April 26, 2007 § Leave a Comment
In the realm of large families, Dumisani Phakathi has most people beat, boasting 51 brothers and sisters and 11 mothers. No surprise, though, he only has one father — and that man looms large over these 63 people as well as many others, even in his death. Phakathi’s film “Don’t Fuck With Me, I Have 51 Brothers and Sisters” is an attempt to reconcile the scattered bits of that legacy by piecing together the man who left it through the only physical parts of him left on the landscape — the fruit of his loins, so to speak.
Phakathi is a South African filmmaker with some level of fame in his own country. His father was also well-known, but not in the same arena — he owned football clubs and was often the subject of newspaper articles, expounding on the future of his club and discussing signing players in a creative way that Phakathi might speak of editing footage. Phakathi’s birth mother keeps a collage of that she has created, a mix of newspaper article of father and of son, swirling around each other, hinting at the likenesses between them.
If their commonality seems apparent, imagine trying to rectify that with 51 other people. Not only is there the question of what this volume of people could share with one man, but also where the likeness manifests itself in each other. Are their personalities as alike as their eyes?
Phakathi found out about all his siblings at his father’s funeral — apparently, some significant number of them showed up with their mothers in tow. Quite opposite of what one might expect in regard to the the psychodramas that could take place in such a circumstance, Phakathi presents his relationships with the siblings that he does know as warm, even joyous. Their biology is reason enough for joy.
In fact, the biggest instance of angst involves Phakathi’s whole sister — that is, his sister who he grew up with, his sister through his father and his mother — who reveals her anger over Phakathi’s inability to come through for her following their father’s death. Her sobs that he was “not there” for her are striking when contrasted with the fact that he was physically “not there” for all his other siblings for most of his life until his father’s death. The paternal passing is literally a familial reinvention for Phakathi — it’s ironic, though not surprising, that his “real” family feels slighted and left out.
In many ways, Phakathi is following in his father’s footsteps by taking on relationships with as many of these children as he can — and much like his father, it becomes obvious that given the sheer numbers behind the situation, there is no way for him to not become spread thin. Emotionally, his heart may be full of love for these people, but there is only so much time in the day, no matter how big and sincere your emotional ties might be.
And then there are the issues of such a situation that no one in it would ever have to deal with. Two sisters bring up the issue of marrying boys they don’t realize are their brothers. In fact, one sister has a story about meeting one of her brothers, only to discover she was this boy who had, years before, dated her best friend and she had regular interaction with. Here, the fantasy life for Phakathi is laid out with a nightmare ending — girl of his dreams, marriage, pregnancy —and then the families meet and then the truth comes out, too late.
Another problem for Phakathi is that the volume of siblings means 51 people with totally different lives. Most, as presented in the film, lead well-adjusted lives, but there is sorrow looming statistically and it rears its ugly head when he goes to meet one sister, raised by her grandparents with her siblings. The grandparents are now dead and the 15-year old girl goes to school and raises her siblings herself. She is quiet and shy and so very young. Their meeting is both awkward and tender and you wonder if and how he will intervene in her life in years to come.
What Phakathi’s film examines most of all is what lies underneath the social structures of family, where kinship is at an unseen genetic level, but manifested through the strong, emotional social cues of family. As with any family, they have their own lore, but unlike most families of that size — and this includes all the aunts and uncles who appear in the film — it all revolves around one man.
Despite the epic nature of his family, by focusing in on any given aspect, any of can find something that relates to our own modest experience — it’s just that Phakathi’s challenge in traversing these personal byways might be more complicated because of the terrain they rest on. Regardless, the family you have is the family you have.
April 7, 2007 § Leave a Comment
The recent brouhaha over the so-called “fundamentalism” of some of the New Atheists and their apparent “militant” attitude towards the total annihilation of religion points to one thing that so many are missing in the fray: The disbelief in a god is about all that unites us atheists. The question of “what do we do about religion” lies not with a central body but with a million squabbling voices, all with their own idea.
That is a good thing.
As a strident atheist, my general outlook is that religious belief doesn’t really hurt; it’s organized religious belief that is the problem. Nine times out of ten, the religious beliefs of any one person probably won’t cause physical harm to another — but when they get together in a mob or a country, all bets are off.
The same often goes for politics, sports and, yeah, atheists.
It’s not religion that is so much the problem as groups of people trying to come up with reasons to control groups of other people.
There are many reasons for the new perception of the loudmouthed bravado of the current high-profile atheists, including myself. For one, it is in response to an ever-imposing religious fundamentalism, both at home and abroad. We loudmouthed atheists are frankly sick of the control freaks in the American religious right, narrow-minded Islamic terrorists, the supernatural, New Age hokum that is sold by hucksters like Oprah Winfrey and the continual spiral of even the most basic literacy in science even as the Earth’s poles melt.
