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[Peace and Justice Files columnist Skip Mendler is wrapping up a year of travel in Europe, and is returning to the states in January of 2018.]
“Survival is not enough.”
— Station Eleven
Let me share three data points:
I met a Syrian visual artist not long ago. His life’s works had all been destroyed by Islamic State personnel, who controlled his city for a while. He fled toward Europe. Now, after years of displacement and uncertainty, he has found his way to safety, and hopefully to a new life—but he has not yet been able to create new work. His creative spirit, unsurprisingly, is still recovering from the trauma he experienced.
On my way back from Serbia to Germany, I spent a few days in the city of Tuzla, in Bosnia. I happened to be there during their International Film Festival, and before one of the public screening sessions I met a young Bosnian-American filmmaker and choreographer. He talked about how difficult he had found it to get his fellow Bosnians interested in the arts again following the tragedies of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. He was guardedly optimistic, though. He felt that the tide was just now starting to turn—that more than 20 years since the Dayton Accords ended the conflict, some kind of cultural thaw might finally be underway.
Last month I had the privilege of attending the Köln premiere of one of the most extraordinary films I have ever seen: the documentary “Human Flow,” directed by Chinese conceptual artist Ai Wei Wei. In this immensely powerful and deeply compassionate work, Ai takes us along with him as he journeys with a group of refugees through Northern Greece, and visits camps and war zones throughout the Middle East, including Gaza. He also unflinchingly shows us the scope of the refugee crisis around the world, from the plight of the Rohingya in Bangladesh, to the Sudan, to the U.S.-Mexico border. This relentless survey of suffering is punctuated with interviews with humanitarian workers and international experts, who point out that the impact of the present situation will be felt for decades if not generations to come, and that countries that try to “protect” themselves by reinforcing their borders and brutally repelling migrants are in fact making their futures less secure. Furthermore, it is vitally important that the psychological and, yes, spiritual needs of displaced populations be met, not just the physical ones.
The arts—and artists—are crucial to our retaining our humanness in the face of increasingly dire circumstances, and equally crucial to recovering that humanness in their aftermath. But war, displacement, deprivation and repression do not only wound, cripple and kill bodies, but spirits as well. Even the brightest lights may be dimmed, if not extinguished altogether, if not given what they need to heal. And they must heal if they are to help their societies to heal.
So this holiday season, I would call on us to make an especially joyful noise, to actively reaffirm the power of imagination and festivity, to insist on the possibility of transcendent beauty, to seek out the flowers hidden in the ruins—because, as the quote at the top of the column says, survival is not enough.
(P.S.: One project I’d like to take on when I get back is arranging a showing of “Human Flow” in our area. Let me know if you’d like to help.)
(P.P.S.: Dear Reader, I’ve left you a Christmas present—on my YouTube account. It’s a song called “Let It Be a Quiet Christmas.” It’s not exactly joyful, but I hope you enjoy it.)