of love and ability to verbalize despair. All of these human virtues and vices, however, lose their meaning and become devalued on account of at least three reasons. These reasons are briefly explained as follows:

1) Asepticity. The film seems to have “washed” all the participants and therefore the content on the screen comes through as rigorously aseptic. No one sweats, there is no dirt, no callouses are shown, very few flies or mosquitoes bother the participants. No one suffers from cold or heat. No food or drink is shown. There are no verbal fillers, no hesitations, no swear-words, no words which would “rock the boat”. No pimples, no eczemas. All women wear makeup and everyone looks like they went through a Hollywood cosmetics and coiffeur studio. Why? In the trailer, Yann Arthus-Bertrand explains that he wanted to let the beauty of the world resonate through the faces and words of the interviewees, that their voices are pure and direct. So he made a film that shows beautifully but is sterile.

2) Contextlessness. The interviews do not provide any context of the individuals’ lives: no educational, familial, social, economic, political, ideological, background which is crucial to our comprehending of the standing of the individuals, their points of view, the reasons for their thoughts and emotions. Although the film-maker claims that he made certain critical and political choices, he does not elaborate on these choices. Obviously, the stated intent was to detach the individuals from their environment. Needless to say, as the very first interview clearly and unequivocally demonstrates, the environment made the young man a certain way: but this is only a fraction of his individuality, of the motivations that drove his father to act as he did, and start a chain reaction with tragic consequences.

3) The filmmaker’s deceptive detachment. In general, communication studies teach that all images are mediated, and therefore the honesty of the filmmaker is always in question, and  his/her choices at any stage of the production affect the whole. There are a number of occasions in this film during which I would have dearly loved to know what the reactions of the cameraman or director were to the interviewee’s words. But since the film “lets the voices of those who are never heard speak on their own”, the impact of the content is surely lessened, because there is no dialogue. It is hoped then that the producers take up a suggestion of one interviewee whose statement was surely not rhetorical. She asks to “change places with her”. Now that would be an interesting film, and it would be one that would give a more profound answer to the question “Why is it so hard to understand one another?”.

In conclusion, it is difficult to determine what even the tentative answers are to the existential questions posed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand as the reasons for creating this film. “Why do we, from one generation to the next, make the same mistakes?” One answer could be that we make the same mistakes because we judge others by looking at them from a detached point of view, without regard to the context in which they live, and we let them express their “voices” (giving them false hopes that their “voices” will make a difference). Without a real, difficult, complex dialogue, the existential questions will remain without answers.

*I let someone else comment on 1) the cinematography 2) sources of funding of the film.