Disturbing the Peace (2016)

This is the companion film to Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine, both films contributing greatly to a possible dialogue about the dire situation in the Middle East.

Unrated. Running time: 1 hour 27 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 0.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2:4

As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.

Luke 19:41

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love


The Palestinian members of Combatants for Peace demonstrate at the wall. (c) Abramorama

Directors Stephen Apkon and Andrew Young’s film is truly a movie that matters. I wish every citizen of the U.S., Israel, and Palestine could see and discuss this film, and perhaps even more, our leaders. It is about two once antagonistic groups, one of Israeli soldiers and the other of Palestinian fighters, who have recognized the folly of a bloody conflict that has extended for almost 70 years. They have renounced hatred and violence and in 2005 formed Combatants for Peace through which they hope to change the attitude of their people and their governments so they can arrive at a peaceful coexistence. The film tells the story of eight members of the organization, of how they changed their hearts and minds regarding their enemies. Their stories, which are re-enacted as they speak, are truly remarkable. Interspersed throughout are vintage newsreels, home movies, and photos, giving the context of the individual stories. The film concludes with a video report of a peaceful demonstration at a wall between Israel and the occupied land.

The film begins in 2005 with four Israelis traveling by car to meet some Palestinians in the West Bank town of Beit Jala. One of them voices his fear concerning dangers that might lie ahead. They have not met the Palestinians: are they being set up to be kidnapped by Muslim terrorists and held for ransom, as other Israelis have been? There follows the front titles and credits, and then a brief historical summary that includes visuals from the Holocaust; the Zionist emigration to Palestine; the creation of Israel and the Arab attacks; and subsequent events up to the early 21st century.

After the history reminder, the film goes back and forth between that meeting and events throughout the next nine years. Apparently, the Palestinians had learned of the refusal of the soldiers, fed up with the inhumanity they had become emmeshed in as members of the force occupying the West Bank, to answer any future calls to serve in the occupying Army, except for purely defensive action within Israel’s 1967 borders. When the soldiers went public, a few people supported them, but most reacted angrily, branding them as traitors. The Palestinians too had become fed up with the hatred and violence on their side, and so the two groups were meeting to see if they could work together to change the poisonous situation, thus giving birth to Combatants for Peace.

The filmmakers reveal that the name of their film came from the incident in which the group was demonstrating and a couple of the leaders were arrested by Israeli soldiers and charged with “Disturbing the Peace.” Quite a throwback to the Civil Rights days of Montgomery and Birmingham! The members accept the appellation, declaring that the status quo is not really peace, given all the violence committed by militants on both sides.

Chosen to represent both sides of the conflict are eight individuals, four Israelis and four Palestinians, with one of each group being a woman. Their initial meetings were like those sponsored by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Committee in that each confessed to his or her former hatred of the other and were involved in acts hurtful to the other side. They conclude their stories by telling how they were led to opt out of the cycle of hatred and violence.

Shifa al-Qudsi​ had been a beauty technician when she was volunteered to be a suicide bomber. Two of her cousins and one of her in-laws had been killed by Israeli soldiers. She believes her people are oppressed so much that she justifies her plan by saying that the Israelis “didn’t leave us a chance… our world was a cemetery of the living.” Her telling her six-year-old daughter that she would be going away the next day and not returning is a moving moment, especially when the girl pleads for her not to leave her alone. However, the Israelis, tipped off, broke into her home and arrested her that night. During her six-year prison stint she engaged her female guard in a conversation when she learned that the woman’s brother was killed in a bomb attack. Though sorrowful, the guard declared, “I am against any kind of violence.” Shifa was so moved to discover that there were Israelis who hated the violence and wanted peace that she began to reexamine her own views. This included reading the writings of Gandhi and Mandela.

