24 Frames per Second

I spent the last weekend at my third annual l’Abri Film Festival, the glorious 24 Frames per Second. This is basically a village film festival, but one that punches far above its weight, with serious debate of intelligent films in a friendly atmosphere. English l’Abri take over the village hall and invite locals, students and friends from far and wide to watch and discuss seven films over 1½ days. It is a real celebration of all things filmic, and of the value of a thoughtful approach to media and storytelling.

This year was particularly special, as the festival saw the UK ‘premier’ of Jaap van Heusden’s film Win/Win, complete with a Q&A with the director. It’s always a joy to hear a director’s perspective on their work, but even more so here, as Jaap talked on current projects, thoughts on film making and writing, and offered opinion on other films in the programme. Jaap came to this little village film festival instead of the Berlin Film Festival, where he was nominated for, and won, best screenplay. How amazing is that?!

Now, I don’t ordinarily review films, but I want to share a few thoughts on this year’s programme, while it’s still fresh in my mind. So, in the style of Mr Jackson

Win/Win

A light-hearted film about banking? An enjoyable exposition of the (un)realities of trading on futures? You wouldn’t believe it, but it’s true…

Belgian émigré Ivan has a talent for numbers and a quirky, almost autistic savant personality. Working somewhere in the bowels of a financial firm he gets himself noticed by the traders by randomly placing tips on Post-It notes around the building. Elevated to the big leagues, Ivan soon becomes the firm’s Golden Boy, as it seems he just can’t lose…

A study of the dislocation and alienation of success and the hyper-unreality of financial trading. The pursuit of the abstract is dehumanising. Ivan’s gradual dislocation from reality brilliantly portrayed through some of the best sound editing I’ve heard in years. A beautifully shot and framed film, colours bleached out as he falls further into isolation. And the persistent questions throughout: what is the cost of success? Is there a value in losing?

Doubt

Accusations of child abuse within a catholic school in 60’s America. Politics, power-plays and varying understandings of what is ‘right’. Wonderful acting by Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, but very ‘staged’ – the films roots as a play too obviously on display.

This is a film about contrasting views of righteousness – the conflict between moral regulation and compassion, between right action and right motivation. It’s about the doggedness of conviction and the persistence of praxis in the light of doubt and vanishing belief. The two lead roles have enough ambiguity and conviction to allow your own sympathies to come to the fore. Most people will find either Father Flynn or Sister Aloysius a monster, but I wonder if they are not both… Different forms of evil wrapped up in conviction? Or just the impossibility of scrutinising another’s soul?

Anderman

A return to the festival, this short documentary by Jaap van Heusden is ostensibly about a man caring for his mother, who has Alzheimer’s. The reality is more about the infectiousness nature of madness, and the impossibility of holding on to reality in the face of another’s disbelief in it. Anderman is a fascinating character – brutally direct, somewhat unhinged, and yet captivated by beauty and finding solace in art. 15 mins is just not enough…

The Return

A man appears at the home of two young brothers, whose mother simply says, “your father is home”. Who is this stranger, and what is his motivation? Where has he been for the last twelve years? Father and sons set out on a camping trip with a mysterious purpose, and as time goes on the sons try to understand this stranger and his place in their lives…

The Return is traumatic film, showing a reality far more brutal than we are used to in the west. It is one of the most visually beautiful films I have ever seen, but thematically it weighs on your soul. The director’s very deliberate use of cryptic religious imagery at the start of the film suggests – on later analysis – that he intends for the Father to be seen as some sort of comment on the nature of God. But what a picture!

This man, a cipher, absent at the beginning and end of the story. An unknowable, confusing and seemingly arbitrary plan of action. Brutal and violently-given instruction, arbitrary and extreme punishment. A stream of criticism and dismissive distancing. The only expression of affection too little, two late… I have to say that this is a picture of god I can identify with. It might not be yours, but it does seem consistent.

The film weighs on you. You search for positives, for resolution, for a sense of ‘plan’ to the man’s actions. The sons do learn from the father, they are changed by their experience. But they are equipped by him for a brutal and harsh life that they must live on their own. The father remains throughout unknown and unknowable, and the children unaware that they are loved.

What message should we take from this?

Lourdes

A mess. This pseudo-documentary does not have the courage of its convictions. Supposedly an ‘open’ approach to satire, creating space for the viewer to decide, it is instead muddy, boring and clichéd. There is no bite for the satire, and no miracle for the faithful. I’m amazed this film won awards, and surprised that it ended up on this programme. One to avoid.

