Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Seeds of Hope from the Silver Screen

When the lights dim and curtains part, something magical happens. Raptured into stories of joy, sorrow, triumph and disappointment,movies can change us. I remember watching the English Patient many years ago. When the credits rolled up, my legs wouldn't move. I was paralysed by the sheer poetry of the tale. The irony of love - a power that gave life to one man plunges another to his death - gripped me for a long time after.

Movies are often frowned upon for the crass materialism, libertine sexuality, and hedonism they manipulate into our minds. We rightly reject them. Yet not throwing the baby out with the water, I believe many good movies can be watched redemptively. Listening at once to the story, to ourselves and to God - we may leave enlightened and strengthened in our journey of faith.

Listening to the story

While we don't have to swallow all that is fed to us, I find movies enriching when I'm thoughtfully receptive rather than censoriously judgmental. Movies, like the world we live in, reflect the full spectrum of evils of our fallenness. We can hardly expect movies to champion 'good Christian values' ala Sunday School!

In one of my favorites, Gladiator, Maximus (Russel Crowe) is Marcus Aurelius' trusted general who later defies his murderous and tyrant son. His wife and child brutally slain, himself a wounded fugitive, he becomes a slave-warrior in Rome's Coliseum fighting for his life and freedom. Blow by blow, duel after duel, he emerges through the dust as 'Maximus the Beloved'- shadowing even the new Caesar's popularity. The fallen general remains a courageous but compassionate man throughout - albeit as a slave behind bars.

Finally, in the ultimate duel between Emperor and Gladiator, he is sent into the ring already viciously bled. In a clash nearly Messianic in proportion, he vanquishes the evil emperor with his own royal dagger and then breathes his last after crying, 'Free my men! There was a dream that was Rome that must be realized! It is the wish of Marcus Aurelius.'

As he lay lifeless in the dust, the words were spoken: 'Is Rome worth one good man's life? He believed it once; make us believe in it again.'

Movies awaken us to our captive state by highlighting our human condition. They also compel us to cry out, and sometimes give voice to our primeval yearning for God's beauty, truth and goodness. The Eden we have been banished from has not left our breasts. The Pauline trinity of faith, hope and love is so central to many stories precisely because we are image-bearers of God homesick for a better reality.

Good stories draw us to Calvary for our freedom and catapult our imagination to the new heaven and earth.

Listening to ourselves

We are emotional beings. Movies can penetrate our guarded consciousness and help us 'feel aloud' those repressed feelings we keep from breaking through. Seeing ourselves in the characters of a movie helps us explore our unfulfilled emotions, and reclaim our total experience of humanity - rational, physical, emotional and spiritual.

In Contact, Jodie Foster is Dr. Araway, a hardcore physicist whose premise for life is rejecting the scientifically unknowable and pursuing truth through the empirical. But through her persecuted search for extra-terrestrial life, she finally decodes the 'message from the sky' and is internationally backed to make an inter-stellar trip to meet it! Yet upon her return, with no proof in hand, the world mocks her unsubstantiable claims. In that moment she discovers the faith that had brought her thus far was also all that she needed.

Faith was self-justifying. She had no answers for her interrogators, but she needed none. In times of darkness, I find Dr. Araway's journey analogous to my own - fraught with doubt at every turn, sometimes faced with mocking and opposition from those closest to you. The road forward seems to get narrower and lonelier with every step. In times like these, our God-given ability to believe is all we have to put one foot ahead of the other.

With open heart

Awakenings - a heart-wrenching screenplay of Oliver Sacks' book by the same title - defined me in a way nothing else could have. It appeared in that time of my life where, as a pre-university student, I struggled to chalk the best grades for a future I couldn't decide on! Robin Williams plays Dr. Malcolm Sayer, the experimental neurologist who unsuspectingly ends up devoting his life to victims of post-encephalitic coma. In a chance discovery of the then wonder drug L-DOPA, he brings a whole ward of
statues back to life! They have a short but exciting lease at recapturing theirlost decades. They learnt from their patients to celebrate life and to nurture it even in the comatose. But alas, they are doomed to slip, through tormenting tics and fits, into a prison of catatonia again: living zombies, locked within frozen, empty stares.

I wept bitterly. I was choked by the anguish of victim and family. But I was moved most of all by the impassioned life of Dr. Sayer and his staff.

Working through the tragedy, he declares: 'We can hide behind the veil of science,.. but.. reality is we don't know what went wrong anymore than we know what went right. What we do know is as the chemical window closed, another awakening took place. The human spirit is more powerful than any drug and that is what needs to be nourished.' Unbeknownst to me, a vocation was being defined: to embroil myself passionately in lives, walk alongside the afflicted, share in their struggle to keep alive their God-breathed identity. Almost a decade now into my career as a physician, I need to watch Awakenings again - lest I forget the calling to be scientist, healer and friend.

Movies, like all things around us are burning bushes to-be. They can inspire us to travel further in our journeys and reach higher through our dreams. But we need the eyes to see. We need to grow mindful hearts to hear. Cultivate an openness to receive. Like the soil in Jesus' parable of the sower, how we till our hearts determine how well seeds of new growth take root. So, with popcorn in one hand and ticket stub in the other, movies continue to be a companion for life - images that sometimes point us to the Way, the Truth and the Life in ways we least expect.

This article was written for the Kairos magazine - Understanding Truth Through Christian Eyes. Thanks to Siew Li who pushed me to write it, and Alvin Ung who lent his editorial kung-fu to it.


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