Assaf Yacobovitz ​was an officer in the Israeli Air Force directing an aerial strike on a targeted house in Gaza. It is one thing to sit in front of a radar screen and order the destruction of an enemy target, but then he got up and saw on a television screen the news report of the result of what he had ordered. The line of mangled and burnt bodies, mostly civilian, so sickened him that his conscience drove him to give up his military work.

For me one of the most interesting of the conversion stories is that of Palestinian fighter Sulaiman Khatib, who at the age of 14 was throwing rocks at soldiers and preparing Molotov cocktails. He and a friend tried to obtain guns by stabbing two Israelis soldiers: fortunately, they did not kill their enemies, but they were arrested and sent to prison where they were often abused and sometimes tortured. Khatib read a lot in the library and one day watched Schindler’s List, which triggered within himself deep emotions. Those being murdered onscreen were the ancestors of the people he had hated and tried to kill. He thereupon learned Hebrew and English and studied Jewish history, as well as that of nonviolent resistance. Released from prison after ten years, he joined with others advocating friendship and peace between the warring peoples.  (I have a workshop called “The Power of Story” centering on such films as Amistad; Avalon; Fried Green Tomatoes; The Big Fish; Final Solution; and others. In all of these films stories transform the listener. You can bet that this one will be incorporated in any future presentation.)

The other five conversion stories are also uplifting, but I will leave it to you to discover them. I do want to mention one story in which Jamil Qassas and his wife Fatima argue about taking their two young daughters to a Combatants’ demonstration. She is against it, claiming that she does not want to impose their values on them, but to learn to choose for themselves. However, he points out, that she does take them to the demonstrations where violence is espoused. She responds with the charge that her husband is betraying their family by fraternizing with Israelis, though she has not met them. Thus, we see that families, as well as peoples, are split over how the enemy should be resisted.

The last part of the film shows a 2015 Tel Aviv memorial service in which those who have died on both sides are honored, and then the preparations for a large demonstration at the West Bank wall separating Jews from Palestinians. Actually, I should say a fence and a wall, the wall being on the Palestinian side of the narrow lane that separates the territories and a steel fence on the Israeli’s. A large Bread and Puppet-like face is created of papier-mâché to which are attached extremely long arms and hands. On the day of the march the Jewish members of Combatants for Peace march on their side of the fence, and the Palestinians on theirs up to the point where the wall gives way also to a fence where the two groups can see each other.

Chanting “Two states for two peoples!” members hold aloft posters, and a long line of Palestinians carry large panels painted on one side the drab gray color of the wall, and on the other colorful pastoral scenes. When they lay aside their wall panels, the huge face is revealed to the Jews. The marchers who are carrying its arms and hands move toward the fence so that it looks as if the friendly giant is reaching out in a welcoming embrace of those on the other side. I was moved to think of some of the depictions of Christ reaching out in a welcoming, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden…” However, soon a contingent of Israeli soldiers hasten down the inner corridor, and the first thing they do is, without a warning, throw over the Palestinian side a tear gas canister. Israeli theater director Chen Alon glances at the soldiers between the wall and fence and remarks on the irony of the situation: it is his former Army comrades who appear to be the prisoners, not his Palestinians friends. The soldiers are forced by their leaders to perpetuate the cycle of hatred and violence that seems to have no end in view.

The eight men and women in the film have the courage and the imagination to give up the narrative they were taught from birth about themselves and their enemies. One of them says that at the beginning they all shared “a willingness to kill people we don’t know.” This reminded me of Gandhi-follower Richard Gregg’s argument in his classic book The Power of Nonviolence that two people engaged in a fight are basically in agreement, no matter what they are fighting about, namely that violence is the best or only way of dealing with their differences. He calls nonviolence “Moral Jiu-Jitsu” because when persons respond to an aggressive act in a nonviolent way, they throw their attacker off balance because the attacker was expecting a violent response. It is apparent from the abuse heaped on them by hostile people–“traitors” and “whores”—that Combatants for Peace members have a long way to go to convince the public on both sides of the wall that they are right, that the only path to peace is for both sides to renounce violence. However, they are reaching people around the world, such as two Irishmen, Alistair Little and Jerry Foster, a Catholic and a Protestant who fought in Northern Ireland on opposing sides, sent a message to the Combatants for Peace Facebook page, “You are not alone in your struggle. Our journey is to humanize each other and understand each other. You are an inspiration to the international community.” (This is not in the film but in a report about Combatants for Peace in Al Monitor, July 18, 2016)

