Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 9.8: The Ghost of CAAMFest
Films are compelling. They pack a powerful punch: a jolt to the funny bone, a kick to the gut, a plea to the heart. Through the projector’s flicker, we find light and illumination, perhaps even enlightenment through the perspectives, wisdom, narratives and presence of others. The director hypnotizes us and we enter a trance. The film is like a shaman transporting us between worlds, carrying feelings like a ghost. The Chinese character for ghost is integral to the characters for soul (Hun and Po), I’ve been told. The pictogram for “ghost” is a human wearing a mask, the same as a shaman, or an actor. If we pay attention to the shaman’s message, we can find something of the ghost in the machine, the universal soul, revealed.
Ariane, a colleague of mine, had this to say after watching J.P. Chan’s A PICTURE OF YOU:
“A PICTURE OF YOU used farce and slapstick – as the earliest silent films did – yet in a new way, playing with the audience’s expectations about assumptions, mores, and ‘acceptable’ behavior. It revealed how relationships, and small communications, impact one over time, and alter the trajectory of events. It employed simple, yet quintessential American experiences, such as riding one’s bike and having one’s bike breaking down, or visiting an unfamiliar house as a guest, or being locked out of one’s own house, or…hiding in the bushes as a child, experimenting with marijuana as a teen, or being with a sick or dying relative. In addition, it is one of those rare movies where a woman shares the main role with the male figure (like the recent, breath-taking film, Twelve Years a Slave, where the sexualized torture of being a female slave or, to a much lesser extent, the powerless, corrupted wife of a slave-owner, are explored in depth). In A PICTURE OF YOU, the children’s psychology is exposed immediately, while the portrait of the mother is built overtime – revealing how parents inhabit entire worlds unknown to their children. For those of us who battled with our siblings endlessly throughout excruciating time, or who lost our mothers at an age when we were too young to know their value, this film was especially significant. Because of this all, we are forced to reckon with what we have now, while reflecting on what we could not repair at the time. For this, I am grateful to the film, the characters, and the film-makers.”
Here the film has indeed become a shaman, transporting the viewer into their own memories and allowing them to rework and reimagine what was, while coming to acceptance of what is.
CAAMFest-as-shaman spanned the personal to the societal and global. In THE MISSING PICTURE, Rithy Panh’s memories of the Killing Fields, “pounding at (his) temple” in mid-life, are portrayed with clay figures and archival footage. His subtly poetic narration was as perfect an example of exposure desensitization therapy as I’ve ever seen. Terrible, traumatic emotions are lifted just off the memory, and a warmth and tenderness remains, attached to the people lost to the cruelty and ideology of other human beings. In a loving touch, he imagines his long-dead parents watching him on a television talk show. He still carries their voices with him. They gently critique his account and urge him to look deeper, like the best of parents would: the Khmer Rouge, as horrible as they were, were not the only or first oppressors of the Cambodian people. It is a graceful way to touch the essence of this life of suffering.
A deep, layered landscape of both loss and hope covers the Earth today. It takes a poet like Kosal Khiev to take us from the topsoil to the depths. His life, his poignant hardships, deprivations and triumphs (CAMBODIAN SON) reach from the visible dust we tread on to layers of invisible sediment, sentiments and memories that stretch through time. Bombs dropped five decades ago are still exploding in the lives of children today, and even these are the product of mentalities that stretch back generations, or even millennia. Our sorrow is primal; as a species we have survived it, perhaps even thrived despite loss. Perhaps only the great and vast grief of being human can unite us, in the recognition that we are all vulnerable: to chance, to time, to nature. To our own nature. But in these must also lie our salvation.
I was deeply affected by Richie Mehta’s Dickensian film, SIDDHARTH. A young boy is sent off to work in a factory by his father, Mahendra, who scrapes a living from repairing zippers. Siddharth disappears, Mahendra goes searching for him, carrying his guilt and anguish like a cross. The film is brilliantly conceived, edited and acted, and touched me like almost no other film in recent memory. I was sitting with loss and helplessness as the credits rolled, in full depression, and then Richie Mehta said words that took me to back to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s second stage of grief, anger. He said his film was ultimately about hope and resilience, how this poor man was able to carry on despite his tragedy. I vehemently disagreed. One does not “carry on” after the loss of one’s child. Something must die within. Perhaps something is born – determination, acceptance, stoicity, or even “gaman”, to bring in the message of STORIES FROM TOHOKU and the survivors of the 2011 Tsunami and Fukushima disaster – but this is an extreme, extraordinary loss, made even more tragic by the fact that it’s almost commonplace. I discovered later that 44,000 children a year go missing each year in India alone, and 11,000 of these are untraceable.
Mehta said his film was born out of a conversation with a taxi driver whose son had gone missing. “What can I do? I have to work and feed my family,” the man said. Mehta heard resilience, but I heard resignation to fate and a horribly imperfect society in a horribly imperfect world. I struggled even more with Richie’s answer to another questioner. What could fix this situation? Richie said he “wasn’t an economist”. A friend of mine echoed the sentiment to me later. “The economic system is at fault.” I found this incomplete, to say the least. Even if some overarching change took place in the economic system, would this end exploitation? What do we do in the meantime? For those who believe we are entirely the product of our environments, I suppose that changing the economic climate would automatically transform people by changing their incentives, a behaviorist approach of which I’m rather skeptical. I believe that much more fundamental change is needed. A spiritual, relational change.
What does it mean, a child gone missing in a world where whole jets and even whole countries go missing (BRINGING TIBET HOME)? The message came to me, from the spirit world, a week after the end of CAAMFest. Something that I knew, but had to discover again.
We have to see all children as our own.
Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a San Francisco psychiatrist and writer. He writes The Pacific Heart blog for Psychology Today. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and best of all, sign up for an occasional newsletter here, and find out about his upcoming book on the psychology of social networks through a Buddhist lens, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks. Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein says “I think it will be inspiring to many, many people.” More CAAMFest MOSF blog posts can be found here and here.