On Thursday afternoon, I found myself standing in line at the Royal Ontario Museum in downtown Toronto, waiting to be escorted down into a dusty basement theatre to see Velcrow Ripper’s new documentary, ScaredSacred. Another International Film Festival offering, the film seemed to be a bit off the beaten path, and both my girlfriend and I separately chose it when we were looking through potential movies to see.
I went in prepared to see a gory bloodfest, since the whole premise of the movie is that Ripper visits all sorts of “ground zeros” of the world, looking at the devastation and trying to find the “sacred” in it. What I got was something quite different – not quite depressing, not quite uplifting.
The documentary covers a lot of ground. Ripper starts in Bhopal, moves on to Cambodia, Hiroshima, Pakistan’s Afghan refugee camps, concentration camps in Germany, Israel and the occupied territories, Bosnia, and elsewhere. He seems to be doing this as much as a personal pilgrimage as anything, since he starts his journey feeling like the world is becoming a bleaker place by the day.
Oddly enough, I still find it difficult to package a reaction to this film. “Breathe in suffering, breathe out compassion.” I see Ripper being fired at by Israeli soldiers in a walled-in Palestinian village, then I see him eating a hamburger in some burger joint in NYC.
I think what makes the film so difficult for me to digest is that Ripper doesn’t offer any practical solutions to the violence and destruction he documents. Granted, this is something that humankind has found itself fairly unable to do as a whole, but somehow I found it difficult to empathize one man’s catharsis into some sort of positive personal experience. That isn’t to say that the film wasn’t touching – I don’t think anyone could watch a 14-year-old Afghan girl struggling not to cry as she describes her father being killed in front of her without sensing that pain – but rather that it issues such a highly emotionally-charged call to arms without providing a leader, in many ways.
During the question-and-answer session with Ripper following the screening, he made the comment that he found the world to be a bleak place, and that he was not an optimist. Rather, he was hopeful. Being able to find a doctor treating chemical-sickened patients in Bhopal, an old Sikh musician in Kabul who protected his instruments against the worst of the Taliban, the RAWA women’s movement in Pakistan, the couple in Serejevo creating art to maintain sanity under a hail of bullets – these things, he said, provided him with hope.
Maybe it’s too much sociological training on my part, but I find it difficult to be hopeful. Ripper himself acknolwedged that for every experience of the sacred, there were dozens of people he met who were violent, revengeful, angry – and this, I think is the broader state of humanity. Ripper recognizes something I’ve long said, that the problem is the “we and the them.” It’s that tendency of humans to want to separate themselves into friends and enemies, always a dichotomy.
What’s the solution? In all honesty, I think that nothing short of the threatened death of the planet due to, say, asteroid or supernova, or perhaps a nice alien invasion – nothing but these will even begin to make humanity unite and focus on the common good and stop the destruction, vengeance, and exploitation.
I, for one, welcome our new…