Someone (usually attributed to Einstein) has written, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It is obvious that the eight people in this film, as opposed to their millions of fellow citizens imprisoned by their narratives of hatred and vengeance, are the sane ones in a world gone mad. The film played for just a week in Cincinnati, so if it shows up in your area, see it right away. It is available at the film’s website on DVD ($19.99 + sh) or for rent on streaming video ($4.99)—worth every penny!.

Note: Another good film besides this one and Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine is Martin Doblmeir’s wonderful  The Power of Forgiveness. These three films would make a great three-part series on peacemaking in our world. Wow, just now while searching IMDB, I came across another documentary entitled The Combatants for Peace and the Billboard From Bethlehem about the American owner of a billboard company engaging both sides in conversation. I hope to report more on this later, but click on the title, and you can see the intriguing trailer.

This review with a set of questions will be in the June 2017 issue of VP.


Cake (2014)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 42 min.

Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 5.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is their glory to overlook an offense.

Proverbs 19:11

  When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?

John 5:6

 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.

Ephesians 4:26-27


Claire has become so nasty that the only friend she has left is Silvana, her housekeeper. (c) 2014    Cinelou Releasing

Jennifer Aniston leaves her well trodden path of playing romantic roles to portray a woman in chronic pain—as the film industry puts it, in a very de-glamorized role.

Directed by Daniel Barnz and written by Patrick Tobin, the film centers on Claire Bennett (Aniston) and her housemaid/confidante Silvana (Adriana Barraza) who have over the years moved beyond employer/employee relationship. Claire has developed such an attack dog attitude that the Older Mexican American is now her only friend. She has driven out a husband who still cares for her, and as we see in the opening segment, she is even asked to leave her pain support group.

In this darkly humorous episode we can understand why she has become persona non grata. The leader Annette (Felicity Huffman) has placed before the group a large photo of Nina Collins (Anna Kendrick), the group member who recently jumped to her death from a freeway overpass. When Annette asks how the members feel about Nina’s suicide, Claire responds with great irony and sarcasm, pointing out that she landed on the flatbed of a truck headed for Mexico. It was in Acapulco, that her body was finally noticed. Then it was put into a Rubbermaid container that was held up by customs at the border for six days before the husband could claim it. Claire applauds, saying that’s the way to go, to make it difficult for the survivors. Of course the others are more disturbed than amused, hence Claire’s forced departure. Her aquatic therapist Bonnie (Mamie Gummer) also grows tired of her negative attitude and suggests that she ought to find someone else.

Becoming obsessed with Nina, Claire frequently has dreams about her or thinks she sees her out and about. Nina keeps suggesting that Claire follow her example, either by jumping off the same overpass, or else drowning in her own or the health spa’s swimming pool. Curious, Claire shows up at Roy’s house (Worthington) with a lame reason for being there. He is Nina’s husband, now resentful that his wife’s departure has left him to raise their young son alone. After she looks around the house, he reveals that he knows who she is because Annette had called to warn him she was coming. It isn’t long before the two are keeping company, drawn at first by the grief that they share in common. But Claire’s negativity soon threatens to put an end to this relationship also.

