A lament

They say lament is good for the soul. Certainly it helps to get it out in the light, remove the mystery and drag the darkness into the brilliant glare of the one who names the moon. So.

I lament.

I lament that the church is not as it should be.

I lament that money, sex and power are tools in a power game.

I lament that children suffer as a result.

I lament that progressives blame conservatives.

I lament that conservatives blames progressives.

I lament my rush to judge.

I lament my lack of joy.

I lament that we speak at more than we listen to each other.

I lament that we speak at more than we listen to the world.

I lament that we speak at more than we listen to God.

I lament young people are committing suicide instead of coming out as gay in evangelical churches.

I lament that these churches campaign against same-sex marriage whilst the children do so.

I lament men and women in the church are defining each other by the genders of the people they like to have sex with.

I lament that I am so afraid to take a stand.

I lament that we’d crucify him all over again.

I lament that Lent is a time to give up media or food or drink not focus on the soul’s call.

I lament that theology is packaged as the type of music used in sung worship.

I lament that I am so quick to take offence.

I lament the trials that are held in the space of 140 characters.

I lament my thoughts being both greater and smaller than my deeds.

I lament that all the while people die who have not heard.

I lament disagreement on one thing preventing us hearing the majority on which we agree.

I lament a life of careless ease metres from those with cares too many to number.

I lament pain in my body, mind and soul.

I lament that the pain shows no sign of going.

I lament that I let pain change my mood.

I lament seeing through a glass darkly.

I lament.



The strangest tree in the forest: a South African parable

[Jesus said] … 

Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity soon disappears. That’s why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare till doomsday and not see it, listen till they’re blue in the face and not get it. I don’t want Isaiah’s forecast repeated all over again:

Your ears are open but you don’t hear a thing.
Your eyes are awake but you don’t see a thing.
The people are blockheads!
They stick their fingers in their ears
so they won’t have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut
so they won’t have to look,
so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face
and let me heal them.

(Matthew 13:12-15)

We sit on the roots of an old tree. A tree planted well, but watered and cared for years ago by those to whom the land did not belong, who saw in this tree one that suited their purposes. It grew fast and strong, insistently and irreversibly. It grew wide and high, thick and tall. It grew so that there was plenty of room under its protection. It grew so that those descended from the ones who watered and cared for the tree took the best of the shade. They could sit against the tree’s trunk, lie under the abundant canopy, feeling the sun’s warmth and still able to spread out in the luxury of the wide shadow. Food was shared widely and freely in this space. Wine flowed, children played safely, families multiplied to the sound of laughter and ease.

It was not so for all, though. Those who first lived on the land were not so well accommodated. Some lived on the edge of the shade. Sheltered, but not all day. At the hour of the sun’s fiercest glare they found themselves more in the light than shadow, not able to edge in for this when the happy families of the few would spread out the furthest, snoring off the afternoon’s excess. They could not be wakened. The more those on the edge nudged and shook, shouted and pleaded, the deeper they seemed to doze.

So they tried a different tack. Axes in hand, some of those on the edge headed for the tree’s ancient trunk. Silent and slow at first, with each step they grew more confident and strong. Stride lengthened, speed picked up. As they did so they would catch an elbow or ankle of the ones sleeping. Some of them woke up. When they did different things would happen. Some would fling out a hand to bring the walkers down. Often that would work. Others, roused from slumber would angrily shout at anyone who could hear to watch their step and keep the noise down. Some of the walkers turned back, some lay to sleep, some kept going to the tree’s trunk, axe seemingly somewhat sharper for the interaction. Some who had slumbered rose, found an axe to hand and joined the journey to the centre.

The trunk was immense, twisted in on itself, possessed of a savage habit of ejecting inch long splinters into the ground or the people around. The splinters flew indiscriminately, embedding in grass or flesh, person or beast. When they punctured human skin they did so to those asleep and axe wielding alike.

