While I came to Copenhagen mainly to watch the music documentaries in the Sound & Vision festival-within-the-festival I was going to at least see some of the non-music films. Sunday night’s film was the first of those that I attended, the very powerful “I Am Not Your Negro,” directed by Raoul Peck, and based on an incomplete book, “Remember This House,” by James Baldwin about his relationships with his three murdered friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. The other film, where I found myself by accident, was “The Devil’s Trap,” about a man who grew up in a Christian cult that rejects anything to do with the world outside the cult. The film is by the Canadian Mitchell Stafiej, and it follows 25-year-old Lane, who found the strength to reject the church of his parents, brother and sisters, only to find that he had been permanently rejected by his family.
In each film, we find these problems of hate for anyone who is different, intolerance over the differences, and above all fear. Fear of the consequences of living with people of different beliefs, races, colors, creeds. Throughout “I Am Not Your Negro,” I was thinking about how the film answered for me my questions about the current situation in the United States. How could there be so much hate in this country now with Donald Trump’s (mostly white) voters asking for an America that closes out the rest of the world, refuses to accept diversity and refuses to acknowledge that human beings, in order to survive, need a moral standard that cannot include lies and hate?
Watching the “Baldwin-narrated” – an actor speaks Baldwin’s text, and the film tells the story through historic footage – of the history of black people in America answers that question of “how” can things be like this now. Because many of the white American people – not all of them – have been this way through most of their history. As is said at one point in the film, the history of America is the history of black people in America, and you can use the way black people are being treated as a barometer for the health of the whole country.
It’s a stunning, powerful film. James Baldwin was more than a front-row observer, more than a witness of that history of the second half of the 20th century. He was friends with these three prime voices in the battle for black peoples’ rights – or as King said, “duties” – and he himself, as the film shows, made some very clear and powerful statements.
I have always felt close to Baldwin as an expat writer who lived in Paris in the 1950s. He returned to the United States in the 1960s because he missed the people, then spent the decade there in the height of the civil rights battle, before moving back to France in 1970, and settling in Saint-Paul-de-Vence until his death in 1987 at age 63 from stomach cancer.
Baldwin had never wanted to be taken as a “black writer” first, which is one of the reasons he moved to France – to write from outside the context of his situation in life in the U.S. During his battles in the civil rights movement, he spoke about how he was raised on the same white culture as his white countrymen and women were raised on, and only once he hit a certain age – still as a child – was he stunned to realize that he was in fact considered by the white people in the same role as the Indians were that John Wayne was killing in the films he grew up watching. He, suddenly realized in his innocence, that he was a target.
The film shows not just the past, but it shows how the problems still exist today, with an appearance or two of Trump’s face and words, and there are references to Black Lives Matter, and other current events and murdered black people.
I left the cinema feeling I understood the current situation with Trump much better – because it has so long been woven into the American psyche.
And then the accidental part of this story with The Devil’s Trap
But the next day, Monday, I ended up by accident in this film about Lane and his family’s devotion to the cult of the Exclusive Brethren. To quote from Wikipedia, this cult is “a subset of the Christian evangelical movement generally described as the Plymouth Brethren. They are distinguished from the Open Brethren from whom they separated in 1848.”
Lane and his family, it turns out, are Canadians. They attended the church in Montreal, where Lane grew up controlled by the doctrines of this church, through his parents’ application of the codes on the family. The film, in fact, takes us across the border to various cities in the U.S. as well, including Washington D.C., where his family now lives.
I am a Canadian, born and raised, and as I heard Lane speak, I felt I heard my friends and family – eh? So my thoughts about “I Am Not Your Negro,” and the U.S.-specific hate and intolerance came into a different perspective.
Lane tells the story of how he grew up indoctrinated by the principles of the cult through his parents in such a strict way that he felt like a complete outsider in Canadian society. (Although he never used such a national distinction.) He could not watch films, had no right to listen to music CDs, if he swore his father would wash his mouth out with laundry detergent. And when he dared decide to leave the church, his family and eventually join the military, his family not only disowned him, but refused to speak to him. No one paid much attention when he told them that he had been raped at age 13 by a church member at the church.
His parents never want to see him again. First, though, so convinced were they that there was something wrong with Lane, that they took him to the Mayo Clinic for several days of physical and mental examinations. The overseeing doctor at this respected clinic told him after all the tests that he was an entirely healthy teenager, both physically and mentally and he should not let anyone tell him otherwise. That helped him realize that despite hearing that he was mentally ill from his family for years, his inclinations that there was a problem rather with his upbringing were right.
He broke away. But the film shows how he makes a final effort to try to see and meet, and share the life he deserves with his family, travelling to Washington to see them. It is only in this culminating scene that I became entirely convinced myself that Lane was not exaggerating, or perhaps even lying, about the extreme nature of the treatment by his family. We learn through a concealed recording he made of his meeting with his brother – whom he had not seen in years – that his parents would not come and meet him, that it would be too difficult for them to take emotionally. These parents were, however, dying, feeling completely destroyed, by the departure and betrayal against the church and its beliefs, their beliefs, of their son.
In short, their cult religion, their beliefs, were more important than their love for their child. Oh, no, sorry, Lane they do love. But they would only welcome him back home and come to see him, make him a member of the family again if he accepted the dictates of the cult. Only if he sacrificed everything to the cult as they did would they accept that he was worth loving and associating with. Otherwise, he was to be shunned, closed out, shut up, disowned, considered dead.
One difference between the treatment of Lane and the treatment of the blacks in racist America is that at least it would appear that the members of the cult do not intend to actually physically kill those who are different from them, as is the case through the history of violence and hate against the blacks in America. There is, of course, the mental torture his family inflict from their intolerance and ignorance and hateful actions – but at least there is no murder, in this case.
But for me, these two films sum up the depths to which humanity appears to be going at the moment with the extremism that Trump represents. One of the most interesting elements for me, also, is that these people in the cult who hate and refuse to live with those who are different than them, including their own family members, they are from an affluent middle class. We are not talking about physical poverty here – only mental poverty. Most of Trump’s voters, while perhaps being from a lower-income part of the population, are not exactly starving and dying from exposure either. We are, in both cases, talking about people whose basic needs have been met, and now they are free to hate through extreme ideologies. Why is it that with the most common challenge facing humanity being the very survival and feeding and housing of the 6 or 7 billion of us all, we have to try to destroy one another based on ideologies and beliefs? Could fear and cowardice be the answer to that?
Anyway, this has to be one of the most run-on posts I’ve ever done, and I’d probably do much better to stick to writing about the music films at CPH:DOX. But I was affected by both of these films.
And then there was Tindersticks vs. the amoeba
To finish on a lighter note, I also attended briefly the multimedia event of the weekend, the concert by the group Tindersticks, playing at the festival headquarters while overhead some strange video showed of sped-up-motion nature shots of plants and amoeba etc., in Minute Bodies. Don’t bother asking me what it all meant. Check out my video of a minute or so of that concert, if you want to understand. Then get back to me on your theories….