Claire does have reason to feel bad, walking and bending being very difficult for her. The pain in her back is so severe that she rides in cars with the passenger seat in recline position. She has become addicted to the various pain pills that she can secure, by fair or foul means—in one segment, having run out of pills, she has Silvana drive her to Tijuana, to obtain some black market pills. Afraid to run out, she is constantly checking the hiding places around her house to make sure the containers are not empty. Gradually we learn that she was the victim of an auto accident that inflicted not only physical, but psychic pain on her. When she impulsively has sex one night with her gardener, she thanks him by giving him a plastic bin of toys suitable for a young child. Soon it is confirmed that they belonged to her son, now dead. The accident has killed her spirit and wrecked her marriage as well.

And yet Claire is still capable of kindness. A beautiful moment of grace transpires in a restaurant in Tijuana during the already mentioned trip to buy more drugs. Emerging from the pharmacy, Claire asks Silvana what is the best Mexican restaurant in town. She wants to treat her to a dinner out as a reward for all the extra claims on her time she has imposed. While finishing their meal two old friends of Silvana’s pass by their table. The women are obviously well off, and a bit snobbish. Sensing Silvana’s embarrassment over her plain clothes and the tone of her friends’ voices, Claire interrupts their Spanish language conversation by loudly thanking her friend for treating her to dinner. The waiter picks up on this and gives the change (or receipt, I’m not sure) to Silvana rather than to Claire.

Both lead actresses are marvelous in their parts, with the supporting cast also good. William H. Macy has a cameo part, important in that Claire’s reaction to his attempt to visit her might end her relationship with Roy and his young son. It also gives us the clue that she might be refusing to let go of her anger and resentment over the accident. Had Christ encountered her, he might well have asked, “Do you want to be made well?”

What she does toward the end of the film, involving both the cake of the film’s title and her posture while riding in a car, is very symbolic—and even hopeful. Even her story request, though typically Claire, hints of change, “Tell me a story where everything works out in the end for the evil witch.” And did you notice how she reacted when her husband replaced the large picture of their son on the wall of the living room?

People of faith, of course, will notice immediately her lack of faith. She never prays, and I seem to recall that someone—was it Nina?—called her an atheist. The only contact she has with religion is the statue of a saint she buys in which to smuggle her pills into the US. Thus as a thoroughly secular person she has few resources to draw on for her recovery, except for such gracious people as Silvana and, to a lesser extent, her former husband and now Roy and his son. But then, isn’t that how the God of the Scriptures works? Claire at the end of the film still has a long way to go toward wholeness, but she is making good progress toward it.

The review with a set of discussion questions is in the Feb. 2014 issue of Visual Parables, now celebrating its 25th Anniversary.

The Power of Forgiveness (2008)

I am reprinting the review portion of this older film because it is so topical today. The full review in the Summer 2008 issue of Visual Parables has 27 discussion questions, more than any other of the 1100+ films on this site! You can purchase this issue (it has over 30 other reviews) at The Visual Parables Store. This is a great film for a retreat!

Unrated documentary. Running time: 1 hour 18 min—plus several extra DVD features.

Our star rating (0-5): 5

 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Matthew 6:12


Director Martin Doblmeir interviews Rev. James Forbes, one of many prominent leaders seen in the film. (c) 2008 Journey Films

Martin Doblmeir, the maker of the excellent documentary Bonhoeffer, has gifted us with another powerful film, this time exploring a theme central to Christian ethics and theology— forgiveness. The film also reminds us, in case any of us are so parochial that we think this is an exclusively Christian doctrine, that forgiveness is a theme central to all of the major faiths. Among the many witnesses to the power of forgiveness that are interviewed are: Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese activist and Buddhist teacher; Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Laureate; Azim Khamisa a Sufi Muslim teacher and father of a murdered son; the Rev. James Forbes, pastor of Riverside Church; Thomas Moore, author of the best-selling Care of the Soul, speaking on forgiveness from a more general spiritual perspective; plus several others in Northern Ireland, New York City (at Ground Zero, Twin Trade Towers), and Lebanon.

