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Normally a review would recommend an audience for the book or movie or whatever it is that is being reviewed, but this film makes it difficult to say who exactly would prefer it or get the most out of it. I love the late Simone and seriously looked forward to “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” but I was in for a surprise with this pseudo-documentary. This film (the Director’s Cut), by Julia Haslett, is like a personal travel diary only instead of the destination being a place, it’s a person. And the road there is strewn with corpses.
Ok, so let’s make a stab at the audience, or in this offering, audiences. The filmmaker comes from the liberal anti-American, anti-Christian segment of America, as is made apparent in the film, so that same audience is probably the intended one (since a quote from Michael Moore is on the front dvd cover, this is not a risky guess); the secondary audience would be those who otherwise like Weil or want to know more about her, most likely having heard of her in Christian or philosophy circles.
Simone Weil (1909-1943) was one of those rare of the rarest of human beings, a person with extreme intellectual prowess fused with extreme empathy and charity. She was an intellectual who taught philosophy (and taught it all in the original languages), gave up her teaching job to labor with factory workers, had conversations with the likes of Trotsky . . . but scratch the record . . . she was also a Christian mystic. This film touches on her academic career, but focuses on Simone’s social activism (“political” activism in the film) and her unfortunate and apparently irrational taking up with God (film’s view, not the reviewer’s). It also has much interesting archival footage.
Haslett makes this film, does this research, due to her sadness and feeling of regret after her father’s suicide. Could I have done something to stop it?, she asks, and Can I do more to help others who suffer? She is inspired by something Weil wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Indeed, surprisingly true and knowledge worth acting upon. How did Simone give attention, how did she alleviate suffering (or at least how did she try), and how does Haslett emulate Simone in this regard?
Without going into too much detail (a short bio of Simone can be found here, there is an excellent biography at the beginning of the book, Waiting for God, and there are numerous other sources about Simone as well), Simone didn’t just research social problems and make suggestions to the government. She knew that the only way to understand someone’s suffering, at least to some degree, was to become them. Thus the factory work episode mentioned earlier. She also, from a very early age, paid attention to the sufferings of soldiers and workers and ate the small amounts they ate, or didn’t pay for heat if her fellow workers could not afford it. She gave up on pacifism when she saw that war was inevitable and that providing help to the better side was a good; she fought in Spain for a short time (in 1936) with those against the fascists, and she volunteered to be a front-line nurse early in the Second World War. She didn’t just talk, she walked the walk.
This is all well-known material regarding Simone Weil. So what did Haslett do? She does what she can to suffer alongside her brother who is in and out of depression, and she is involved with causes that are meant to alleviate suffering and bring about justice. The problem with these causes is that they are very political and Haslett can’t seem to get herself to look at all the sides of the issues (she shows that there is voter fraud in Florida, on the side of the Republicans, but she ignores the voter fraud perpetuated by the Democrats). Simone was very good at (and purposefully so) looking at opposing information. Haslett’s inability to look at the other side, of humbling herself for that (or simply not villainizing the “other side”), shows up in another important way in this film.
Haslett is so enamored with Weil, and so mystified by some things about her, that she wants to meet her. Since she can’t actually bring her back from the dead, she hires an actress (obviously a sharp one) to read and absorb Simone’s writings, and work in a factory like Simone did (sort-of), in order to “become Simone” so that Haslett can ask her questions. [I’ll pause while you take that in.] My first thought was, Why doesn’t she just try and understand Simone herself? Haslett perhaps realized that she was incapable of doing so, but then, what use would there be in talking to and getting annoyed with an actress when you can basically do the same thing with a book? It does indeed come to the inevitable head when the actress (bless her) says that “I” -meaning Simone – did not kill myself and by being a slave of God’s I could get beyond my pain (Simone had very bad and long-lasting migraines) and try and do what I was called to do.
“Simone” insisted that she did not kill herself. This is in reaction to many people’s claim that she passively ended her own life by not eating enough (while trying to get over tuberculosis); something the doctor who filled out her death certificate claimed. Knowing Simone’s lifelong habit of only eating so much based on someone’s suffering–in this case, it was the amount allotted to her occupied countrymen in France–many question the doctor’s judgment. But Haslett seemed to be trying to make the case that Simone killed herself, and had earlier submitted to Christ, out of desperation–desperation over not being able to stop the suffering of so many, and knowing that suffering would never come to an end. It is presented that Simone had to have turned to religion only as a last resort – after all reason and rational thought were used up. Reading Simone’s writings, one would be very hard pressed to come up with a justification of this opinion of Haslett and others.
For one thing, Simone insisted that “she had not needed to be converted; she had always been implicitly, in ‘secret’ even from her lower self, a Christian” (Fiedler 1951, 23). Regarding suffering, she came to view her own, from the migraines, as a gift. Of course, suffering caused by man should be worked against. Regarding reason and rational thought, consider her claim: “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms” (Weil 1951, 69). Very unlike Haslett, Simone knew that humans needed salvation. In all the history now known there has never been a period in which souls have been in such peril as they are today in every part of the globe. The bronze serpent must be lifted up again so that whoever raises his eyes to it may be saved” (Weil 1951, 76; see Numbers 21:5-8 and John 3:13-15 for biblical references).
All this is significant since Haslett is against it . . . yet she can’t seem to dismiss it. At the end of the film we find that the brother she includes in the film, who suffered depression after his father’s suicide, committed suicide himself. Haslett equates his suicide with Weil’s, though this seems very far from the mark (especially if you are of the opinion that Weil did not commit suicide). She says that, since the world is doomed, the only choice is whether to commit suicide or not. Wow. I do hope that if any suicidal persons see this film that they aren’t encouraged negatively by it. In any case, there actually seems to be hope in the end.
Amazingly, Haslett, for the first time, gives a nod to the supernatural; she says that to give attention is a “miracle.” As she kisses a wall, she ends the film with this Weil quote: “Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is what separates them but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God, every separation is a link.” Perhaps the best audience for this film are all those who desire Haslett (and others like her) to look toward God longer, until she desires Him instead of the vessel in which He worked so brightly (Simone).
Fiedler, Leslie A. “Introduction,” in Waiting for God. Simone Weil (New York: Harper Colophon 1973)
Weil, Simone. Waiting for God (New York: Harper Colophon 1973; reprint of G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1951)