Compassion, Film and the Consolation of Art in Trying Times
Canadian producer Nicole Hilliard-Forde curates The Review and reaches out to Natasha Lyonne, Mark Rendall and Mayuran Tiruchelvam for comment
“To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face and to know it for what it is.” — Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), The Hours
Given the climate of fear and paranoia prompted by the results of the US election, I wanted to explore the idea of compassion — defined, literally, as “to suffer together” — in relation to film. In 2015, I produced The Other Half, a moving emotional drama written and directed by Joey Klein, starring Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), Tom Cullen (Downton Abbey, Weekend), Suzanne Clément (Mommy, Laurence Anyways), Henry Czerny (Revenge) and Mark Rendall (The History of Love, The Exploding Girl). The film is a dark romantic drama about a young woman with bipolar disorder and a young man with PTSD who fall in love and struggle to forge a simple life together. It’s a strong first feature for the director and opens theatrically on December 2.
Making a low-budget first feature requires the selflessness of many, many people. When I was asked to produce The Other Half, I distinctly remember feeling like “I need to produce this film, no matter what the cost is.” The story was a call to action for me. And as the producer, I had to bring many, many people together for reasons other than financial motivation. I remember exactly where I was when I saw Breaking the Waves (1996) by Lars von Trier. I remember exactly how I felt. I experienced the work as Theatre of Cruelty and it took me 10 years to try and process it. I have since returned to his work as a viewer but not without a serious period of introspection.
Of all the forays into depicting human cruelty and suffering, a few different films come to mind. Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (2002) is an adaptation of the 1998 novel by Michael Cunningham (itself inspired by the 1925 Virginia Woolf novel Mrs. Dalloway), which follows three generations of women, all of whom, in one way or another, deal with suicide in their lives. Nicole Kidman and Ed Harris’ performances are particularly memorable for me.
Then there’s the sophomore film from Secretary director Steven Shainberg called Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006). Again starring Nicole Kidman, it focused on the imagined love affair between real-life photographer Diane Arbus and an enigmatic muse suffering from hypertrichosis (a disease that causes excessive body hair known as “werewolf syndrome”). He (played by Robert Downey Jr.) introduces Arbus to the marginalized people who help her to become one of the most revered photographers of the 20th century. Although the film was reviewed harshly, I found the portrait of Kidman’s dissatisfied housewife incredibly astute.
And thirdly, Xavier Beauvois’ stunning film Of Gods and Men (2010). In it, an order of Trappist monks, whose members include Christian (Lambert Wilson) and Luc (Michael Lonsdale), live among the Muslim population in a quiet corner of Algeria. As the country is plunged into civil war in the mid-1990s, the men of God must decide whether to stay amongst the impoverished residents who have been their neighbours, or flee the encroaching fundamentalist terrorists. The situation that unfolds, based on actual events, has tragic consequences. Although my life could not be further than the setting of this film, I related to their struggle for meaning and purpose. It was their willingness to test their beliefs, despite all evidence of a hopeless world, that compelled me. Then there’s Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995), but that film deserves its own essay about suffering and resilience.
My earliest recollection of human suffering comes from three disparate sources in my childhood. When I was around eight, I saw my mother physically assaulted and found the events utterly confusing and jarring. I remember the uniformed police officers. I remember my mother's stoic demeanour and what I perceive now as a kind of martyrdom that can only come with pain. When I was 14, my cousin died at the age of six. It was a shock to the whole family but seeing my aunt's grief was jarring and brought vulnerability to my understanding of what suffering was. I also remember the way my father spoke to me about slavery and how he trembled as if the events were vivid and palpable to him. I still can’t watch any representations of slavery without losing my composure. To understand more, I reached out to three friends and collaborators about the role that grief and suffering plays in the need to tell our own stories, which I feel is more important than ever before.
Mark Rendall is a Toronto-based actor who starred in the feature films Victoria Day and The Exploding Girl. He will be next seen in the upcoming feature The History of Love and the series Versailles.
Mayuran Tiruchelvam is a writer and producer, born in the UK and raised in the United States and Sri Lanka. His films include The Girl is in Trouble, To Be Takei and My First Kiss and The People Involved. Prior to his filmmaking career, he was an organizer against the prison industrial complex in New York. Based in New York and Los Angeles, he is an adjunct professor at Columbia University and artist-in-residence at Sacred Heart University. His website is www.mayurantiru.com.
Natasha Lyonne is a actor and filmmaker based in New York. She currently plays Nicky Nichols in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black and starred in the 2016 horror comedy Antibirth.
Have you ever watched a portrayal of human suffering that shattered you for a time?
Mayuran Tiruchelvam: There are films that I definitely won’t watch again because the content was difficult to swallow. I’d have to think about the performances that I empathized with so greatly that I couldn’t go back [to the film] for a long while. Off the top of my head: Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Émilie Dequenne in the Dardenne brothers’ Rosetta, Tony Leung Chiu-wai in the Wong Kar-wai films Happy Together and In the Mood for Love, Björk in Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, Lee Kang-Sheng in any of Tsai Ming-liang’s movies, and Charlie Chaplin in City Lights.