At first only a few brave souls tried to chip away at the trunk. The splinters seemed drawn to them, as if somehow the wood knew who it was that was assailing it. With so few axe-bearers taking so many wounds, it felt like the tree was growing rather than diminishing.

Still they walked, though. More arrived, small numbers at first, but soon more and more until the air was torn with the sound of metal on wood. More axes meant more splinters; more splinters meant cries of pain as splinters found more targets in the flesh of those surrounding the thick trunk. Some of the axe-bearers were felled such was the rain of splinters, but another and then another and then another would step up to take their place.

By now the noise was cacophonous. Few remained asleep; some were awake but pretended not to be; some could read the signs and made for the shade of another tree; some rushed to help, some tried to work out which way the tree would fall and adjusted themselves accordingly.

Soon the tree started to groan and creek, shake and shout. It teased a few times. Those on the ground grew more fearful but there was no turning back now. Axe swing on axe swing on axe swing until … breathless silence, stillness. The tree, as if suspended for a moment, tipped towards the ground in slow-motion … then clattered earth-wards. Some were taken with the tree, shade dwellers and axe wielders alike. Not so many as you’d have thought, though. To this day it doesn’t seem to make sense that more were not taken.

No sooner was the tree felled than work began. To clear the mess, to burn some wood, to clear some space. The roots and some of the trunk remained. Many chose to work together this time – those who formerly had been forced to lie on the shade’s edge, some newly awake former shade-dwellers, blinking sleep from their eyes. They watered and pruned and admired. The tree was growing fast and quick, admired and cooed-over from neighbours far and wide. This was a tree that those under the shade of others around wanted to see find its new shape.

Something was happening to it, however. It was as if, over the years the roots had got all muddled. Some of them were ancient roots going back years into a scarcely remembered past; some seemed to carry within their fibres the sap of the tree of unequal shade; some roots were young and strong, others young and easily broken. As the tree grew again it did so in strange patterns: parts that seemed to carry the code of the old tree, some seemed malnourished and dying or dead, some young and vital and strong. This was a tree the like of which the forest had not seen before.

Some chose to live under this strange new tree as people had its ancestor: taking up more space than was theirs to take, forcing others to a harsh sun they couldn’t bear. Some were generous and wise and invited those on the outside in. Where these folks were gathered there was laughter and sharing, but friction and dis-ease too. Memories of the old tree ran deep in the veins of all, whether they choose to acknowledge it or not.

This tree is tall and beautiful, and is admired. This tree grows and blossoms and is celebrated. Parts are sick, though. Obviously so if you’re close enough; from a distance just a subtle part of the pattern.  The sickness is there all the same. Some sleep, some share. Some water and prune just a branch or two; some help others with troublesome growth.

The tree grows, but many in the shade are not at ease. For some are walking toward’s this tree’s trunk. Some of them carry axes, others watering devices, still more tools of different types. It’s only when those walking reach the tree’s trunk that it becomes apparent to those watching what the walkers are carrying. As they watch them walk, they look to their own hands and realise they too carry something. The items feel easy in their hands, for they are that which they choose to carry, speaking somehow of what’s inside them.

Slowly, gradually, one by one, they turn towards the trunk and walk.

Captain Phillips: Truth, Justice and the American Way

Whisper it quietly, but we may have a masterpiece on our hands. Absurd claim, really, for such status can only be conveyed with the perspective of time. Even so: Captain Phillips is a defining moment for one the better directors at work today and an object lesson in how to entertain and challenge the brain at the same time.

Director Paul Greengrass has form with this sort of thing. The underrated Green Zone and the two best Bourne movies (Supremacy and Ultimatum), some of his British TV work and the 9/11 themed United 93. In Captain Phillips he’s on true story territory again, this time with the deceptively simple tale of an American cargo chip, captained by the titular character played by Tom Hanks, which was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia. Based on Phillips’ own book, there is some controversy over the veracity of the film’s version of events. That’s an important discussion, but perhaps one for another day. For Greengrass has taken the Shakespeare approach to recent history – the use of real-life events as a jumping off point for classy story-telling and the opportunity to tackle bigger themes.

