In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, writer Ursula K. Le Guin explains that “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.” She describes the genre’s conceits as “thought-experiments” intended to explore contemporary phenomena, regardless of the timeframe in which the story takes place. Le Guin’s statement certainly applies to those films contemplating apocalyptic events, especially Melancholia and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. These two films both explore the nature of relationships, both romantic and familial, using the imminent demise of humanity to highlight the absurdity of social conventions and the drawbacks of optimistic thinking.
While thematically similar, these two films have very little else in common, at least upon first glance. The trailers below showcase differences in style, tone, and genre:
Seeking a Friend strikes a comedic note, following the exploits of neighbors Dodge (Steve Carrell) and Penny (Keira Knightly) as they each attempt to reunite with loved ones in preparation for a catastrophic meteor’s collision with Earth. The unlikely pair forms a bond over the course of the film, ultimately finding in each other the love and companionship each had sought during the film’s journey. It sounds a bit corny because it is, but I also found Seeking a Friend moving in spite of its predictability.
In contrast, Melancholia strives for something more subtle and complex in it’s dramatic approach to the same concept. This film portrays sisters Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The women live together on a picturesque estate when a rogue planet, called Melancholia, appears in the sky. Claire’s husband, John (Kiefer Sutherland) reassures her that the planet will merely fly by, despite contradicting opinions in the scientific community. Ultimately, Melancholia subsumes Earth but not before testing Claire and Justine’s ability to cope with the reality of impending doom.
This dramatic challenge to character that the apocalypse brings is the thought experiment at the heart of Seeking a Friend and Melancholia. With the destruction of the planet drawing near, characters must choose how to spend their remaining days and hours. In Seeking a Friend, you see many characters defying the social order in anticipation of death, with one scene depicting an end of the world party in which characters decide to try heroin. Another scene parodies the friendliness of casual chain restaurants, with waiters and customers engaging in orgiastic behavior. More absurdly, some characters cling to routine, in spite of the awareness of death. The drawn out nature and social setting of the film allows for an exploration of both responses, largely to comedic effect.
Melancholia’s more confined setting limits such an exploration of responses. What we do see, however, is a contrast between the sisters, whose roles also reverse in the course of the film as a result of changing circumstances. In the first half, labeled “Part 1: Justine,” we see Justine struggle to enjoy her lavish wedding reception much to Claire and her husband’s chagrin. In “Part 2: Claire,” this half initially portrays Justine as crippled by her depression; however, it is Claire who panics at the realization of the world’s end, while Justine remains calm and in control of her emotions. Her depression, it becomes clear, gives her the ability to cope with a crumbling world, and the pessimism to care little when contemplating the end of all life.
Penny and Dodge’s dynamic similarly plays upon the optimism/pessimism dichotomy. Penny openly describes herself as an optimist, with Knightley laying down the Manic Pixie Dream Girl charm to contrast Carrell’s at times wooden portrayal of the depressed Dodge; however, unlike Justine in Melancholia, Dodge does not initially seem better able to cope with the end of the world, though he does claim that he feels validated in his pessimism by the apocalypse. In their very last moments, though, it is Dodge who comforts Penny, staring into her eyes and asking her questions about her upbringing–he’s so enamored of her and so satisfied in the moment, he seems completely unfazed by the sounds of the meteor crashing to Earth.
Justine similarly demonstrates strength in the film’s final scenes, while Claire struggles with the knowledge that the world will end. After realizing that Melancholia will not merely fly by, Claire becomes hysterical. She suggests that they sip wine together on the terrace, a plan that Justine mocks as a “piece of shit.” As the weather turns volatile, Claire picks up her young son and races away with him on a golf cart, despite the inescapable nature of the threat before them. When this fails, Claire returns to the house with her son, whom Justine takes into the woods to gather sticks and build a “magic cave” for them to sit within. The scene below demonstrates their differing responses:
As in Seeking a Friend, Melancholia’s final moment is one of acceptance, but also of human connection, for the planet’s destruction unites all beings, regardless of their strengths and weaknesses. In this way, it could be said, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek does in the clip below, that Melancholia in its embrace of Justine’s pessimism, actually becomes an optimistic film:
The same could be said for Seeking a Friend. Instead of surrendering to Penny’s desire that the end be she and Dodge “saving each other,” Seeking a Friend concludes with the two accepting their demise and showing gratitude for the little time they spent together; here, though, the two films part company. Melancholia undermines romantic love by portraying Justine’s wedding ceremony as a joyless sham, while Seeking a Friend seems to reinforce it through Penny and Dodge’s connection.