Mark Rendall: Beasts of No Nation did a real number on me. I must have cried the whole time I watched that movie. It was so honest and painfully real, too much to handle. Another one is The Visitor. I really like films that break down my concepts of separateness or otherness. I like films that remind me that no one in this crazy world is less worthy of love and respect than any other — that no matter what our ethnicity, upbringing, or privilege, we are all walking the same earth and can always relate to each other. I like movies that make monsters relatable instead of things to fear. Whether that monster be mental illness, violence, or even happiness and joy, sometimes people are afraid. It can be really easy to forget that we’re all in this together and good art reminds us of our interconnectedness.
Natasha Lyonne: Killer films for me are Roy Scheider as Bob Fosse in All that Jazz or David Thewlis in Mike Leigh’s Naked. I like it all coming to me at once. It speaks to the teenage surrealist in me. I respond best to a message of the human condition that includes surrealism and humour. I like a bit of mean-spiritedness to make the pill go down, so I can find a direct link to how I'm wired. What’s great is that people respond to all different kinds of drama. Like you, I also enjoy Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, which is an all-time tough, complex, raw performance, and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. Sometimes, I think I identify more with Moskowitz in Minnie & Moskowitz. I have an easier time identifying with a male character’s experiences in a film.
Name some films and filmmakers who have left a similar impression on you.
Mayuran Tiruchelvam: In addition to the films and filmmakers listed earlier, I find that films where a character struggles internally as well as externally truly speak to me. The films of Elia Kazan are a huge influence, particularly Wild River and East of Eden, as well as Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause. Billy Wilder is a master in bringing character struggles to light, regardless of whether the film is a screwball comedy, a romance, or a noir. Cinema for me is very much about nostalgia — those feelings of longing for an idealized past, a lost love, a perfect memory — and our desire to capture those moments and hold on to them forever. Maybe this is masochistic, but films that reinforce or reflect on the heartbreak that we all experience and strive to overcome hold a huge place in my heart. I find this emotional reflection in films like Once Upon a Time in the West, Blade Runner, Children of Men, and Taxi Driver.
Mark Rendall: Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher. Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida. William Friedkin's Bug. Mike Leigh's Naked. There’s a lot more but I'm terrible with remembering these things. A lot of Charlie Kaufman’s stuff. David Lynch's more straightforward narrative work is super powerful to me, The Elephant Man is amazing. Also, some of Terry Gilliam’s work.
Natasha Lyonne: The reason we idealize the ‘70s and early ‘80s so much is because it was an era when there seemed to be a mainstream desire to see films about the human condition. A movie like Kramer vs. Kramer was an event. Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman were two of the biggest movie stars in the world and it was a movie ultimately about how to reconcile divorce with a child. I love the idea that was considered a great night at the movies, the audience’s sentiment being “it speaks to my personal life.” Cinema then was simultaneously very personal and very universal. Today, Hollywood’s assumption is that we want films where we can check out, primarily with superheroes. Sadly, audiences seem to be taking them up on it.
How do films about human suffering serve the collective unconscious, as well as the people who have endured it?
Mayuran Tiruchelvam: Films show us that we have the capacity to resist and overcome great trauma and suffering. Through precise and empathetic storytelling, films allow us to feel close to other people whose struggles and challenges are completely different from our own. In this way, films can inspire us in our journey to heal or grow, or to reach out to others who are struggling.
Mark Rendall: We are by nature very sensitive and susceptible to emotional scarring. Throughout our lives we become hardened by our pain. This is, of course, a useful tool since life is hard and inevitably painful. But when that tough skin becomes a prison in which our vulnerability cannot shine through, we need something to help us be vulnerable.
Honest art gives us permission to feel. A movie theatre can feel like a collective confessional. There is a great power and natural human tendency towards wanting to relate to one another, and storytelling is the glue that binds us all together. We are all fundamentally living the same archetypal story, no matter who or what we think we are and no matter what we think divides us. When we allow ourselves to acknowledge our own pain and suffering through the eyes of another, we are vicariously attempting to heal ourselves. We all suffer. We just want someone to tell us that we’re not alone.
Natasha Lyonne: One hopes that the arts can be a version of communion so we can discuss the way we are feeling from a sideways angle, opening us up, making us laugh, making us think. The trouble with low-budget films is so often, due to a lack of strategy for a wider release, we wind up preaching to the converted. Often in the indie world, people make things with no financial gain. I’m grateful to be on a TV show that stands for something and feels relevant and in line with the things that I believe in. My film career, the bulk of which has always been indies, I do as a passion for the arts. It has nothing to do with financial gain. Sadly, the same goes for theatre. The dream would be a return to a widespread, mainstream hunger for substantive art. We need to move away from the giant chasm between action and indie and return to the individual getting their voice back. There is a power of cinema, maybe through comedy most of all, to speak to suffering on a small and human level that can be an olive branch to viewers. At best, film can create a sense of empathy and joy that provides much-needed solace. It is a catharsis for both the filmmaker and the audience.