Forgiveness is not just a spiritual or religious theme, either, the film asserts. In fact filmmaker Martin Doblmeir was inspired to make the film when in 2004 he attended a Templeton Foundation-sponsored conference in Georgia exploring the medical and health aspects of forgiveness. For the next two years he traveled the globe interviewing persons about their experiences, asking them about forgiveness as a means for dealing with their anger over great wrongs, and sorrow and grief. In one segment he brings together the spiritual and the scientific disciplines, disclosing how hundreds of experiments have been conducted on the medical aspects of forgiveness. In a brain scan the pleasure portions of the brain lights up when the person is thinking of revenge, and we see several subjects of another experiment in which their blood pressure rises when they recall a person who has wronged them, whereas those who forgive have a normal blood pressure when they recall a past wrong.

Even better, the film provides examples of forgiveness that move us beyond the laboratory and the classroom or sanctuary. In New York City three women, two who lost sons and the other her husband on 9-11, speak of their anger, then sorrow, and finally forgiveness as they join with Episcopal minister Rev. Lyndon Harris to lobby for a “Garden of Forgiveness” at Ground Zero in Manhattan—not at all a popular cause in the city. The Rev. Harris is rector at St. Paul’s Chapel, so close to Ground Zero that its building served as a spiritual center for many of the personnel working at the site. The three women travel to Beirut, Lebanon, where woman activist Alexandra Asseily’s dream of “A Garden of Forgiveness” was being fulfilled. Knowing first hand the power of hatred during the long period of strife and war in her country, Ms. Asseily says, “Forgiveness allows us to actually let go of the pain in the memory, and if we let go of the pain in the memory, we can have the memory, but it doesn’t control us.”

Just how one can “let go of the pain in the memory” is powerfully demonstrated in the episode narrated by Azim Khamisa, an American Muslim whose son was murdered by a 14 year-old boy while delivering a pizza. When Mr. Khamisa visits the young murderer in jail, he also meets the boy’s grieving grandfather Ples Felix. The man is so relieved to be forgiven by the father of the dead boy that he joins him to form a team ministry to visit school children to speak on the need and the benefits of forgiveness. As Tony Hicks, the imprisoned killer, speaks on camera about being forgiven, tears flow from his eyes. Mr. Khamisa is trying to get the courts to reduce Tony’s 25-year sentence, assuring them that he will give the young man a job working with the forgiveness foundation that he and Mr. Felix run.

Other places of terrible wrongs that are visited are Northern Ireland and Pennsylvania where the Amish community forgave the man and his family who murdered five girls and wounded five others. In Germany Elie Wiesel, who once declared that those who murdered so many of his people must never be forgiven, addresses the Bundestag, his speech culminating with his statement that the German government, despite reparations and such, has never asked for the forgiveness of the Jewish people. Two weeks later the German President journeys to Israel. where he addresses the Israeli Parliament, the essence of his speech being a formal apology for the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis.

Filmmaker Martin Doblmeir reminds us, “We are living in a culture of payback and justice. 9/11 shows us that. Lives are being lost.” We are indeed in a culture of vengeance, one that teaches “Don‘t get mad, get even,” and this film is a marvelous tool that Presbyterians can use for countering the vindictive urge to “pay back.” The film is being shown on PBS during March, and is available for purchase on DVD. There is enough material in the film and in the special sections of the DVD for a provocative series of six to twelve sessions. This is a film that can help bring healing to those caught in the vise of anger and resentment. It does not offer easy answers, but the various insightful speakers show how forgiveness is the difficult path to spiritual (and mental and physical) wholeness. I cannot recommend this film too highly!

 DVD Extras

There are three “extra features” on the disk, any one of which could be the basis for another session. I have not timed these features, but my estimate would be that each is around ten minutes in length, making them suitable for launching a discussion for a 45-50 class.

1) Bishop Desmund Tutu speaks to the congregation of the Washington National Cathedral on the work of his nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He distinguishes between retributive justice and restorative justice, pointing out that unlike the Allies at Nuremberg who had crushed the Nazis, neither side in the long

struggle in South Africa had won a total victory. Therefore, the way of inviting perpetrators of past crimes to confess them before the public in order to receive amnesty seemed the only way to bring together the nation and foster healing. He describes several marvelous results of this policy.

