Prerequisite to breaking out of the prison of global inhumanity
By Bill Swanson
August 16, 2002
Julian Samuel's review of The Tree That Remembers [Tears,
wall-to-wall] is worth considering as representative of a typical imprisonment
in an ideologically bound mindset, about as predictable and progressive as CNN.
The review's overt criticism centers on the documentary's failure to concern itself
directly with the reviewer's preferred approach -- international complicity in Iranian
suffering. Samuel manages not only to miss (and exemplify) the point of the documentary
but to descend to a puerile tantrum passing itself off as criticism.
The review as a whole is important, then, in that it displays a fundamental problem
with elements of contemporary "progressive" political culture, one that
must be addressed if good intentions are not to succumb to narrow minds.
Reducing the experience of the film to "endless tears", Samuel asks what
he evidently takes to be a rhetorical question: "What's the point of showing
us tears without exploring the international complicity (and the silence of the corporate
mass media) which has partially contributed to the enormous suffering of Iranians?"
The Tree That Remembers, he correctly notes, doesn't expose the selling of
"profit-making instruments of repression to Iran" and fails to even mention
the Canadian arms industry.
There follows a litany of further points that a
documentary concerning Iran presumably must make if it is to be "relevant":
globalization, questions concerning Canada's complicity in support of Savak and the
Shah, the extent of Canada's criticism of Iran internationally, its links with the
current regime. All of these are worthy questions, but are all others not overtly
linked to them pointless? Is this all there is to human experience, the only valid
form of political engagement?
It would be hard to imagine an experience of the film that further missed the point:
by observing (rather than experiencing) the film from the point of view of the preferred
perspective, and criticizing it for not being from that perspective, Samuel exemplifies
a general tendency to what is finally a narcissistic self-enclosure that marks much
of the ideological, single-issue, tirade approach of contemporary political culture
(which all too frequently renders the left in this regard indistinguishable from
The consequence of this approach in this instance is not just a failure of perception,
but a genuine and, I must say, shameful disservice to the work of those involved
in making the documentary and to the broader cause that Samuel himself is presumably
in favour of defending.
He descends to the claim that The Tree That Remembers "actually perpetuates
the suffering of the Iranian people; their suffering is presented as something out
there in the far away blue yonder, as something not connected to Canada". To
anyone who actually experienced the film this statement must appear as both silly
and sad, because, for one thing, precisely the opposite is the case.
The "central thesis or focus" that appears to Samuel to be absent, is actually
too deep for the analytical framework he attempts to impose upon it. What is missing,
the documentary points out, in Canada, as in Iran and elsewhere in this globalizing
world, is a capacity to experience and care about the suffering of others and the
caring for life as such. What is present, as the experiences of the former prisoners
poignantly demonstrate, is the potentiality for resistance to a society and culture
-- any society; any culture -- that suppresses or oppresses the human capacity to
It makes a concerted effort, successful in my view,
precisely to go beyond the victim-sentimentality that titillates the voyeur; it makes
a concerted effort, successful in my view, to generalize the experience of the prisoners,
to expose the element, in Canadian culture among others, of disinterestedness (often
in the guise of "multiculturalism"), where impartiality and recognition
of difference are merely covers for indifference.
The fundamental "prison", says the film, is the one that locks us into
ourselves or our particular group, dehumanizing everyone else, allowing us to do
anything to them or to fail to do anything for them in the name of this or that idea
or of no idea at all.
As for Canadian relevance, it should be remembered that the immediate motivation
for the making of The Tree That Remembers was the suicide of a young Iranian
man who hung himself outside a small Ontario town. He had survived the brutality
of prison in Iran, but failed to survive Canadian indifference.
The deeper prison here then locks up the heart, the spirit, the soul, leaving it
incapable of opening up to a caring relation to others. And, so long as that cultural
malaise dominates, one more diatribe (or thousands more) against globalization and
Canadian complicity (preaching for the most part to the choir in any event) is going
to produce very little effect and the effect it does produce -- projected as it so
often is like a moral missal of priestly righteousness -- will resemble that of urinating
into the wind.
Under the circumstances, Samuel's criticism stands precisely
as an example of what the film is attempting to illuminate: imprisonment in an insular
and narcissistic mindset. As such it is approximately as relevant as the equally
accurate complaint that the documentary lacks a focus on feminist issues or fails
to say anything about ecology (though another film might illuminate connections
between these issues, or Samuel's, and alienation).