Nevertheless, I would argue that the outcomes of Seeking a Friend and Melancholia’s thought experiments are not so different. Even with their contrasting generic approaches, both show how pessimism enables its characters to accept the end, resulting in peaceful last moments through connection with others.
For many Westerners, the word “Africa” conjures up a few key images: exotic wildlife, tribal communities, and human suffering tend to be most commonly associated with the continent. Sadly, these things don’t even begin to capture the complexity of the second-largest continent on our planet. Just imagine if all you knew of North America was based on images of Yellowstone wildlife, Appalachian poverty, and Native American tribes. These are all important aspects of American life, but they don’t tell the whole story. Within a single African country (there are 54) you are likely to find multiple races, classes, and religious and political perspectives–just a sampling of the diversity that makes up the continent as a whole. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie beautifully articulated how oversimplification dehumanizes Africans in her TED talk, which I am embedding here because it should be required viewing for every American.
As a writer, Adichie knows the power of telling your own story, and how empowering people across various identities to share their perspectives creates a greater awareness of the complexities within a broader culture.
It was with this awareness that I watched War Witch at February’s Portland International Film Festival. The film’s subject-matter and Oscar nomination (for Best Foreign Language Film) attracted me to it, while the performances and narrative thoroughly impressed me. Nevertheless, I fear that War Witch reinforces the worst assumptions about Africa for the Western audience it targets, even though its story is incredibly important and poignant.
The film follows Komona, a 12 year-old girl abducted by a rebel militia in a sub-Saharan African country (the characters never refer to their location, but the film was shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo). Komona becomes a child soldier but soon gains recognition within the ranks for sensing impending attacks from the enemy before they occur. These battle scenes may be some of the most effective: Komona comes upon phantoms, eerily covered in white powder that resembles ash. The trailer below features a few clips of these ghostly encounters:
Upon first glance, War Witch confirms the stereotypes of Africa as a war-torn place with more suffering than joy. The trailer highlights these tragic elements of the story, using melodramatic music for greater affect. It doesn’t help that the film comes in the wake of the Kony 2012 campaign, which highlighted the war crimes perpetrated by Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and advocated for Kony’s capture. While well-meaning, this effort to draw attention to the plight of child soldiers raised many eyebrows in activist communities for oversimplifying the politics and history of the issues that the viral Kony 2012 explained. War Witch could similarly be accused of glossing over the causes of the military use of children.
Setting aside such concerns, however, one cannot deny the emotional power of War Witch, which results from its singular focus on Komona’s personal experiences. Actress Rachel Mwanza portrays the title character with such maturity and grace, striking perfectly that balance between vulnerability and strength. More importantly, the story develops Komona into a whole person with a broad range of emotions and experiences. Komona may suffer as a child soldier, but she also experiences the joys of first love. She and another child soldier, Magician, defect from the army and develop a romance. This section of the film, which may be the most pleasurable, uses humor to convey Magician’s pursuit of Komona but also treats the teen lovers seriously. Sadly, the violence of the war tragically interrupts the romance–I won’t go into too much detail on this point, but I will say in a movie full of difficult moments, it may be the saddest one. Still, War Witch somehow finds a way to end with a ray of hope without feeling forced or contrived. In short, you may not walk out of the film feeling good about the state of the world, but you will admire the strength of War Witch’s eponymous heroin.
But while I loved the film and was moved by the story, I am bothered by what it says about our film industry and culture that War Witch is the most celebrated “African” film of the year. I put “African” in quotes because it would be impossible for one film to encompass all of Africa, but also because the film has North American roots. The Canadian writer/director, Kim Nguyen, is of French Canadian and Vietnamese descent. While I am not saying we should limit who can tell what kind of story based on nationality or race, I do feel that the details of the film’s authorship raise uncomfortable questions about who gets to speak in the artistic marketplace for whom and why. I would be more comfortable with War Witch if it were one among many films portraying the varied lives of people in the DRC; instead, it fills a vacuum of representation with more of the same images that Americans associate with Sub-Saharan Africa, even if it does so poignantly.