2) “One More Thought” is a short collection of additional thoughts by the participants in The Power of Forgiveness. A dozen or so of these are short but evocative, a few but 30 seconds or so long, and the longest no more than 2 minutes. A leader could catalogue these by subject and use them as discussion starters for future study sessions. The short film itself could be used, the leader stopping for discussion after each sound bite.

3) “Interview With Director” is just that, Martin Doblmeir sharing the circumstances that led to his making the film and providing comments on various aspects of it. I could see using part or all of this as a way of introducing the feature film.

Reprinted from the Summer 2008 Visual Parables.

The Railway Man (2013)

Rated R.  Running time: 2 hour 14 min.

Our Advisories: Violence 5; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star review (1-5): 4.5

 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Romans 12:7-18


The camp commander addresses the newly arrived Allied prisoners in this WW 2 true story of brutality and reconciliation set in SE Asia.
(c) 2013 Lionsgate Films

This is the third feature film that I know of dealing with the Japanese mistreatment of World War 2 Allied soldiers during the building of the infamous Burma-Thailand railway along the River Kwai. (More comparison of the three later on.) Just as To End All Wars was based on a true story told in a book, Ernest Gordon’s Through the Valley of the Kwai, so is director Jonathan Teplitzky’s film based on an autobiography, this one by former POW Eric Lomax. It is part romance, part POW adventure, and all about healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Along with the currently showing Joe, it is grace suffused, making it one of those “must see” films for people who seek more than just entertainment from their film fare.

The telling of the story of Eric Lomax (Colin Firth) begins in 1980. A self-described “railway enthusiast,” Eric takes a seat in a passenger car opposite Patti (Nicole Kidman), a lovely young woman. He becomes inspired so by their conversation that after he gets off at his destination that he buys another ticket to the place where she had revealed she was headed. Sure enough, he manages to encounter her, and soon their brief courtship leads to their wedding, the bride and groom marching into the church between two rows of Eric’s wartime comrades as a bagpiper plays. However their honeymoon is ruined by a wartime-induced nightmare that has Eric crying out and convulsing on the floor. He will not reveal what has disturbed him so, and this refusal to share with her becomes a threat to their marriage. Fortunately Patti’s experience as a nurse has endowed her with patience and a certain amount of understanding, but she is approaching the limits of her endurance.

Patti begs his best friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) to reveal to her what had happened to them in Burma, but he at first refuses, finally giving in to her fervent pleading. Thus the story of the horrible mistreatment of Eric and his comrades is told in a series of flashbacks. As the Japanese assemble Eric’s unit and ships them in freight cars to the terminus of the railway line in Burma, they make clear their contempt for their captives. Later one of them, Nagase Takashi the camp interpreter (played by Tanroh Ishida as a young man), tells him that had he been captured he would have taken his own life in order to save his honor. In Japanese eyes the prisoners gave up their honor when they surrendered and now live in shame.

Half-starved, Eric (the then 21 year-old youth played by Jeremy Irvine) and his comrades labor long hours to extend the railway line, the Japanese intending to use the finished line to transport troops to India. Eric assembles from parts stolen from trucks and junk piles a makeshift radio. Listening in at night to the BBC, he learns of the first Allied victories in Northern Africa. The next day he and his friends spread the news, this filling them with hope that Hitler, and eventually his Japanese allies, can and will be defeated. Some who were about to give up the will to live become determined to live another day.