Atheist fundamentalism is horribly overplayed, given that backdrop. Richard Dawkins seems like a very nice fellow with a pretty good sense of humor who says a lot of lovely, poetic things about the human condition and is very direct about how illogical he finds the belief in supernatural beings. He is so direct about it that he wrote a New York Times bestseller about it.
He has never actually threatened laws against anyone or made outlandish claims that something sort of horrible punishment was deserved by someone because they did not agree with him. He has never committed a terrorist attack on an abortion clinic or an American skyscraper. He has never demanded that people who opposed him should be stifled. He has never demanded an amendment to any constitution to make religion illegal.
Compare all that with the opposition.
Also, take into account where Dawkins comes from. His country is the province of the Anglican faith, a sort of “no thank you” made-up Christianity that the country really doesn’t find very important anymore other than as a cultural institution. It doesn’t control the people who don’t already choose to be controlled by it.
The other reason the apparent atheist in-wars have made recent headlines is that it’s the only hook the press can really find. Without that, it’s mostly just a bunch of long-winded academics discussing philosophy, science, social history, Biblical history and whatever else you can pile on to the topic list. Atheists don’t necessarily make big, bombastic headlines because there’s seldom much dynamic about them. It’s the religious and spiritual types who are usually better at putting on a grandstanding kind of show.
Besides, the media is missing the big story. It’s not terribly important that the atheists don’t believe in a god — it’s far more important that the same atheists don’t believe in any sort of supernatural. The idea here is that unless it can be proven conclusively through evidence that is collected and studied through scientific method — or consistent with theories based on previously proven results — it is pure speculation. That not only goes for the Christian Sky God but for ghosts and reincarnation and psychic power and all sorts of other things.
The atheist viewpoint is that scientific method, critical thinking and logic are all very good tools for collecting facts and coming to conclusions that affect large numbers of people. Go ahead and act on intuition on your own, be as irrational as you please, but when the rest of us are involved, it would be nice to have a system in place that promotes some group rationality that displaces the pretenses of frantic little dictators.
Many atheists will tell you that they don’t believe in a god because they have not seen any compelling evidence to prove that there is. It is all about the evidence. As an atheist, I can tell you that I don’t care if there is a god, because logic dictates that if there were one, its central creation is more likely to be bacteria than humanity (bacteria was the original life form on Earth, and there’s far more of it on this planet than humans), and, therefore, it is not very likely to take much of an interest on which humans marry which humans and that sort of thing. If there is a creator, I doubt it’s that micro-managing Christian Sky God. And who or what it might actually be is probably not knowable in my lifetime anyhow. I have better things to worry about.
But that’s as far as I will go — I’ll write about it in a newspaper. Like Harris and Dawkins, I’ll happily write bestsellers about it if I have the opportunity. I’ll do interviews about it and be on the radio. I’ll probably even make jokes about it that will likely offend many religious people and suggest that religions deserve no special right in society — I’m known for saying that sort of thing; it’s unlikely I’ll stop anytime soon.
Don’t try to save my soul, I don’t want it saved.
And I promise I won’t get together with all the other little atheists and try and pass laws controlling your personal lives if you don’t either.
April 5, 2007 § Leave a Comment
Given our new political realities involving terrorism, war, anti-science fundamentalists, challenges to free speech and environmental disaster, something like the socialist society in East Germany seems worlds away. In fact, it seems a little bit like science fiction of the George Orwell mold.
Fascism, in little drabs and slivers, lives on certainly, but not in the backwards Soviet forms that can play alternately like nostalgia and kitsch in films. In a movie like 2006′s “The Lives of Others,” which won the Oscar for best foreign film, the whole situation does seem a little unreal and, at times, cliché. We’ve seen it all before in films like “Brazil,” and it’s been so long since the real thing existed that much of it only exists on the frontiers of our memory. Imagine, there are people alive today for whom the fiction of “1984″ is probably far more vivid than the reality of pathetic little East Germany.
“The Lives of Others” is a spy film with a twist, in that the act of spying, of becoming immersed in the lives and thoughts of others, can be a point of empathy toward the enemy, especially when your own ideals have let you down. A loyal Stasi captain (portrayed with a perfect anguished reserve by Ulrich Muehe) begins to spy on a playwright (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend (Martina Gedeck) at the order of the culture minister (the wonderfully icky Thomas Thieme).
Koch’s character is perceived as a friend of the state, one of the few artists who can be trusted not to use his work to criticize it, but the culture minister is blackmailing the girlfriend for favors and is convinced the playwright will make even the slightest slip-up that will be his downfall. « Read the rest of this entry »