Friday, October 7, 2016

'Take risks, learn from mistakes,' says film-maker

Joffé spoke to several hundred students at the University of Navarra on Thursday.

Film-maker Roland Joffé has a way of leading people on a mystical meditation to find out who they are and how they will communicate with the world.

"The truth is that no one in this room actually knows where we are," he told about 400 students and professors Thursday at the University of Navarra School of Communication. "And if we don't know where we are, how on earth can we know who we are. And finding out who you are is all your journey, isn't it?

"Communication is about finding out who you are and listening to other people and finding out who they are. And that's very beautiful."

Joffé is best known for directing The Mission and The Killing FieldsBut he holds a special interest for the University of Navarra audience because he wrote and directed There Be Dragonsa film about the founder of Opus Dei and the university, St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer. (Our colleague Jaume Aurell was a historical adviser on the film.)

Make choices, take risks

Joffé encouraged students to take risks and learn from their mistakes, "Because that's the only way we learn. We're in a great vortex of communication. When we communicate, or when we create a film or a work of art, we can get it wrong. That's not scary, because we all make mistakes, and getting things wrong is part of the process, and listening to those who tell us we've got it wrong is an act of love."

About 400 students and faculty attended. Photo by Manuel Castells.

Joffé, 70, described himself as a poor student who drifted along a pleasure-seeking path after university until his grandmother asked him a question that pushed him to get on with his life: "You have a lovely lifestyle," she said, "but who is going to pay for it?"

So he connected with some friends and began as a set designer in a theater in Manchester, England, then tried acting (and failed), then created plays for autistic children, then moved on to directing television and film.

His journey in life has been the result of chance, he told the students, but chance driven by choices. "Communicating and creating art are about making choices. We make things through our choices, and our choices define who we are."

Joffé invited us on a meditation. He led us to consider our bodies as so enormously large that we could see inside the molecules and the atoms and the unimaginably vast spaces between the nucleus and electrons. Then he led us to consider ourselves as infinitesimally tiny, as a dot on the Earth in the unimaginably vast spaces between the galaxies. This is who we are: both preposterously large and infinitesimally small.

"I stand before you today humbly, because like you, I have questions. And the truth is, every culture has the same set of questions. Culture is the answers to those questions, usually presented as the only truth."

Various religions try to describe the order in the universe as the design of their god, Joffé said. He believes, as his own father once told him, that god is not the answer but the question: where does this tendency to order come from?

Power, conflict, and violence

The tendency to see one's own culture as right and all others as wrong is the source of much of the conflict and violence depicted in his films, he conceded. One group fears another, that fear leads to hatred, and that leads to a desire to exert power and control over the others.

Those who don't know who they are or where they are are the ones who have the most fear and thus want to exert the most power -- people like autocrats and dictators and imperialists. Their grandiose pyramids, churches, and monuments -- he mentioned Trump Tower -- are manifestations of their fears and insecurities.

Both The Mission, about a Catholic missionary trying to convert indigenous people in Latin America in 18th century, and The Killing Fields, about U.S. involvement in the civil war in Cambodia in the 1970s, are about this collision of cultures. The violence stems from the dominant culture's fear and loathing of the other. In his films, love redeems the violence when those with power begin to see the others as just like themselves.

Fear of insensitivity

His plan for making The Mission was to use members of a real Stone Age tribe in Colombia rather than actors. A government anthropologist feared Joffé and his crew would be insensitive and would contaminate the culture of these Guaraní people with modern influence. Above all, don't take their picture, he was told, because that could get you killed.

Joffé set up a Polaroid instant camera on a tripod in the Guaraní village, took his own picture, and shared the print with some children. Pretty soon, the village children and adults were asking him to take their picture and give them the prints.

"I wasn't snapping a photo and walking away with their image in the camera as though I were stealing something from them. I was giving them something." So the Guaraní accepted Joffe and the movie cameras because he convinced them that he would tell their story. In Joffé's words, this was a communicator's act of love.

A number of my students and colleagues told me afterwards that they were expecting Joffé to explain more about the technical process of making films. But all agreed that what he had done was much richer: to help them see their studies and film projects as a part of a journey to discover themselves and the world.


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