Lars and the Real Girl

An extreme introvert, unable to properly interact with society, uses a ‘fake’ girlfriend – a sex doll bought over the internet – to help him transition into the world. Giving every impression that he sees ‘Bianca’ as real, Lars’ family, church and co-workers are forced to treat her as such. And beautiful things happen as a result.

This film is an absolute delight. By far the highlight of the festival. It is at points profound and side-splittingly hilarious, and throughout remains deeply touching. This is a picture of real community in action – surrounding, accommodating and loving others’ brokenness. It is collective acceptance and healing. The need for help in overcoming our fears and stepping out into the world. It is everything I hope for for the future.

Wonderful.

A Serious Man

A cruel, cruel end to the film festival. Our 7th film was just too strange for us to make sense of  – we were too tired, too over-stimulated. My second encounter with the Cohen Brother’s latest, I found it just as confusing the second time round. It is at points very funny, but just too frustrating, as you cannot make sense of all the pieces.

“Embrac(ing) the mystery” is dissatisfying – even if it is the point of the film – as you identify with the lead character too much.

Jim Paul, the l’Abriite who puts the film festival together, always swears that there is no intended theme. But strong thematic elements flow through the seven films: absent fathers/parents and the consequences of such; the struggle to find your place in the world and to deal with your brokenness; madness in the face of complexity; the inability to find satisfying answers. And most powerful of all, doubt and faith.

All the protagonists have some reason to (come to) doubt the narrative of their tradition. They all struggle with questions of identity in the face of challenging circumstances. Arguably, they all have a different worldview by the end of their stories.

The frustration is, of course, that these stories rarely share a comforting resolution. Worldviews are challenged, but ‘answers’ are not forthcoming. I wonder what it says about me that Win/Win and Lars, the two stories with genuine resolution, are the ones I found satisfying? And The Return and A Serious Man, the films with the least resolution, the most questions, the ones that trouble me and weigh on my mind? Perhaps I just have enough ambiguity in my life as it is right now…

Anyway, this post is now quite long enough. The l’Abri Film Festival is to be heartily recommended. It is fun, intelligent, challenging and moving, in a great setting and with some amazing people. Next year I’d like to get a gang of folks together to go down from London. Anyone interested?

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Celebration

As Steven points out, today it is two years since we walked through the doors of the l’Abri Fellowship in Greatham, Hampshire. Crazy, beautiful, unbelievable. Dear, dear friends, I am so grateful to know you all…

Also, tomorrow I’m 31.

So, to celebrate these momentous occurrences, I wanted to share something I should have shared a long time ago. My good friend, erstwhile best man and almost-longest-acquaintance Andy is, among many other things, the lead guitarist for a fantastic slice of uncharacterisable Brit chamber-pop: Stars of Aviation. These guys produce slightly-melancholic quirky music that makes you smile and delights your soul.

By the Shore - Stars of Aviation

While I was in the States they unveiled their latest EP: By the Shore. It’s great, and (hopefully) a wonderful prelude to the forthcoming album (which I’ve been lucky enough to hear a pre-release version of). So, if you like ironic lyrics, classic Casio keyboard sounds, accordions, trumpets and bassoons – or if you just want something to bring a smile to the corner of your mouth – you should waste absolutely no time in checking them out. iTunes link to the EP here. Spotify link here. Band MySpace page here.

Go on then!

Beautiful Friends

Just before Easter I went to l’Abri again – another one of my now very regular visits. As usual this visit was primarily prompted by the arrival of dear friends from a distant land.

Steven Carlson and Alida Kovacs are two of the most beautiful people you will ever meet. Truly, in every way imaginable. Steven is a dear, dear friend from my 7 months at the Manor last year, and Alida is slowly and graciously becoming so. When they told me they were flying in from Budapest for a few weeks there was no way I could miss the opportunity to see them.

I had the privilege of a week in their precious company, which included being able to celebrate their engagement with them. A true joy.

I took a lot of photos in those short days, part of a new set now online. I’m pleased with some of the results – especially capturing something of the character of these two joyous individuals during a very happy time.

Enjoy.

The Wedding of the Year

An impossible to focus camera. A grainy , ISO 800 film. A dark, romantically-lit house. Sneak-shots rapidly taken (between moments of clearing plates and washing up).

All these combine to give you some of the worst photographs I’ve ever taken. But they are indicative (if poor) images of precious memories. Yes, it was Marta and Danny’s wedding…

Enjoy

Doubt

A friend said to me the other day that they were “99.99% sure [God] exists”. They went on to say that “…i have no peace in that knowledge. not because i don’t think it matters… i just don’t want to have anything to do with him right now.” This is a friend with whom I have spent a good deal of time talking about the existence or lack thereof of god, over the last few months. It heartens me to know that they have come to at least some sense of surety on this, but it emphasises to me just quite how much has changed in my own life over the last few years.