Then the Japanese officers discover the radio. To save the rest of the men from brutal punishment Eric claims that he, and only he, made the radio. Equally damning in the eyes of his captors is a crude map of the river and railway that Eric had drawn to show his comrades where they were. Nagase and his superior officer, believing that Eric was contacting the Chinese and revealing their location, place him in one of the tiny wooden cages exposed to the hot sun where troublemakers are kept, taking him out for periodic beatings. He tries to point out that it was a receiver, not a transmitter, that he had concocted, but to no avail. They then drag him into the special room, the dark entranceway of which we had been shown several times in Eric’s nightmares.

After relating numerous such episodes of their wartime trials, Finlay shows Patti a folded news story he had clipped from a paper. It reveals that Nagase Takashi is still alive, working as a tour guide at the camp in which he and Eric had been imprisoned. The camp is now a museum visited by tourists interested in WW 2. He has never shown it to his friend, and now Patti must share the burden of whether or not to reveal this to the traumatized Eric. Only after a tragic incident shakes their world does Patti make that decision. It is one that will send Eric to the camp/museum to confront the man who so sadistically ill-treated him. The climax is so powerfully moving that this film will stay with you and inspire you for years to come.

Especially when compared to the fictional (though expertly made) Bridge on the River Kwai this film emerges as a major work of forgiveness and reconciliation. David Lean’s 1957 film, based on a novel, depicts the pride of a British officer pitted against his Japanese counterpart, as the former resolves to build a bridge superior to anything his enemy could have built. Meanwhile a special Allied squad is in the jungle planning to blow up the structure. There is no trace of forgiveness and reconciliation in the strictly war adventure film, although it is greatly enhanced by the study of the British officer’s character.

On the other hand director David L. Cunningham’s 2001 film To End All Wars is a good companion for the new film. Based on Ernest Gordon’s 1962 memoir Through the Valley of the Kwai, it too centers on the theme of forgiveness of unspeakably brutal treatment. The epilogue of that film is a brief clip of the aged Ernest Gordon meeting with the former Japanese camp interpreter. The book was my favorite of the 60s, the first book for which I wrote an extensive study guide. Thus I was thrilled when decades later it was finally adapted into a powerful film. (Click onto the title to see my review. Also, a detailed guide will be included in my forthcoming ReadtheSpirit book Blessed Are the Filmmakers—watch the site for the announcement of its publication.)

I have read that the film condenses greatly Eric Lomax’s account, There being no mention of his first marriage and two children—as well as Patti’s three by her previous marriage. I don’t know if the original went into any of the spiritual basis for Eric’s observation “Sometime the hating has to stop,” but there is no mention of it in the film, though we do hear a brief snatch of the 23rd Psalm uttered by a prisoner. Oh, let me add to this: posted on the Imdb site of the film is a comment by a viewer who has read the book, and he points out, “Eric’s deep Christian faith helped him through the nightmare and perhaps lead to his forgiveness of his tormentor decades later. He carried a Bible for decades during and after his imprisonment until it was utterly worn.”  Nonetheless, for people of faith this is indeed a deeply spiritual story, especially in the last sequence showing the confrontation of Eric and Nagase Takashi (played by Hiroyuki Sanada). Such a film makes us even more aware of how shallow and cheap are the usual action/adventure films about so-called heroes wreaking vengeance on those who wronged them.

 For Reflection/Discussion

1. How does the film start out like another light boy meets girl movie? At what point does its mood change?

2. Late in the film Eric responds to the older Nagase’s comment, “You are a soldier, Lomax. You never surrendered,” with,“I’m still at war.” How do we see him “still at war”? How is this still an issue with many American veterans today?

3. Why do you think Eric and his fellow vets keep silent about their traumatic war experience, even when urged to open up by a loved one? How does the incredibly brutal past experiences set the victims apart from those back home?

4. What is behind the contempt the Japanese captors heap upon their prisoners? (This Bushido code is especially emphasized in Through the Valley of the Kwai, and to a lesser extent its film adaptation To End All Wars. Note that the book is available in its reprinted form from Amazon.com.)

