Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Of Gods and Men

I saw a film called Of Gods and Men, directed by Xavier Beavois, at the French Film Festival last month. (For those in Sydney, it’s also opening at Palace Verona tomorrow.) It tells the story of a group of French monks in Algeria who were killed in 1996, after refusing to give in to demands by militant Islamicist groups and pressure from the government to leave the country. The film beautifully portrays life within and around the monastery as well as the emotional struggles of the monks in deciding whether to stay or leave. Some feel strongly that they ought to stay in Algeria, that this is their life and it would be wrong to give in to the threat of violence. Other monks aren’t so idealistic, or so brave, or so sure that they have a duty or a right to stay in Algeria that’s worth defending at the risk of death. On the other hand, they are aware that the Islamic people living in the village that has grown up around the monastery want them to remain.

When the abbot asks a group of the local people if they feel they need the protection of the army against the violence of the political radicals, one man says, “Let’s not talk about the army, it’s a catastrophe. The army won’t come. The protection is you.” A monk then compares the monks to birds on a branch, an image that evokes both a sense of them as sitting targets, and the possibility that they may fly at any moment. To this, a woman firmly replies, “We are the birds. You are the branch. Without you, we won’t know where to rest.”

Over dinner a week or two ago, I got into a lively argument with a friend of mine, Nick, about this film. He felt it was irresponsible and unhelpful to make a film like this at a time when there is already so much fear of terrorism, and lack of understanding of the conditions that underlie Islamicism. He thinks that what we need are films that make Islamicism comprehensible, that acknowledge and expose the injustices that have provoked the anger and the desperate measures of Islamicist politics. For him, this film demonized the Islamicists in Algeria, idealized the monks as the representatives of Western culture, and failed to consider the history that led up to their confrontation or to present the perspective of the Islamicists.

It is true that ‘Of Gods and Men’ does not attempt to explain the history of colonization in Algeria. As a French film, it is made for an audience that is assumed to have prior knowledge of this history. It is also a film that does not seek to understand political violence by delving into its causes or exploring the perspective of the violent. In the world of the film the threat of violence is a given, a fact that the protagonists of the film cannot control. Their problem is how to respond to it. The options of flight or compromise are considered, but not taken up. Horrified as they are by the violence, the monks also refrain from condemnation or judgment.

When an armed group storms into the monastery and its leader demands medical treatment for his men, the abbot stands his ground and says that they will receive the same treatment as the villagers – no more. He quotes a passage from the Koran about the love shown by Christians toward the people they live among, and the leader supplies the last phrase (about “waxing not proud”). When the abbot adds that it is Christmas Eve, the leader apologises and shakes his hand before leaving peacefully.

Later, the abbot is called upon by an army general to identify the corpse of this man. Before showing him the body, the general warns that it has been dragged through the town behind an army truck so his victims could rejoice over his death. The abbot asks why he did not prevent this. Astonished, the general asks if he wants to know what the favorite torture technique of this man was in dealing with his innocent victims, and declares that people like him do not merit compassion. By contrast, when the dead man’s head is uncovered and the abbot recognizes the Islamicist leader, it is clear from his gesture and expression that the abbot is filled with compassion for a fellow human being whose life has ended so pitifully – judgment of the crimes this man committed is irrelevant for him in this moment.

These scenes from the film make it hard for me to see it as a work that demonises Islamicists, or encourages anti-terrorist sentiment, even though it portrays the suffering and fear provoked by Islamicist violence. For me, it is a film that presents an inspiring and challenging model of how to respond to such violence. The monks do not participate in the violence, even in the form of condemnatory judgments or by letting it persuade them to abandon a place and a way of life they value. Instead, under great pressure, they sustain their commitment to a way of peace and love, and show a compassionate understanding of those who threaten them that is not based on complex judgments about historical responsibilities, but on a simpler, more profound sense of shared humanity. There is a strong sense that this commitment is both extremely difficult and freely made and renewed each day. Nothing obliges the monks to behave the way they do, not the violent agents of political history, not the authority of the Church or Western culture, not even the demands of morality.

I am conscious in writing the last sentence of echoing Sartre’s rhetoric in Being and Nothingness - except that he would have italicized “Nothing.” To my mind, Of Gods and Men provides a moving example of what it might be to live according to an existentialist ethic of absolute personal freedom and responsibility. But it also challenges Sartre’s version of this ethic by suggesting an intimate connection between such responsibility and a commitment to non-violence that is underpinned by the discipline of religious practice. Sartre was anti-religious and defended the use of violence for political purposes. Maybe he would have agreed with Nick…


Peter said...

I've not seen the film yet but it's on my (ever lengthening) list ...

I like the way you speak of an ethic of "absolute personal freedom and responsibility" together with a "commitment to non-violence that is underpinned by the discipline of religious practice"

Although not himself particularly religious, I wonder whether Satre's contemporary Albert Camus would be an interesting figure in this connection, especially given his interest in Algeria.

I've just been reading a book on Simone Weil (who was religious and also committed to nonviolence of sorts). In a section on Camus there is a quote from him which seems almost directly to address the scene you describe (which in turn brings to mind more recent events in our own time) when the abbott refuses to withold compassion even from the dead leader: "when death or torture of a human being can, in our world, be examined with a feeling of indifference, with friendly or experimental interest, or without response, there is a Human Crisis." (Camus, "The Human Crisis", cited in E Jane Doering "Simone Weil and the Specter of Self-Perpetuating Force" Notre Dame 2010, p. 228)

Elsewhere in the book Camus is quoted as saying: "We live in a world of abstraction, one of offices and machines, of absolute ideas and of fanatical zealots. We are suffocating amid people who believe they are right without question, be it in their machines or in their ideas. For those who can live only with dialogue and friendship, this absence is the end of the world." (Camus, "The Century of Fear", cited by Doering p, 229)

I think this just about sums up the world situation today and underlines the need for an ethic such as the one you describe.

I shall watch the fim with even greater interest now ...

Juzzeau said...

Thanks, Peter, the book on Simone Weil sounds fascinating. Camus and Sartre had a big falling out over their different attitudes towards political violence, so you're right in thinking that Camus challenged this aspect of Sartre's thinking - I wonder if he also saw a connection between non-violence and a coherent account of existentialist ethics.

The second quote from Camus is particularly interesting for me - it makes me think of Asja Lacis' intransigent commitment to Soviet communism (even after having been sent as a prisoner to the Gulag). Your suggestion that the problem Camus identifies isn't peculiar to the period of Nazism and Soviet communism, but also describes the contemporary world situation is rather chilling (and thought provoking). I wonder though if the political powers of our time are even concerned with being "right" in their ideas, in the way that at least some communists and Nazis were.

Peter said...

An interesting (and alarming) thought ! "Right" maybe in having a sense that "we" are the "good guys" (and so by definition anything we do must therefore be "right").

This is really the only way in which I can understand Obama's claim that "Justice has been done" in the killing of OBL.

What I found particularly powerful about Camus' quote (and I must read some of these essays over the Summer)is his last sentence: "For those who can live only with dialogue and friendship, this absence is the end of the world."

I wonder, where are these people in the world today ?