Magazine article Tikkun

Facing the Other at Cannes

Magazine article Tikkun

Facing the Other at Cannes

Article excerpt

When I asked Toni Morrison during the press conference for the Cannes film festival jury to justify her best-screenplay vote for Guillermo Arriaga's The Three Burials of Meloquiades Estrada, I expected her-a member of the Helsinki Watch Committee on Human Rights-to be on my side. My question was how she, who treats violence with such care in her own novels, could vote for a screenplay which glorifies macho vigilante violence as a form of justice.

Morrison looked stunned. She glanced nervously at Yugoslavian director Emir Kusturica, president of the jury. I repeated my question. In Three Burials, a gringo who abuses Mexican immigrants at the border, killing one, is taught his lesson when Tommy Lee Jones, best friend to the murdered Mexican, makes him take a journey across the border to face the Other whom he has murdered. The gringo must dig up the body of his victim and bury it two more times, to give the Mexican a proper burial.

A touching story of justice from the other side? That is what the jury seemed to think, awarding the prize.

But little did they contemplate the lesson of this film: that the only way to wake people up to face the Other is at gunpoint. Tommy Lee Jones forces the errant gringo to sleep with the corpse, wash the corpse, dress the corpse, and then drag it across the border, pistolwhipping him throughout. The handcuffed gringo suffers wounds to his wrists, thirst, exhaustion, and finally a deadly snakebite. It is torturous to watch this predictable movie run to its predictable conclusion, where the amoral gringo-after enduring every form of torture that can slip by human rights commissions (including having boiling coffee spilled in his groin by the very Mexican woman he once punched in the face)-finally cries uncle and confesses his sins. "I did wrong! " he whimpers. "I realize the error of my ways!!"

It is a macho reverse-Western, simply told from the politically correct side. In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, do we really need that?

Kusturica gamely defended the screenplay. "I picked it not for rational reasons," he said.

Morrison came back to the fore with a more rational explanation. "For me it is a deeply moral film," she said. "The transition from vengeance to justice. A learning process for two men, for the reckless killer and the determined friend. "

Vengeance that leads to justice. What kind of world are we complacently accepting? Evidently, a world in which Americans can torture prisoners without mandate because it leads-in their noble minds-to "justice." Gone are the anti-vigilante films of the idealistic past, such as Taxi Driver that made the heroes of gun violence, intent to "clean the scum," look as foolish as the public that idolizes them. Even more disturbing: a recent New York Times article has suggested that ever since Abu Ghraib, torture-as a means to achieve justice-is just the way it goes, even on prime time. In the counter-terrorist world of Twenty-Four, writes Adam Green, "torture represents not the breakdown of a just society, but the turning point-at times even the starting point-for social relations." Three Burials speaks to this phenomenon: our acceptance of torture as ethics. As Mexican actress Salma Hayek said at the press conference: "it is man dealing with being man for the right reasons for being a man-not for simple violence": in essence, violence for the right cause.

Perhaps appropriately, the necessity of violence to force people to recognize the Other seemed the theme of this year's Cannes festival. Collectively, the films gave a kaleidoscopic image of a world of schisms, of people unwilling to face either themselves or others, unless with force.

In Michael Haneke's film Hidden, one of the best at the festival, a bourgeois television producer is haunted by menacing videos of his own house, each of which is accompanied by a scrawled drawing of a cock with its throat cut. It turns out that behind these threats is an Algerian from the producer's past-a victim of first-world injustice-who is seeking revenge on the powerful who once ignored him. …

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