Film Festivals, Social Issues, and First World Guilt
Image: Netflix
Idris Elba in 'Beasts of No Nation'

About an hour into my Toronto International Film Festival 2015 screening of Beasts of No Nation—Cary Fukunaga’s beautifully and elegantly heartbreaking depiction of boy soldiers in an unnamed African country—my compassion reservoir ran dry.

Don’t get me wrong. The film is a great work of art and a solid achievement for Fukunaga and star Idris Elba. For the first hour or so I was grateful: it pulled me in and gave me a glimpse of the horrors I normally avoid by steering clear of CNN and NPR.

'The Search'

'The Search'

Then, in a flash, I remembered I had felt something similar last year when watching The Search, Michael Hazanavicius’s grimly pessimistic depiction of human suffering wrought by war in Chechnya. Plus I knew I had a screening of Septembers of Shiraz coming up, which featured Adrien Brody as a Jewish merchant tortured at the hands of Islamic guards in revolutionary Iran.

And I knew, with something approaching certainty, that if I made it back to Toronto in 2016 or 2017, there would be a film that reminded me of the plight of Syrian refugees that was playing out in real time while I tried to play compassion catch-up at Roy Thompson Hall.

My ever-gnawing fear at such events is that these prestige movies raise our consciousness for an hour or two and then are quickly forgotten. They might even speed the process of allowing us to forget by convincing us that we have done . . . something.

We’ve watched a film, informed ourselves, told our neighbor, shed a few tears.

Rightly or wrongly, I tend to give the artists themselves a pass. Sure, some probably gravitate towards theses prestige projects as a shortcut to awards or recognition—but I suspect most are sincere. And they have made a film.

I also used to give myself a pass, arguing that as a journalist I helped get the word out so that others could have their consciences pricked and their awareness raised. But I find this line of thinking increasingly unsatisfying. It makes my relationship to the art strictly professional, not personal—and I think I would continue to watch even if I couldn’t write, or wasn’t paid.

But to what end?

Idris Elba in 'Beasts of No Nation'
Image: Netflix

Idris Elba in 'Beasts of No Nation'

I realize this is a question that extends beyond these sorts of films and touches on the larger question of what functions any art serves in society. We can, and do, continue to make aesthetic arguments about art with which I agree, regardless of the content of the art itself. For example, as a believer in Christian disciplines, I think practice listening to anyone, including artists, is never without some benefits.

But those are answers better suited for a classroom seminar than a mid-movie existential, professional panic. How was I going to make it through the second half of this movie, much less move along to my next screening when the lights went back up? Here are three fumbling attempts at an answer.

First, I thought about one of my wife’s more regular admonitions to me: don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. In a perfect world, or a better one, or one that I was better in, I might be able to spare more time and invest more energy in the poor that are always with us or the suffering that are always making demands on our time, attention, and pocketbooks.

It should be obvious (and I hope not controversial) to any Christian viewer that the needs of the world outweigh our capacity to help. The only way to avoid the feeling of being overwhelmed is to withdraw completely. That response is neither Biblical nor realistic—but it’s our impulse. There is a reason why one synonym for “entertainment” is “diversion.” If our only use of the arts is to consume escapist fare, if our consciences ever stop pricking us, then I think we are in danger of something greater than compassion fatigue: compassion neglect.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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