This is a film with less actual ‘action’ than the Bourne movies, but other trademarks remain: close-up shaky hand-held camera work, long scenes of excruciating tension (much like the masterful United 93 in this respect) largely spent waiting for something to (maybe) happen, a remarkable capacity to draw the viewer into the physically enclosed spaces the characters are inhabiting. There’s so much to admire: the performances of both Hanks and Barkhad Abdi (as the lead pirate), the sense of loneliness and desperation as crisis closes in on the unprotected cargo ship and, most significantly, the inter-leaved lives of pirate and cargo ship captains. It’s in this last factor that the film rises to a different level.

In the film’s opening Phillips’ preparations for setting off are cut with telling, short scenes of Somali warlords putting unbearable pressure on desperate locals to get out on the water and find a ship to pirate. As the pirates close on their prey we switch from hunter to hunted with swift cuts; the moment when the pirates burst into the ship’s bridge is fraught with chaos and fear, enhanced by the awareness that this was the moment when the two parties of actors first met each other. A masterstroke. As the crisis draws on, Phillips wonders aloud to his captor “There’s got to be more than kidnapping people”. Silence, then the simple reply “Maybe in America”. Compelled by these three words an emotion bubbles to the surface of the viewers’ consciousness that thus far we’d been dimly aware of but had most likely tried to suppress; that we both fear these pirates, but also feel sympathy for them. There is little choice for them, as at the mercy of their paymasters as Phillips and his crew are at their mercy. As the film’s poster tagline reads, it’s all about survival out here; as much for the gun-brandishing but fearful pirates as the cargo crew. This parallelism continues into the film’s brilliantly acted final minutes as we see the long-term ramifications of the crisis for captor and captured start to take shape; much as there are deeper roots to the events of this film than other directors would show us, so we are also not allowed the easy-out. The ripples will continue to spread for years to come.

So, Captain Phillips is an exceptional film. It challenges the action/thriller’s easy categorisations of heroes and villains; we are given flesh-deep characters with real and full lives; we are drawn in the wider context of politics, global over-fishing and the exploitation of the poor. All that and more – whilst never sacrificing the film’s primary draw card of piano-wire tension which will leave your heart beating over-time twenty-four hours after leaving the cinema. See it, enjoy it and think about it.

I rated this 5/5 on rottentomatoes.com and 9/10 on imdb.com

The Impossible

Eddie Izzard has a comic routine about mass murder. The British stand-up comedian riffs on the idea of our response to multiple losses of life; he relates how we’re sickened by one life being taken in cold blood. We’re moved to tears by a few lives lost. A school-shooting which cuts short young lives numbering in the 20s or 30s makes us first numb with shock, then we’re angry as well as tearful. At some point higher than that, and he argues the precise number isn’t a universally fixed one, we find ourselves moving from negative emotions to a kind of blunted awe which can border on the impressed. Presented with millions lost at the hands of a dictator we become not so much approving as admiring a kind of sick skill, awed by the efficiency it must have taken to get the deed done when we ourselves can scarcely make it out the door on time and have breakfast. It’s a brilliant routine, simultaneously achingly funny and chilling. It’s both at the same time because on some important level it’s true.

A film-maker taking on an event in which countless numbers lose their lives faces this kind of problem in order to make it all emotionally affecting rather than leaving us stuck in a kind of pitch-black awe. The key is to personalise it – make us zero in on an affected couple or family. From there, when the focus occasionally pulls back to lines of body bags or mass graves, we have a context for grief and a route into tragedy. This is the approach chosen by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona in The Impossible, the first major film to tackle the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. How do you portray an event on film in which killed over 230,000 people in the space of a few hours? You focus in on the remarkable story of one family. Bayona is well equipped for this – his previous film, 2007’s low-key horror-chiller The Orphanage is no masterpiece, but works well because it focuses in on just a few people to deal with a sinister theme.

