Monday, June 15, 2015

3 Skype Calls that Killed a Beautiful Film

Photo by Ed Araquel - © 2014 Egoli Tossell Film/ Co-Produktionsgesellschaft "Hector 1" GmbH & Co. KG/ Happiness Productions Inc./ Wild Bunch Germany/
I recently watched a little known film called Hector and the Search for Happiness which starred the always funny Simon Pegg in a Walter Mitty-esque story of one unfulfilled man's search for life's true meaning.  The story unfolds as London psychiatrist, Hector (Pegg), takes a surprising whirlwind journey around the world, making notations and sketches in his notebook along the way in order to discover what makes people happy.  The parallels to the far superior film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, are obvious and plentiful.

In the case of Hector the filmmakers don't reach the heights of Mitty in terms of cinematography, which is sad since it can hardly be blamed on budget given the existence of the Hindi film Highway which kills them both in that regard and does so with less money than either.  And I bring up cinematography -- or a filmmakers ability to know beauty when they see it and capture it skillfully -- because it hints at Hector's greatest sin -- it's blatant ethnocentrism.

Unlike Mitty and definitely unlike Highway, Hector doesn't know a non-white human when it sees it.  All it knows are stereotypes -- Chinese are monks and prostitutes; Africans are sick kids, simple villagers, and violent thugs.  We do get some tender moments from an ill-defined, terminally ill Muslim woman, but she too is merely a vehicle for showing us that Hector is a better guy than he realizes (we don't know here nation of origin or language but we do get a nice, cliche "how you say ..." moment).

Here's is where the ethnocentrism really shines.  Several times, Hector video Skypes back to London to talk with his girlfriend, Clara.  In these calls, he begins by telling Clara where he is.  Here is the summary:

Call #1, "I'm in China!"

Call #2, "I'm in Africa!"

Call #3, "I'm in L.A.!"

Do you see what I see?  A bit of Google research will help you know that Hector is actually in Shanghai and then later somewhere in Tibet.  Of course, this several day overland journey is never explained in the film nor are we told the names of these locations.  Because, after all, China is China.  It is the land of mystical monks living in the mountains and abused prostitutes living in the cities.  Even one potentially important moment of conversation between Hector and his prostitute friend regarding a group of migrant laborers is glossed over with a superficial observation of the comparative happiness of the laborers in the context of frowning, wealthy businessmen.  Ah, yes, poor people are so happy.  I should point out that one character in the China act of the film gets a fair amount of development -- a wealthy, white British business man.

So, China is China.  But at least we aren't saying that Asia is Asia.  Which is exactly what we get from Hector's second call.

"I'm in Africa!"  Yes, he is.  But where?  We are never told.  It appears that most of the African scenes were shot in South Africa, but it isn't necessarily supposed to be South Africa.  It is an intentionally undefined African nation.  Local languages are not captioned or identified.  Nor are cities for that matter or local dishes or, really anything.  Of course, we learn the names of a local white NGO worker and get to hear about his calling and even his sexual orientation.  We also get to know quite a lot about a local drug dealer who gets a healthy amount of character development. We even get to know about his wife's mental health problems.  Of course, he isn't African but rather a transplant from Latin America or Spain (we aren't told which).

The Africans who do get lines in the film are some simple villagers who spend their day's eating "sweet potato stew" and partying, cruel thugs who kidnap and imprison Hector, and, of course, sick African children.  This is Africa.  And Africa is Africa.

There is also the inexplicable journey of Hector from Shanghai to South Africa which involves a final flight on a comically rickety propeller plane upon which passengers are freely smoking and holding livestock in their laps.  Since there are multiple major airports throughout South Africa served by many fine airlines, one wonders why Hector must fly on this clearly unsafe plane.  I'll be the first to admit that Emirates and others don't use their best planes on flights in and out of Africa, but this is just silly.  Clearly, the filmmakers want to emphasize very clearly that Africa is underdeveloped and unsafe.

Africa is Africa and Africa is bad.  Not without its charms, like elephants grazing and fun dance music, but bad.

So we come to the third call.  In which Hector reports to Clara that, "I am in L.A."  He we get lots of lines and names and character backgrounds -- after all, the characters are white and Western.  They live in nice houses and happy children and go to fine colleges.  I don't need to say more.

China is China.  Africa is Africa.  But when we get to the West, we get to know names of actual cities.  What filmmaker would ever dream of Hector reporting to Clara, "I'm in North America!"

Do a compare and contrast and see how Mitty and Highway portray peoples and places.  These other films are flawed but truly beautiful and not only show us how rich and unique various ethno-linguistic people groups are but also do a fine job of searching for and finding out some wonderful and insightful things about happiness.

Hector, to be fair, doesn't miss this entirely.  An eccentric old professor at the end of the film tells his students to not worry so much about the pursuit of happiness but rather the happiness of pursuit.  Yes, that is a turn of phrase worthy of the Sphinx (cf. Mystery Men), but it isn't wrong.  That is basically what we learn from Mitty and Highway but I am not convinced that Hector gets it in the end.  He is closer, but the very fact that his life-changing journey is reduced to ethnic stereotypes and a notebook full of platitudes suggests that he hasn't enjoyed the pursuit much at all.

Friends, pay attention.  As I once read in a qualitative research design methods textbook, "There are some who say that the most important step of any journey is the first one.  There are others who argue that the most brilliant and resplendent step is the last.  But, in fact, it is all the steps in between that make the journey.  Be present for every step."

There is it, and if Hector was paying attention, he would have had the chance to learn this lesson earlier when his NGO friend said, "There is a difference between being here and being here to be photographed being here." Yes, that was a good line and worth watching the whole movie just to hear.  So, while Hector feels more like a short-term mission team came home and tried to make a movie about the meaning of life, it's not without its insight.  Or at least, insight can be drawn from this leaky cistern.

If you want to be happy along life's journey, start by being present for every step and don't take too many selfies.

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