Monday, May 04, 2009

Dismal Illumination & Empathy

In my next life, I want to come back as Nicholas Kristof. His writing for the NYT is done with such humanity and insight, and I loved watching him in action tonight at the International Premiere of Reporter. The film follows Kristof on a mission of (as the director calls it) "dismal illumination" to the Congo.

As Kristof searches for the one person who will illuminate the massive suffering of millions caused by war in the Congo (5.4 million killed in the past decade), filmmaker Eric Daniel Metzgar distastefully comments that hunting down the saddest stories "doesn't feel very good." (There were moments when I couldn't help but think of the book, Anyone Here Been Raped and Speak English?) But, Metzgar admits, the worst stories will exist whether Kristof finds them or not.

When Kristof meets Yohanita, a woman so thin from starvation she is mistaken for a bundle of rags, his next column begins to take shape. His methodology is similar to my own (just without world leaders paying close attention!): tell personal stories that highlight larger political, historical and ethical issues. What I wasn't aware of is the "psychology of compassion" that informs Kristof's method.

One scientific study mentioned in the film is really fascinating: Subjects were shown three pictures... one of a starving 7-year-old girl, one of a starving 7-year-old boy, and one with both the boy and girl. People looking at the photos felt the same level of compassion for both the girl and boy in their individual photos. But when the two were pictured together, psychic numbing began to take hold, and viewers didn't feel as compassionate. And that's just two people suffering! How will the human mind comprehend 5.4 million??

In the end, Krisof says emotions are too unreliable to allow people to care about those suffering in our world. We need laws. But years of international inaction in Darfur prove that laws aren't enough either. That's why Kristof makes galvanizing public opinion and inspiring public outcry one of his primary missions--and his ability to achieve it is unparalleled in the field of journalism.


"I know I'm different than my mother," says the main character in the wrenching film, About Face: The Story of Gwendellin Bradshaw, "because I feel empathy." Gwen's mother, a drug-using schizophrenic, threw her into a campfire when she was 9-months-old, leaving her with even more internal scars than external ones. The film follows Gwen through much of her 20s as she searches for her mother and battles her own mental and substance abuse demons. Tracking her mother takes Gwen to homeless shelters and psychiatric facilities across the United States, and when her search ends on a bench outside a bus station in New Hampshire, her mother insists on seeing her ID--as if the burns that have disfigured her face and hands aren't proof enough. Instead of finding the love and family she has craved her entire life, Gwen discovers a selfish, angry, mentally unstable woman who seems to believe that she is the victim who needs to be rescued. Fortunately, Gwen does find a real sense of family with her half sister, and as the film closes, the two of them create a photo album together--the first photo album Gwen has ever had in her entire life. (I must mention - the original score was beautiful - great job Joel Goodman!)

No comments: