First in a series, Films for Our Times
What does the great popular art form of modern times — film — have to say to our tumultuous times, the early 21st century? With the weakening of the post-World War II international order — institutional bulwarks failing to protect the individual against the ravages of a globalized economy or armed conflict; democracy’s spread checked by ineffective leadership, resurgent populism and nationalism, and rising authoritarianism — our times as a consequence are marked by extreme polarization, loss of identity, disillusion, anger.
A public so alienated, even in a democracy, can fall prey to the blandishments of the autocrat. In November 2016 the world’s oldest democracy, the United States of America, fell prey to proto-autocrat Donald Trump. Since the turn of the millennium, twenty-five liberal democracies around the world have turned illiberal, with strongman leaders consolidating their power over their governments, disenfranchising their populations, controlling their media.
In the belief that culture as much as politics can juice the recovery of a faltering polity, this series will highlight films, American and foreign, from the vault as well as more recent efforts, that provide that juice. While modern culture — TV, books, drama, film — offers few tools to counter political chaos, emphasizing instead pathology and dysfunction and the dystopian, and while much modern film focuses on the personal to the exclusion of a larger context, still there are gems: Films with protagonists — heroes rather than antiheroes — keenly aware of that larger context and the peril threatening it, who fight their way to what the Roman poet Virgil called “the upper air.”
Anybody who thinks human rights are superfluous, or thinks the rise of autocracy and the weakening of democracy around the world is a benign development, needs to see these two superb documentaries, both set in Syria in hospitals, where the tragedy of war plays out most urgently. While war is always terrible, civil war is more so. Experiencing these two films, this viewer’s overwhelming feeling was: People, most especially children, have a basic human right not to be traumatized by their own countrymen.
Autocrats, unconstrained by ethics, bomb their own people, as has Syria’s autocratic leader, Bashar al-Assad. Since 2012, soon allied with another autocrat, Russia’s Vladimir Putin…