Friday, June 8, 2012

Julia Haslett's 'An Encounter with Simone Weil' - Review by Bethany Swallow

Simone Weil, a French-woman born in the twentieth century remains a hidden treasure among many philosophers of her time. Her works, published after her death, contain jewels of contemplative, spiritual, pedagogical and political insights. More recently, Weil has emerged as an icon of peace, with many recognizing her immense wisdom and strength. Director Julia Haslett is one such admirer who was featured in Vancouver's Doxa Film Festival held this past May. Her documentary, “An Encounter with Simone Weil” (2010) tells Haslett’s own journey of suffering, while attempting to interact with the inspirational, yet tragic life of Simone Weil. Haslett draws her viewers to the life of Simone Weil through personal and historical narrative, and helps each to wrestle with the truths of suffering on an individual and global scope.

            Julia Haslett’s artistic and personal efforts are undeniably honorable in this film; despite this, “An Encounter with Simone Weil” leaves somewhat of a bitter taste in the viewer’s mouth. The film is more about Haslett’s experiences of suffering, longing and questioning, rather than the tremendously enigmatic life of twentieth century philosopher, educator and peace-activist Simone Weil. Haslett explores larger questions such as, “How do we respond to human suffering?” or “How do we remain engaged without ultimately destroying ourselves?” Yet, I felt somewhat dissatisfied with her limited interaction around questions such as “How do we become more whole beings?” and “How does faith inform action?” Of course, my own journey leads me to these mysteries of life, and I honor Haslett’s pursuit of her own personal understanding, despite feeling disappointed at the narrow scope of her exploration into Simone Weil. With very little recognition in the discipline of philosophy since her death, Simone Weil is boldly celebrated in this film, becoming a beacon of mystery and inspiration for not only Haslett, but also viewers alike. I respect Haslett’s attempt to treasure Simone Weil in this documentary. I join with her in her efforts to make Simone Weil known to others, hoping that Weil’s life may offer wisdom, truth and hope for our fragile world.
            “An Encounter with Simone Weil” weaves between several narratives throughout its entirety. Disjointed at times, the film seemed to urge along with the intention of understanding human suffering through a variety of means. Firstly, the viewer quickly learns of the director’s motivation for creating this work. Her experience of suffering is palatable as the film begins with the description of her childhood, and the trauma of her father’s suicide. Similarly, given this loss, Haslett’s brother’s life is marked by depression and anxiety, which Haslett feels helpless to understand. She is bold to share her life and her journey of suffering with the viewer, allowing for an intimate perspective of her life. I appreciate Haslett’s honesty and openness as she engaged with her own suffering and its effects. Similarly, Haslett draws on the larger suffering of our world, and the injustices she has observed. Simone Weil becomes an inspiration and a model for how to interact with human suffering.
            Haslett joins her story with Simone Weil’s, as she is drawn to Weil’s words “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Weil’s life, works, and passions are explored throughout the film, but they are intermittent and often compromised. Weil becomes a one-dimensional peace activist, whose only goal is to experience suffering alongside others. Having read and studied Weil, I felt that Weil’s rich character was reduced to her activism, her stubbornness, and her death. Haslett overlooks many of Weil’s most beautiful virtues and contributions. While the film highlights much of Weil’s intentional efforts to experience suffering alongside others, in many of Weil’s works (Gravity of Grace, Waiting on God), she confidently asserts that attentiveness maintains an even greater goal, stillness. Our divided selves require our attention, and that fragmentation requires due attention by stillness. In busy-ness, we remain trapped in our restlessness, in stillness, we grow in wholeness. Famed as a mystic, Simone Weil’s works become a guide for the orientation of one’s soul. Engaging with human suffering requires more than ‘doing,’ it involves a joining in great mysteries of faith, hope, and love. Weil’s work extends beyond her work in factories, and her participation in the Spanish Civil War. Her exploration of the Christian faith reaches great heights, as she intimately encounters Christ on several occasions, while she may also be heralded as a great contributor to theories of education. Simone Weil is an invigorating woman, whose intensity is rich and profound. Haslett’s documentary generates the sense that Weil was generally dissatisfied with life, as she was looking for opportunities to busy herself with work/activism, but Weil had much to say about the stillness of life, and the silence required for peace within.
            I recognize that each person interacts uniquely from his or her personal life journeys, and I appreciate Haslett’s honest attempt to interact with Weil’s understanding of suffering. Yet, I felt forced to realize Haslett’s own view of Simone Weil, instead of being allowed the space to acknowledge her fuller value. It seemed as though Haslett was looking for something in Weil that could satisfy a certain longing, instead of opening herself to larger ideas and truths. Haslett’s exploration of Weil takes on greater personal goals, as she empathizes with the struggle to experience suffering with others. Unfortunately, she seems to limit herself in her understanding of Weil’s searching soul.
            While I may have assumed that this documentary would highlight the life of Simone Weil exclusively, Julia Haslett still offers something uniquely personal and thought provoking. “How do we respond to human suffering?” becomes the platform upon which Haslett builds this six-year long project, and her film successfully demonstrates the tensions of this sincere question. If you’ve never “encountered” Simone Weil, this film is an adequate primer for being introduced into the world of Weil’s political, mystical and philosophical experiences. For Simone Weil admirers, this documentary attempts to, but does not fully succeed at discovering the riches and depth of Weil’s life work. I wanted more from this documentary, but what it lacked, I find in Weil herself. 

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