Can Humanitarians Stop Violence?

Confrontation in "In a Better World"

Film Friday

My film group, colleagues and friends who have been meeting now for 18 years, watched and discussed the 2011 Foreign Film Oscar winner In a Better World two weeks ago. The film addresses the inhumane violence that is besetting the world and asks us how we should respond. I can’t remember any of our other films generating so much animated discussion.

The Danish film seems to be saying that we must take a principled non-violent stance against violence, even though that stance will not always be effective. We have only to look at America’s response to 9-11 (embarking on two wars and suspending laws against torture, indefinite detention, and fair trials) to see how vital its message is.

The film gives us two stories which, by being presented in parallel, invite comparison. In one, two boys gang up on the school bully and then begin exploring what they can do with their newfound power. In the other, the father of one of the boys spends part of each year as a doctor in an African compound (maybe in Kenya, which is where the scenes were shot). At one point Anton finds himself treating the horrendous wounds inflicted by local gangs, at another the broken leg of the gang leader himself.

By paralleling the two stories, the film thematically connects local violence with the global violence that the media informs us about. We can imagine how we would respond to the latter by examining how we deal with the former. It’s a variation of the activists’ credo “Think globally, act locally.” In this case, thinking locally helps us think globally.

We cheer the boys when they fight back against the bully since the school has proven itself incapable of doing anything about his tyranny. However, when one of the two threatens the bully with a knife, the drama moves into another key.

The escalation continues. When the boys see the doctor slapped by a mechanic (the doctor is trying to break up a playground fight between his younger son and the mechanic’s son), they decide to blow up the man’s van. This in spite of the fact that the doctor has tried to teach them a different lesson.

Realizing they have been traumatizing by seeing him slapped, he searches out the mechanic, confronts him firmly, gets slapped again, and uses the occasion to point out to the children that the man’s violence does not diminish or intimidate him.

Although it’s a powerful lesson, the boys appear to draw wrong lesson–in their eyes, the bully has won–and go ahead with their bombing plan. This plot twist caught me by surprise because I expected a Boys ’n the Hood type ending where a boy’s upbringing by a strong father prompts him to pull out of a gang revenge slaying at the last moment.

But maybe the doctor’s son does learn something after all because, shortly before detonation, he saves the lives of two people who have wandered into the bomb site. He risks his own life to do so and is almost killed. In this concern for others, he is his father’s son.

In Africa, meanwhile, Anton encounters horrific brutality as pregnant women are cut open by gang members who bet on the gender of the fetus. When Anton is called upon to treat the man who has been doing the cutting, his physician’s code calls upon him to save him, despite protests from his medical staff.  However, he has conditions: although threatened with machine guns, he insists that he will operate only if all the gang members and their guns leave the compound, which they do.

Anton saves the man’s leg but then is sent into a fury when, through a vile remark, the gang leader reveals just how inhuman he is.  Pushing him out of his presence, the doctor appears to give the green light to the people in the camp to execute street justice.

This episode led to heated arguments in our film group. Some of us thought that he could have stopped the man’s execution, others than he had no power in local affairs but was still guilty for tacitly approving it, still others that he suddenly realizes that there are limitations to both western notions of justice and Christian turn-the-other-cheek responses.

I appreciated how the film directly grappled with how we should respond to cruelty, barbarity, and evil, something I think about continually. Anton believes that revenge violence only begets more violence and therefore must stop with us. This is my own belief. But as I say, this message fails to impress the children and even Anton is questioning it when he encounters what appears to be absolute evil. In such instances, taking a knife to a bully seems called for.

Of course, Christianity takes on this issue in a big way. Like the children (one of whom is named Christian), Jesus’s disciples didn’t understand his message at first.  It took the Resurrection for them to get the transcendent power of loving your neighbor. But even in the short term, there’s something powerful about Jesus’s message that Anton is trying to convey (although he never uses explicitly Christian terms). For a Jew in Roman Palestine to turn the other cheek when slapped by a Roman would have been a radical assertion of equality or even moral superiority. Standing tall to take a blow isn’t behaving like the conquered subject of an imperial power. It is how the oppressed exhibit strength and dignity.

The film doesn’t give us easy answers but it provides a powerful framework for discussion.

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