Conflict is the foundation of drama – and difference is the foundation of conflict. If a crime thriller or a romantic comedy begins by pairing two characters who squabble and clash, we can usually guess where the story is going.
Tension or laughs will be generated by their opposing approaches and outlooks – before, eventually, they discover that they’re better together than apart. Their connection is meaningful because it has bridged a divide.
Outside of these familiar genres – and outside of the realm of fiction – things are often a great deal more complicated. In fact, the difficulty of communicating across cultural, political and religious barriers is one of the greatest challenges facing our world today. Technology has connected us to an unprecedented degree, yet we feel fractured and divided. In the last year or two, people in our society have been shocked by the depth of our differences. We seem split into ideological factions which struggle to talk to each other in any meaningful way.
In a world like this, communication has to be about more than words. Is it possible to cross borders towards those who are different, without leaving behind the things which matter to us most?
‘A tree which flourishes in one kind of earth may decay and die in another. It is the same with the tree of Christianity. The leaves decay here. The buds die.’ - Silence
The film Silence (2017) offers a sobering examination of these questions. Based on the classic novel, Martin Scorsese’s epic follows two young Jesuit priests as they travel to seventeeth-century Japan, where Christians face terrible persecution. Initially filled with missionary zeal, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) finds himself descending into a fog of confusion and doubt.
It isn’t just that the suffering of the Japanese church is hard to witness. He begins to wonder whether the faith professed by these Christians – tied up, as he sees it, in their own cultural blind spots and superstitions – is really true Christianity at all. What once seemed like a clear-cut task, preaching the gospel in this unfamiliar land, is dissolving his black-and-white world view into shades of grey. He doesn’t know what the heart of his message is any more, or whether it can be as true here as it was in his home country.
And just as he finds himself unable to speak with any conviction, he also feels unable to hear. Has God abandoned him? In the end, Rodrigues’ story strikes a fittingly ambiguous note, warning us that there are times when words will inevitably fail. Alongside truth and faith, we must make space for mystery and silence.
‘Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict.’ - Arrival
Where Scorsese’s film emphasises the limits of language, Arrival (2016) brings a refreshingly optimistic take on its power and possibilities. Amy Adams is Dr Louise Banks, a linguist called in by the US government to open communication with extraterrestrial visitors. As she immerses herself in the work of decoding the aliens’ symbols, Dr Banks finds that her mind is being transformed in an extraordinary way.
Where most characters in the film approach the aliens – the metaphorical ‘Other’ – with suspicion and fear, Dr Banks wants to understand them. Her empathy, and her willingness to assume the best about them, will have transformative consequences both personal and global. Arrival suggests that connection with the ‘Other’ is not only possible, but urgent and essential.
‘Love is not power. It’s a meeting. It’s a relationship.’ - Summer in the Forest
This same message is played out on a very different stage in Summer in the Forest (2017), a unique and beautiful documentary. At the L’Arche community in France, Roman Catholic philosopher Jean Vanier and his friends have built a place where people with learning disabilities are at the centre, instead of an ‘other’ to be pitied or feared. The film invites us to sit down at the table with these people, see them as they are, and be transformed by the experience.
In Summer in the Forest, we glimpse how the principles of L’Arche might be put to work in the world’s major cultural, political and religious conflicts. In the end, Jean Vanier argues, we can’t be saved by power or even wisdom. What matters is love: and love is about making the journey towards someone, across the divide.
Film club: Questions to ask
● Who or what in the film represents the ‘other’, and how are they portrayed? Are they villainous, or sympathetic, or somewhere in between?
● Does the protagonist go on a journey of trying to be understood, or understand someone? Is meaningful communication and connection shown to be possible? If so, how does it come about?
● How hopeful is the film about the possibility of resolving conflict? Does it offer any hope for the world we live in today?
Damaris Media create free film resources for churches and community groups. Download exclusive videos, discussion guides and more at damarismedia.com. To let them know how you’re using their resources, or to tell them what kind of resources would be helpful to you, email firstname.lastname@example.org.