Practicing care

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 right).

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 be “for-life”.

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.

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