Over the summer I attended a screening of The Constant Gardener followed by a Q&A with actress Rachel Weisz. Directed by acclaimed City of God visionary Fernando Meirelles, the film covers a broad range of injustices occurring in Africa today, including the plight of AIDS on the continent and the increasingly unstable Sudanese conflict. In true Meirelles style, the movie uses non-actors found on the streets to lend legitimacy to the squalor and remains true to the harsh reality of life for many in 21st century Africa.
When the screening ended, an apparently distressed audience member more or less posed the following question to Weisz, “After living and filming in the neighborhoods in Africa, what are you going to do about what you experienced there? How are you helping the people who welcomed you into their villages to shoot this film?” A flabbergasted Weisz briefly discussed a foundation effort started by the film but also answered that she is largely only a storyteller, conveying the director’s message through her performance. Respectable reply, but if she is merely an actor playing a part, are we the audience then solely playing out our role as well? How are we able to see shocking and jarring films such as these and continue to be spectators to the tragic scenes of strife and suffering playing out across the globe? By and by, I sense that there is an increasingly voyeuristic quality of the world constantly at our fingertips through the internet and 24-hour news reporting, thus fostering the ability to witness devastation but still manage to live separate and apart from it all.
Audiences watch a movie like The Constant Gardener, yet there is no facilitated conversation to better understand or amend the situation afterwards and we are only left with uncomfortable images that we can stow away at our convenience. Images of the deplorable conditions under which people in a far away land live through civil wars and disease, and images of a not so far away place where our nation’s poor were left vulnerable to the worst natural disaster our country has seen in years.
It is no secret that we live in a class-oriented society; accounts of children dying in the Sudan are easily stomached over a bowl of cereal while watching the morning news report in many households across this country. It is no secret that unless it is for the so-called greater good, we tend to steer clear of involvement in issues that don’t suit our immediate interests. It appears to be a second nature, the ability to push pressing issues out into the nether regions of our minds, not dealing with them until a dire situation occurs and it is more or less too late. Sadly our government’s way of doing things doesn’t fall too far from the tree and accounts for the delayed response in relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina in Buloxi, Mississippi and New Orleans. Poverty in this country is seen but unseen and last week’s disaster is an incorrigible sign of the neglect of the less fortunate in America. When class divisions become the key to who lives and who dies, there is simply no excuse.
Never in recent years have I seen the unmistakable consequences of our closely guarded class structure, when those caught in the storm waited too long for help to arrive. Thousands of people in Mississippi and Louisiana have been left without homes and an incomprehensible number have perished in the devastating natural disaster. We’ve all heard the stories about the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe and it seemed to only get progressively worse. Inexplicable reports of negligence continue to surface. The breached levee that caused Lake Pontchartrain to wreak havoc on the Big Easy was a known danger to the now adjoined Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security that was never addressed. City government officials told residents to flee to the Superdome only for those who listened to be left stranded in the makeshift shelter after it was overcome by flood waters. How much loss beyond the hurricane was caused by poorly planned procedure? Perhaps we’ll never know.
It would be wrong to say that a disaster affecting an area the size of Great Britain solely devastated the region’s poor. It did not. Many were affected by Hurricane Katrina. But the disproportion of poor and elderly that were stranded and were not evacuated is so huge that it can not be ignored. In his weekly radio address, President Bush stated among other things that, “…We will not allow bureaucracy to get in the way of saving lives.” But we have. When it comes to the poor and voiceless, it’s something that happens all the time. We have failed our countrymen in every sense.