I empathise. You see, I don’t want anything to do with god either. I don’t know how to reconcile all my experiences over the last few years with the understanding of god, of faith, that I developed in my young adulthood. I am left hurt and angry by the failure of my marriage, and the part that faith and organised religion played in that. If the god of my prior understanding exists, then I’m pretty pissed off at him…

But, unlike my friend, I can’t claim any surety on the existence of the Divine. Either way in fact.

When I arrived at l’Abri, back in September, I was simply hurt and angry. In many ways, I still am. But over time that hurt and anger has developed into a profound uncertainty. The question of the existence or non-existence of god is one that is ever-present at l’Abri, in lectures and lunch discussions, and late-night conversations. As my weeks there turned into months, I found myself doubting and questioning things I had never questioned before.

I am not at all sure that god exists. All of my prior faith and certainty has boiled away. The structure of my religion was shaken, and the foundations cracked and brought the whole edifice tumbling down. I find it hard to believe in a loving and present God that you can hear and follow, when hearing and following what I believed to be god led me into such a painful mess. It kinda raises some fundamental questions.

But then, I am not at all convinced that god doesn’t exist. The counter arguments, the explanations to our existence that don’t involve some form of Creator, just don’t seem very satisfying. They seem to leave us purposeless, pointless. A statistical aberration, a cosmic accident. They leave real questions when it comes to questions beauty or thankfulness or morality.

So I find myself stuck in the middle. Lost. The compass I used in the past to help me discern the way forward has shattered. I can claim to be neither a purposed created being following an ordained path, nor an animal following nothing but genetic urges. I have to confess that on that most fundamental of philosophic underpinnings I just don’t know

I am sure many people somehow live their lives without ever considering metaphysics, without ever forming an opinion of the basic question of life: why are we here? For many people I am sure it is simply a matter of ‘I exist; the world exists; I have to live in it’. But I don’t find it so easy to know how to live in the world without some sense of the consequences of actions, and the rationality behind decisions. I still think that what we believe about the nature of existence affects, has to affect, the way we chose to live our lives consciously or unconsciously.

I have tried to start series on this blog several times in the past, and to limited success. So, to long-term readers this may seem like another foolish exercise. But I genuinely want to work through some of the questions and uncertainties I have, and these pages seem to be as good a place as any to do so. Time will tell as to whether I am remotely successful at it.

I was going to use the word Agnosticism to head this post, but the mac dictionary defines an agnostic as: “a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena” and that definitely does not describe me at the moment. Instead, I have used the word Doubt, which the almighty Wikipedia describes as “a status between belief and disbelief”. I remain truly uncertain as to the nature of reality and the existence of a supreme being. But I don’t think that, at this stage, I feel that the truth cannot be known. Or at least, not known in part.

I am going to journey in uncertainty a while, and explore the way-markers of my doubt – on both sides of this issue. I hope that you will humour me in this, and maybe journey with me for a while.

The Dream

I’ve been thinking about what I want for my life, spurred on by the encouragement of various friends and commenters. It’s never been an easy one for me, as I tend to be interested and inspired by many things; distracted by the next dream or possibility… I’m going to think seriously about what I want my life to look like in 5 years time, and I may or may not post on that in time, but for now I want to try and bash out a recurring dream…

My two terms at l’Abri have had a profound affect on me, as I know they have on many others. But the following idea, while added to and flourishing in that environment, has been germinating in me for years. Each new encounter is a new form of inspiration, an new bit of clarity; developing a sense of “like this, but not like that…

So what’s the dream? Well, I am still trying to pull the hazy distant imaginings into a describable reality, but as far as I can sketch at the moment…

The dream is a farm, run by a community of like-minded individuals, living a shared life together. It aspires to self-sufficiency, and even an abundance, so that the product of the land can be crafted, shared, even sold. It grows organically, perhaps using permaculture principles, but certainly trying to steward the land in as efficient, diverse and environmentally sustainable manor as possible. It aims to have the minimum possible carbon footprint; hopefully even managing to be a negative generator of CO2.

The community is centred on the shared belief of the fundamental creative nature of all of us, and seeks to express that in everything it does. In terms of food production, it aims to take control of as much of the food cycle as possible, and produce in-house food of the best quality, from seed to table. It would seek excellence in all areas, and aspire to creative, wholesome, nutritious and desirable production, for the enjoyment of the farm, the local community, and beyond.

The farm would be an artistic fellowship, seeking to be a place of communal artistic expression, a cradle and crucible of talent. Residents and guests would work part of their time on the land or the products of the land, and part of their time in the pursuit of creative expression. It would be a place of music, of sculpture and painting, of photography and film; a melting-pot of ideas, inspirations and the result of shared artistic endeavour.