My husband and I did some Spring break traveling this week to his grandparents’ home. While the trip included dining and sight-seeing on the agenda, we also spent quite a lot of time catching up on movies. A theme in our movie selections emerged with Argo, Skyfall, and Zero Dark Thirty all screened during the visit, highlighting that 2012 featured an abundance of spies on the big screen, to say nothing of small screen spies in series like Homeland. Argo and Zero Dark Thirty proved particularly interesting, as both portrayed actual events albeit fictionalized version. Both films focus on CIA agents, with Argo depicting the CIA’s efforts to extract six American diplomats in what became known as the Canadian Caper, while Zero Dark Thirty tracks the CIA’s efforts to kill Osama bin Ladin.
Common themes between the two films struck me upon reflection. Both films focus on a single CIA agent. Argo director Ben Affleck performs as Tony Mendez, a CIA agent who devises a plan to remove the diplomats under the pretense that they are a Canadian film crew scouting a location. Zero Dark Thirty‘s Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, discovers the location of Osama bin Ladin in a Pakistani compound and doggedly advocates to pursue assassination based on the intelligence she gathered. In both cases, the protagonist leads the charge despite resistance from other spies and the bureaucratic institutions under which they operate. Both spies, however, manage to forge ahead with their plans, and their successes justify their rogue styles.
But in the same way that both Maya and Tony stand alone professionally, each also experience personal isolation as well. We learn of Tony’s estrangement from his wife and child, with Tony struggling to connect with his son through phone conversations and apologetic birthday cards. In contrast, Zero Dark Thirty depicts Maya as singularly devoted to her work with only one scene depicting social activity. In that scene, Maya’s female colleague asks about her relationships with another agent, which Maya insists is strictly professional. The women never get beyond work conversation, with the terrorist forces they fight in their work abruptly interrupting the moment: a bomb explodes in the hotel restaurant where they share drinks, literally demonstrating the ways in which the perils of spy work can inhibit other aspects of life. Both Maya and Tony, then, find that their work alienates them from others.
Even in victory, the secretive nature of Maya and Tony’s employment prevents them from being fully recognized for their successes. Following the assassination of bin Ladin, Maya rides alone in an otherwise empty military transport, with the pilot stating that she must be a very important person to be riding in the transport all by herself. The pilot’s ignorance of the reasons for her escort highlight the thanklessness of her work. Tony similarly receives the Intelligence Star for his efforts, but must give his medal back as soon as he receives it–his recognition cannot be public due to the classified nature of his work. So while successful, the agents depicted in Zero Dark Thirty and Argo.
In the end, though, Tony and Maya’s stories differ with each film striking very different tones in their final moments. Tony returns to his wife and son, literally embracing them in the final shots of the film. In voiceover, then president Jimmy Carter describes Tony’s work as exemplary and additional titles explain that Tony has since been recognized with the declassification of the case (Argo itself is a product of that declassification process). We also learn that Tony reunited with his family and continued to maintain those ties in his later years. The last shot of Zero Dark Thirty, on the other hand, shows Maya alone on the transport, a single tear running down her cheek (see below).
Looking at Zero Dark Thirty on its own, this moment resonated with me, because it seems to present Maya’s endeavors as futile and the accomplishment of taking down bin Ladin as anticlimactic. The War on Terror has often been described as futile, with the bin Ladin’s death a symbolic victory rather than a substantial accomplishment. Maya’s response to her success beautifully captures the existential crisis that comes with the completion of such a mission.
Yet, the feminist in me feels that Maya’s short-changed in this moment. I fear that in Maya, we get a classic portrayal of a hollow professional woman who can’t find balance in her life, while Argo’s Tony gets that satisfaction of knowing he succeeded AND mends his relationships with his wife and kid. Loneliness, then, has a very different connotation for a single woman character, versus a married man. With all of the discourses out there telling women that they incomplete without a male partner, it disappoints me that Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t allow Maya a sense of fulfillment in her work, even if that work in the name of American imperialism.