He also knows how to handle shock and fear, which stands him in good stead for The Impossible. We join a rich British family flying into a Thailand beach resort for a Christmas holiday from their Japanese home. We get brief glimpses of their lives, a sense of their relationships – sincere, squeezed by work pressure but still what they’re really about. Then the tsunami strikes, and it’s all about the suddenly split family fighting to survive and find each other – if they’re still alive, of course. The recreation of the tsunami itself is claustrophobically, terrifyingly brilliant. It’s almost too much – which is of course just right. For some it will be too much – but if some of us have been numbed by the numbers involved, then we need a sharp slap. The tsunami sequence itself gives us that. By keeping it personal – focusing on the fear and physical pain of a few – we start to get a sense of the scale of what has happened. The post-tsunami landscape is also brilliantly recreated – it’s eerie and laden with fear, shying short of the tasteless suspense a director with his roots in horror may have been tempted to. Also brilliant are the performances – the children’s are nothing short of staggering; Naomi Watts fully deserving of her awards nominations and Ewan McGregor portrays a man descending from control of his life to total fear and passivity, then back into action again, with great bravery and simplicity. The scene where he emotionally crumbles into hysterical, sobbed, conversational updates on a hurried phone-call home is heart-breaking and not easily erased from the memory. Nor should it be.

So far, so good. The film has two big problems, though. One structural, the other ethical. The clue to the structural issue lies in the title – trying to avoid plot-spoilers it’s still fair to say the film actively points up the remarkable, the impossible in the family’s story. This is subtle at first – why does one tree fall, another not? Why is THAT car carried by the water’s current, the other not? Is that scene which includes the shillouette of a flailing elephant hallucination, dream or reality? What about that boy? Is he even real? So it goes, so it builds. Of course, the resolution relies on coincidence. That’s fine, because coincidences do happen in events of such terrifying scale. Statistics, laws of averages dictate that they must. Attribute to God, chance or human spirit if you must, but they do happen. So they’re not impossible. If they were impossible, they wouldn’t happen. In The Impossible, by the time the should-be-impossible-but-in-fact-just-improbable occurs, you’re ironically numbed to a kind of happily relieved disbelief.

The ethical problem is different. Bayona and his team have changed the nationality of the family from Spanish to English. That’s an understandable, if sad, economic decision so he doesn’t have to make a ‘foreign language’ film. Doubtless other details are changed for narrative and practical reasons. That’s film-making. The ethical problem is that in a diaster which affected 14 countries around the Indian Ocean the victims we see are primarily white Westerners. Locals are angels of mercy and Good Samaritans, not suffering, dying, hoping, grieving, reuniting. The devastating, catastrophic local loss of life is in the occasional pull-back, the journey round the wards. Despite that The Impossible leaves us with the distinct impression that this is Western tragedy in a hotter climate.

There must have been a way round this; either a remarkable story to tell from local people or simply a selection of stories. Those choices aren’t taken, though, and that’s simply lazy. It’s not that this story shouldn’t be told; it’s just it needs more context, more local texture with it. Bayona gets away with it by cinematic slight of hand – so terrifying is his tsunami recreation, so astonishing is the story he has to tell that we don’t have time to think about what actually happened around us. The Impossible is improbable, not impossible. It’s very, very moving in moments – I was on the verge of tears on several occasions. There’s much to admire. It’s just sad, and in the end inexcusable, that a film like the masterful Beasts Of The Southern Wild has an outlook of more justice than this one. That was an entirely fictional film which gave a voice to the voiceless. The Impossible gives a voice to those with a megaphone, holidaying in a paradise staffed by the poor – a paradise dependent on those with the megaphone for jobs and income. Tragedy hits rich and poor alike – but the former get amplification and insurance.

I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com. To think more about issues of justice and inequality, check out Beasts Of The Southern Wild and have a read of When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting The Poor..and Yourself