The community would aspire to follow the inspiration of the Arts and Crafts Movement; not necessarily in terms of style, but in terms of seeking to produce quality, hand-crafted works, and the high value to aesthetics and the goodness of beauty. Like “Morris & Co.” it would seek to develop craft-based production of beautiful things: hand made furniture, book binding and printing, clothing etc. Perhaps in time it could be a place of fostering new ideas and principles in art, architecture, education etc.

The community would be based around a shared life, in the belief that we are more human when we are not isolated and live in fellowship with other human beings. Or, to quote Christopher McCandless: “Happiness is nothing if it is not shared.” It would seek to work together, eat together, play together and laugh together. There would be a common commitment to a ‘slow life’, to a reducing of the intense, depersonalising, technology-driven nature of our western life. It would, especially, seek to be an alternative to consumerist materialism.

Last, for now, and by no means least, the community would seek to be a place of shelter. The phrase that comes to mind is “freely you have received, now freely give”. It would seek to welcome strangers into its midst, and to be a place of refuge for those that need it, for as long as they need. The community would aspire to growing, not as a hand-picked collection of friends, but as any and all who need to be there, and can commit to the shared values and vision. Inspired by the monastic orders of old, the community would practice salvation through work; that labouring with and for the community can in and of itself be a healing thing.

There is probably much more to write, but that is enough from me for now. This is a rough outline of a steadily growing dream, and it is by no means my exclusive proviso. If this is ever to develop out of the hazy imaginings of my own mind and into an achievable, concrete reality, then it will do so with others, and the perspectives of others will be as valid as mine. So, what do you think? Are there others there for whom this is a shared dream? Does this picture, or parts of it , resonate with you? What would you add, what would you take away?

And, just as importantly, how do we get there?

Pop!

the bubble has burst

and we are cast asunder

to the wind

to the four corners

of this fragile earth

and broken and bruised

we begin again

to reaccumulate

to reforge

to rebuild

to try to be what we believe that we may be

in time

(for Julia)

 

What do you do when the bubble bursts?

Forest Bubble by ecstaticistI have many questions running through my head right now, lots of unresolved issues, and precious little mental and emotional energy to engage with them all. But there is one pressing question that I know I share with all of my fellow post-l’Abri-ers: “What do we do now!?!

We have lived intense, close, communal lives in a little bubble in Hampshire, and our lives have changed as a result. We bear the marks of community life, we’ve tasted of forbidden fruit, and we know that our lives just can’t be the same afterwards. We have lived a life that is at once harder and more beautiful, more fully human, than we thought possible, but have been thrown out again, into the petty, busy, messy, lonely materialistic-individualistic society of our birth. But we don’t fit here any more.

None of us are the same as we were. None of us feel at home in our old houses, with our old friends and families, workplaces and churches. We are feeling homesick for a place that no longer exists, yearning for friendships that have been shattered by the UK immigration department and scattered across the globe, never to be reformed (at least, not all together, not in the same way).

A weeks holiday in Dorset, with beautiful, beloved l’Abri friends was spent trying desperately to forget the impending separation, and seeking any possible fantasy to reforge our community life. We sought any possible farm or cottage that could play the part of a community ‘home’ for us, as we knew we had just been made homeless. It was not to be, because our dreams need time to coalesce out of fantasy and into a more possible substance. By the time that they do, and the dreamed-of farms and community houses begin to take shape, we will be long parted, and unable to draw back together.

Perhaps it is ever thus. Friendships form out of shared experience, and after that experience is ended, there is less and less that we have in common, less and less for us to gather round. The friendships need new experiences to share, or else slowly succumb to reminiscence and gradual drifting apart.

But even if we discount the tearing apart of friendships, there is more here. For we have tasted real community, the brutal reality of shared life, and we know we will never be the same. Talking to one good friend last night, who is 4 months ahead of me on this post-l’Abri journey, we discussed the reality of mourning the death of community. We experienced something powerful, that is now lost to us, and every alternative seems shallow and worthless. We are left grieving for an unrepeatable moment, looking at every gathering and shared life thinking ‘why are you not more like…?

I want to believe that it is possible to find a form of community that isn’t so cyclical and temporary, that doesn’t suck you in and then spit you out. But life as a student at l’Abri would not be sustainable in the long term: it is too tiring, too intense, too insular. But does that mean that there aren’t other possibilities? Other ways together and genuinely share life?

I hope so. For now I just know that the bubble has bust, and it has thrown me out with my ears ringing. I am in a profound state of shock. We can only see what there will be when the ringing dies down…