To be somewhat more generous than the reviewer, there may be buried beneath the lashing
out, a real personal desire for a more humane world. But it is all but expunged from
view by the obtuse failure to grasp anything that is going on in the film. The criticism
of its supposed structural, technical and aesthetic defects, for example, clearly
follows, as response follows stimulus, directly from the merely angry reaction to
the absence of Samuel's preferred focus (and from whatever underlying personal issues
there may be).
To take what he labels the "comatose animation" he claims is "inserted"
to stay the charge of "talking heads": for anyone able to experience the
theme, the spirit of life that sustains the resistance of those who have actually
resisted a truly harsh reality and that the film is attempting to uncover, the
animation works wonderfully to express the unsayable, yet fundamental humanity of
that spirit'the experience of the tragedy of its suffering, its durability
in spite of all suffering, its beauty and its hope. This is one of the gifts such
art is capable of bestowing.
With such woeful, and perhaps willful, missing of the point, one is left with the
distinct impression that there is more going on underneath the overt criticisms:
witness the unintentional racism in the opening lines, suggesting as they do that
the Canadian National Film Board (NFB) accepted the film only because of the "visible
minority" [?!] origins of the director (a whine worthy of the xenophobic, immigrants-are-taking-white-men's-jobs
mentality). Or what amounts to a personal attack on the integrity of the director:
"Do the NFB bosses control the content of this film?"
Such attacks are common to a particular sort of defensive psuedo-"rational"
character. Fear of emotions, inability to achieve genuine reflexivity, reduction
of all feeling to sentimentality, rejection of the "poetic" (it lacks "rigour"),
were long ago recognized as attributes of authoritarian personality, something elements
of the left sometimes have in common with the right and something which historically
yields, no matter what the goal, inhumanity rather than any reduction of suffering.
Attempting to appear "more-political-than-thou", then, while displaying
what appears very much like an anxiety about expressed emotions (however genuine
or tastefully presented) is probably less than politically progressive in its effect.
Beyond the motive of personal jealousy that one may suspect in this case, there is
exposed here a mimicking of the rationalist "realism" of the liberal mind
-- and positions to the right of liberal.
Here, Samuel's stated preference for the CDC's (Canadian Broadcasting Corporationn's)
"almost analytical" approach over Raouf's is again telling. This is, of
course, a mythical realism, one in which the only thing that counts is a somewhat
heroic instrumental conception of political practice, understandable enough in the
nineteenth-century, but today capable only of caricature: witness the naivet of the
claim that "Canadians would pressure their elected politicians to change things
if they were given rational information on how Canada, in its own small way, contributes
to the suffering."
Samuel claims that the director, Raouf, should have studied Rufia Pooya's In Defense
of the People. We would all be the better for that experience too. I don't know
that Raouf didn't, but the implication that the only way to proceed is to go forth
and do likewise is, of course, retrogressive. The call to repetition, as if all we
lacked were quantity, is only one among many glaring examples of the narrow, dogmatic,
priestly perspectives still to be found in much of what passes for thinking among
many of the left, the only potentially progressive slice of the political spectrum.
Let me suggest as an alternative to Samuel's approach the sensitive and insightful
review of the film by Niloufar Kalaam: "A Chat Concerning The Tree That Remembers"
(Shahrvand, Vol. 12, No. 706, August 2, 2002). More generally, Samuel might
acquire some empirical and theoretical grasp of cultural and psychic experience and
their relations to the political, whether global or otherwise (if for no other reason,
then to grasp how the personal and cultural biases -- apparently willing to go the
distance for the sake of attention -- clearly reflected in his piece slip in under
the guise of "rational criticism").
Contemplation of the different sorts of awareness and knowledge afforded by the various
forms of communication, artistic as well as expository, and of how we need all of
them and more, might also prove to be time well spent. Some sense of the value of
working from various perspectives and from various experiences of the world would,
as the film reminds us, be an improvement in the culture as it stands.
As for myself, The Tree That Remembers is about
us. It is about remembering the suffering of Iranian prisoners to be sure.
But it is also an example, a metaphor for the inhumanity we inflict upon each other
everywhere and every day, whether through overt oppression of the sort depicted or
the oppression of isolated and indifferent existence -- also depicted. It calls upon
us actually to recognize the other person, to be responsible for her and his well-being
as for our own, to love.
And, however "poetic" or romantic such a call may appear to the rationalist
and instrumental mind, remembering our common humanity and practicing care are prerequisites
to breaking out of the prison of global inhumanity of which the film speaks.
I would like to thank Raouf and all of the participants for the reminder, recommend
it to everyone and, for those who missed its call the first time through, suggest
that it might be well to open up to the experience it offers rather than substituting
the calculation of its distance from preconceptions, and see it again.