"What IS in Front of Me?" (Essay)

Feb. 1, 2019

I recently made a rare trip to the movie theater for a special showing of "They Shall Not Grow Old", the latest production from Peter Jackson of "The Lord of the Rings" fame.

I've always found it difficult to connect with the World War I era in any emotional way. I've read a lot about the senselessness of the "War to End All Wars," which was followed just over 20 years later by World War II and the Holocaust. What footage exists from that era is the silent, jerky black and white that looks like parody on the screen. And as a result, I've had a harder time pulling back the "empathy curtain" if you will; to connect with the humanity captured on the screen through the distraction of the medium.

As the centennial of the "Great War" approached, Jackson was tasked by the British Imperial War Museum with culling from their over 100 hours of original footage along with 600 plus hours of postwar audio interviews, and to somehow make it contemporary. He chose a specific story, tracing the British volunteers through their enlistment up to and through a touchstone "Gettysburg moment" in British history, the horrific Battle of the Somme. Nearly 20,000 British soldiers perished in the first day of fighting, in a five month battle that ultimately decided nothing.

As someone who gets immersed in stories whether giving or receiving, I deeply appreciate just what Jackson has done, and how. He used modern technology in bringing the film into its proper speed and color, and created a soundtrack from the ether as authentically as possible by recreating the sounds of the machinery, and the men through use of forensic lip readers. (The half hour interview segment after the credits roll is a don't miss, where he describe the various challenges and solutions in detail).

What results is that a previously inaccessible-to-me story blasted off the big screen in full painful and terrifying humanness, told solely by the men who experienced it and the filmmaking team that painstakingly curated it. The mundane details and the big picture suddenly roared to life like the artillery shells exploding over the no man's land between the trenches.

I believe that the essence of storytelling is exactly that; to somehow create your personal portal to experience someone else's story. To allow you to bear witness indirectly or directly, in some close proximity. And I for one am grateful that we are able to extend our reach back farther into the past, to pull back that "empathy curtain" to allow this 21st century generation a few moments immersion in a pivotal story in western history.

But (and there's usually a "but"), it did leave me troubled in more ways that just my newly-deepened empathy for those who endured trench warfare and poison gas attacks. As I consider the ramifications of the film, I worry that technology and digital media have combined to remove us as much from that access to the story as they do to enhance it. The manipulation of words, photos and film is so ubiquitous as to frequently blur the lines between what actually happened and a biased presentation.

Selective filtering has always played a role in storytelling, but now it is possible to essentially filter and recast "reality." It's not only easy to find, it's downright hard to avoid. We see something that we don't believe, we shout "fake news", and aim withering scorn at the sources. And in so doing, add another layer of bricks on top of The Empathy Wall. All the while making it ever easier for us from the inside of our "I Believe bubble" to dehumanize one another, an essential precursor to war and genocide throughout "modern civilization".

The story we are presented has an "us" and "them" narrative, and it becomes harder than ever to not see what we are already predisposed to see, and thus further enhance and solidify our feelings and viewpoints. We can barely see over the Empathy Wall, and we only know that "they" are on the other side waiting to take what is rightfully ours, or do us ill. Such is a natural but established tendency of human fear and suspicion I suppose.

While I am profoundly moved by Jackson's work, and grateful to have experienced it, I am sure that there are many other viewpoints to the story, including those of German soldiers. And I've now been shown just how much can be reconstructed, and altered, and manipulated to tell a story for good and potentially a lot less than good. There are an awful lot of entities out there who doubtless are quite busy doing both.

Believing what's in front of me has gotten a bit more complicated.

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