I was recently captivated by a trailer I saw for 2016 Cannes winner and Academy Award nominee Embrace of The Serpent, a Colombian film written and directed by Ciro Guerra. I followed that curiosity and found myself watching his first film, a project he made when he [and I both, incidentally] were twenty-three years young. Wandering Shadows (La Sombra del Caminante, 2004), is a film about two middle-aged men living in Bogotá – one of those urban landscapes in which it is possible to live constantly in the presence of people and yet never really be seen.
One of the men in the film is missing a leg and hobbles painfully around looking for work, at the mercy of the juvenile bullies in his neighborhood who routinely push him down and steal what little cash he has made. The other is a “silletaro”, a man who carries another person around for money. He wears a mask over his eyes and a chair strapped to his back and lives in a tent in which he brews tea out of a mysterious herb that we later discover is the only thing keeping him alive. As their friendship matures, these men must navigate the tension between their deep yearning to be known and the risk of rejection, of being seen and found wanting.
The simplicity of the film, the patently grainy, black-and-white cinematography, makes the film feel intensely intimate. I was both comforted and disturbed by the lack of technology in this film: my body was restless, so accustomed have I become to valuing that which is new (read: relevant) above that which is old (read: out of date). Once I allowed myself to sink into this film, helped more than a little by my own herbal medicament, I understood how technology can actually be a barrier to the experience of empathy.
The sensation of realness that high-definition/color film offers can make an experience feel so real that we must necessarily protect ourselves internally. In taking out the clarity and color, Guerra removes this obstacle – whether this is the result of an artistic choice or economic circumstance, I do not know. Regardless, it relaxed my inner guards and I felt my heart become available to the experience, felt like it was only me and the characters in the room (a sensation augmented, by the fact they we were the only people in the room: me sprawled out on my futon in the dark with my laptop and headphones, sipping kombucha and sucking on cough drops).
There is so much walking-away-from, running-(or hobbling)-back-toward, and running-away-again in the visual mechanics of the film. We do so much of this in life, so much chasing after happiness and running away from pain. What is it that causes us to want to claim ownership over experiences like intimate love or exquisite beauty? Why must we attempt to prolong bliss? I know the answer, of course: we are terribly afraid of pain, of exposing our hearts and meeting with rejection, of loosing the aliveness we find in romance, the comfort we find in familiarity.
When I encountered Maja Ruznic’s most recent collection of paintings, Soil As Witness, I was confronted with a similar reflection. I saw myself particularly in the positions of the bodies: attending to another person while also moving subtly away or holding the posture of stillness while being stormed by sensations of the past. I saw the tension in these bodies, as they unveiled themselves to my gaze, and felt this tension in my own body, rising and falling, as violent and predictable as the tide.
Ruznic’s paintings can be viewed as mirror of un-distortion, in which reality is laid bare without the mask of achievement or beauty or strain. In her paintings, people with heavy burdens drag their feet or carry them in bound satchels on their backs, bent low beneath their weight. In real life this is also true, but sometimes the way in which these burdens are carried is not readily apparent to us. Her paintings feel like a refuge to me in this way, a world in which I cannot be deceived. A world in which I am welcome be fully and only myself.
This is the purpose of art, I believe: to realize that our experiences, while unique are not isolated or estranged – and thus are deserving of compassion. Empathy begins with curiosity about our own inner landscape, our own subjective experience of life. It is only through this curiosity that we can truly encounter another being. Firmness exists in the knowing our own inner tides, and when we are grounded in this ever-constant-movement, we can begin to inhabit moments of great beauty and loss without needing to possess or push away.