Here’s the kind of moral question you’ll find in “Examined Life,” a newly released documentary on DVD featuring some of our most challenging thinkers, including Cornell West …
One sunny afternoon, you decide to take a break from work. You’re walking through a park, passing a shallow pond—when you realize a small child has fallen into the water!
You whip your head around, looking for a parent—for any other adult—and see no one else.
You shout! No one answers.
The child is flailing and may drown unless you act!
But, you’re dressed for work. You’ll ruin your good shoes.
Do you hesitate?
Of course not. You don’t wait a second—you splash into the muddy water and pull the child to safety.
So, then … how can we hesitate a moment longer—before sending the price of a pair of dress shoes to one of the many charities that can save children from common, life-threatening ailments like diarrhea in third-world countries? How can we fill our closets with multiple pairs of dress shoes, when millions of children around the world live in life-threatening situations? How can we collect fancy shoes, when the price of a single pair could save young lives?
Uncomfortable questions, right?
Even though “Examined Life: Philosophy Is in the Streets” and “Belzec” may seem to be worlds apart—one set in contemporary America and the other one an exploration of Holocaust history in eastern Europe—some of the same themes emerge: What is our responsibility to humanity? What is justice? What is truth?
I know that “Examined Life” is fascinating to viewers from a wide range of ages, because I’m fascinated in my mid-50s by the questions filmmaker Astra Taylor raises. Then, on Sunday, I showed portions of this film to a group of high school students and they were intrigued. Because our time was limited, I fast-forwarded through one sequence, which led one boy to say: “Wait. We’ll miss what she’s saying if you do that.”
Afterward, a girl in the group asked if she could borrow the DVD to see the film from start to finish.
That’s a sign of Taylor’s success with her guerrilla, street-level, quick-hit version of life’s big philosophical questions. One example of the film’s almost break-neck pace is that Cornell West is filmed while riding in a car cruising down a street in Manhattan as if he might jump out at the next corner and vanish. So, he seems to pile his words of wisdom quickly on top of each other.
We wonder: Did he just summarize several thousand years of human civilization in less than 3 minutes? Zoom!
And we’re on to the next philosopher.
This is fun, mind-bending stuff. If you don’t care for one philosopher’s digression into George W. Bush’s morality—hey, don’t worry. You’ll be across town on a different street—or maybe in an airport—or maybe somewhere else—with yet another philosopher in just a moment.
And, yes, the question about the drowning child—and the price of new shoes—is outlined by ethics scholar Peter Singer on Fifth Avenue where the price of new shoes could save an entire village full of children!
Speaking of saving villages—”Belzec” digs into one of the most deeply troubling of the Holocaust’s early chapters: the Belzec extermination camp, where Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands, and then erased nearly all traces of the camp and their crimes. Unlike the more “infamous” death camps of this era, where tourists continue to see remnants of the Final Solution’s industrial scale—Belzec now is a grove of trees near an otherwise unremarkable little village in southeast Poland.
In 1985, filmmaker Guillaume Moscovitz was moved by Claude Lanzmann’s masterwork on the Holocaust, “Shoah“—a 10-hour documentary that focused mainly on real people who lived near the Nazi concentration camps. Belzec is included briefly in Lanzmann’s epic film, but Moscovitz decided around 2002 that Belzec’s mysteries deserved a separate, feature-length documentary.
I agree after having watched “Belzec”—including some portions of the film that I viewed twice and even three times to catch small details.
“Belzec” opens with Heinrich Himmler’s chilling claim that the Holocaust would represent “a glorious page of our history that has never been written—and shall never be written.” The attempt to erase all traces of the crimes at Belzec were in keeping with Himmler’s goal. The grand scale of the genocide would be followed by erasure and, finally, a complete revision of world history.
First and foremost, Lanzmann’s and Moscovitz’s films are testaments to the enduring power of memory. Yes, they raise horrific questions about how much neighbors of this camp knew during the Final Solution! In fact, we learn through Moscovitz’s interviews, these neighbors knew precisely what was happening!
Most importantly, though, the film invites us, as viewers, to actively help in the reconstruction of memory.
“Belzec” opens with an old man in the town denying that he suspected anything—and claiming he fled from the horrors that later unfolded. But, soon, we meet more elderly townspeople who admit that they did know exactly what was happening. They couldn’t have avoided the crimes, it turns out—as one interview after another demonstrates that the villagers’ homes are all just a stone’s throw from the site of the death camp.
Eventually, Moscovitz shares with us accounts of several of the camp’s survivors. The most moving story comes from a woman who was hidden as a little girl, first, in a cemetery and, later, in a cramped hole in the ground.
As these vivid memories pile up, one atop another, as a testament to the crime committed here, Moscovitz finally reveals that one local resident actually painted images of what happened in the camp to help preserve the truth. The painting (below) is one of those images.
As troubling as this subject matter may be, “Belzec” is an eloquent appeal to our universal responsibility to preserve the truth—to never allow the erasure of our neighbors’ lives.
CARE TO OWN THESE FILMS?
CLICK HERE to order “Examined Life” from Amazon right now.
Or, you can CLICK HERE to order a copy of “Belzec” from Amazon right now.
IF YOU’RE INTRIGUED BY MORAL/ETHICAL ISSUES: Visit the www.OurValues.org Web site, hosted by Dr. Wayne Baker, a nationally known researcher on American and global values. This week, Dr. Baker is raising questions about the ethical role of celebrity athletes.
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)