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November 29, 2016

Six Months to Salvation: An Emotional Mission

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Reviewing Six Months to Salvation, a documentary directed and written by Lorenzo Benitez, a sophomore at Cornell and staff writer for The Sun, could present a conflict of interests. I reassure my readers, Lorenzo and I have never met. Other than our alma-mater and having read a few of his articles in The Sun, no stifling connection skews my impression of the film. I share the following review as a mostly unbiased audience member.

Six Months to Salvation follows a service trip to Thailand where Lorenzo and several other volunteers teach English over a six month period. Unlike other aid oriented documentaries of its kind, Six Months to Salvation sets itself up as an unvarnished reflection on his experience. The film opens on a teenager — Lorenzo — lying in bed with his laptop lounging on his chest. The familiar scene sets an accessible and forthright tone that carries through the film. Five feet from me, my roommate poses the same way at this very moment (and most other afternoons). While Netflix streams across my roommate’s laptop, Lorenzo laughs about a Kenyan service-trip description on his screen. Much like how my roommate’s comments interrupt the quiet in our room and I, from an obligatory feeling, turn and ask: “What’s so funny?”; Lorenzo’s cameraman questions from behind the lens, “Lorenzo, can you explain to us what you find humorous about that?” The film props itself up with indifference and unaffected teenage tones. Lorenzo questions the authenticity in a service trip that promises to change a volunteer’s life. Because, shouldn’t the program’s primary concern be on improving the lives’ of the non-volunteers, the children born into poverty rather than the students privileged enough to temporarily subject themselves to hardship? The film frames itself much like how I set up my review — a nonpartisan, candid, open-minded impression.

Quickly, however, Lorenzo’s students, members of the Karen Hill Tribe, “an ethnic minority once marginalized by Thai Society,” gives weight to the light-hearted film. The lens moves out of Lorenzo’s bedroom and spans the surrounding landscape. Lorenzo sets up in his opening scenes exactly what he means to undermine in his documentary. He starts with a Western sense of self-importance only to turn the camera outward to scenes that bring hundreds of impoverished children into focus. The film follows Lorenzo’s own changing mentality. From skepticism to awareness, the camera carries with it a matter-of-fact attitude. And, the Karen Hill environment’s natural intensity steals away the director’s spotlight. The establishing shots, however, maintain Lorenzo’s authenticity. He films unfiltered farmland, cultivated only by the tribe, not by Lorenzo’s directorial intervention. He turns to colorfully dressed women, weaving and bracelet making. They, like the natural landscape, remain indifferent to the camera. The documentary presents the tribal community as open-mindedly unassuming as Lorenzo feels toward the altruistic teaching venture.

But, as the documentary develops the Karen Hill children and their teachers, contrasting qualities become increasingly transparent. The cultural disconnect and language barrier grow wider, and, despite the opportunity to break through these walls, the beautiful Thai landscape seems to selectively exclude the Australian intruders. The bare-footed volunteers stand out from the surrounding environment and seem to fall on a path toward disillusionment, frustration and failure. The young English teachers ride motor bikes along the roads that the Karen Hill people walk. Lorenzo films his friends playing beer pong in their house, swinging golf clubs in fallow rice fields and answering difficult open-ended questions on their mission and their opinions. Then, he cuts to un-subtitled cultural scenes that neither the viewer nor the volunteers fully understand. Six Months to Salvation explores the process. It includes every awkward encounter, each disappointing misunderstanding and a feeling of regret for leaving the easiness of home. It includes Lorenzo’s self-evaluation and even his falling off his bike when he took a turn too fast down a rural road. The circumstances and the disconnect batter Lorenzo and his friends, and, true to his honest framing, he includes every last misstep.

The film splits time between the Karen people and the volunteers. But, the emphasis constantly falls back on the young teachers. Every disillusioned moment culminates in a film that brings a psychological strife — an inner conflict — to the forefront rather than a larger scale cultural investigation. The film asks important questions about the role of language in culture but its most interesting observations lie within each volunteer’s experience. Just like the opening scene, the documentary succeeds because the Australian students look like, sound like and act like people we know. So, although I haven’t met Lorenzo I feel that I understand his struggle. Because he leaves in the jokes and the beer and the laptop-lying-in-bed, I get it and I feel every disappointment. Six Months to Salvation proves the point that Lorenzo thought “un-ironically selfish” and humorous at the film’s beginning. The documentary confirms that, over the six month period, the language missionaries’ experiences affected them more strongly than it did their students. But, not in the “always happy” way Lorenzo anticipated. He tells a story of being broken down — feeling lost, worthless and disappointed. Six Months to Salvation shows how these emotions consume and shape people. These feelings blur the boundaries between student and teacher; because, through a service mission to learn about and educate the Karen people, the volunteers and viewers gain a greater understanding of Western culture. Only one dishonest, inconsistent moment emerges in the film when a volunteer says, “I’m not learning anything from being here.”

Julia Curley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jmc628@cornell.edu. 

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