5. What is Eric’s motive for building a radio and spreading news g leaned from it to his friends? For a film with the similar theme of hope see the film set in the other zone of World War 2, Jacob the Liar, about a mild mannered captive in a Jewish ghetto in Poland. (The role of Jacob is one of Robin Williams’ underplayed roles.)

6. What do you think of Eric’s stepping forward and assuming all the responsibility for building the radio? How is this a good example of John 15:13?

7. How do we see by what he does that Finlay is just as deeply disturbed as Eric?

8. When we at last are taken into the room and Eric’s torture is revealed, were you surprised by its connection with a scene from Zero Dark Thirty? What do you think of those American officials who claimed that water boarding is not torture? What have they had to do to convince themselves that the policy they endorsed was right?

9. What is Eric’s intent when he journey’s to confront Nagase, and what reveals this? If this had been the usual type of action/adventure film, what would have resulted?

10. What is the spiritual/mental state of Nagase Takashi at this point? Why has he become a tour guide at the museum? When Eric raises his hammer to smash his enemy’s arm, what does Nagase do? How does this prove the sincerity of his avowed convictions? 11. What do you think of their friendship mentioned at the end? Do you wish there could have been some additional scenes showing this, or are we shown enough as it is?

12. Compare this to other films of forgiveness and reconciliation, such as the already mentioned To End All Wars, Amish Grace or the great documentary The Power of Forgiveness.

Note: This time we have included the set of discussion questions so you can get an idea of what is offered in the Visual Parables journal wherein almost every film comes with a set of questions. This publication is designed for leaders who use films with groups and/or for film lovers who just want to think more deeply about their film fare (which is why we call the sets of questions “For Reflection/Discussion.” There are now over 1000 of my individual reviews on the free site, but in back issues there are at least twice that number of reviews, as well as special articles on holidays, the Church Year, social justice themes, a book/DVD review column, plus Lectionary Links, a favorite department for preachers looking for a film related to the Common Lectionary text. To subscribe go to the Store.

Final Solution (2001)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 6 min.

Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth

Acts 17:24-26a

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:27-28

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

2 Corinthians 5:16-20

FinlSol                     Gerrit follows Celeste into her Literature Class.
                        (c) 2001 Heartland Film Festival

Final Solution, shot on location in South Africa, is the true story of how the life of a white Afrikaner, well on his way to becoming a paramilitary assassin, was turned around by a woman and two books. Gerrit Wolfaardt (Jan Ellis) is the grandson of a Boer executed by the British at the beginning of the 20th century for his guerrilla warfare against British rule in South Africa. The boy grows up nurtured by tales of his grandfather’s martyrdom, the racist teachings of family and church, and his admiration for Hitler’s Mein Kampf, a well-marked copy of which the youth studies during his high school years. It inspires Gerrit to organize his own version of Hitler Youth and to dream of his own “Final Solution” for South Africa. Until then he enjoys going around with fellow punks singling out and beating up any hapless black Africans they encounter.

Gerrit attends a university where he studies law. He continues his racist associations and continues attacking isolated blacks. More organized now, he shares with a rogue police officer and a politician his own version of the Final Solution that will rid S.A. of all blacks and Jews. Then, on his college campus, he is drawn to Celeste (Liezel van der Merwe), a liberal young woman who challenges him to read the book her literature class is studying, Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. Gerrit rejects the notion, calling it “Commie rubbish.” She gives it to him anyway, and then tricks him into accompanying herself and a friend on a visit to a black church whose pastor is dedicated to racial reconciliation.

     FinlSol5 FinlSol4

   Garret ponders two books that present very opposing views of humanity.

Outside the church Gerrit refuses to shake hands with the pastor Peter Lekota (John Kani), but the latter unsettles him—first by refusing to be put off by Gerrit’s insulting manner, and then by quoting a line from the Bible, “God has made of one blood all nations.” When Gerrit parrots what he’s been taught, that the Bible says that blacks have no souls, and thus could not go to heaven, the pastor challenges him to show him the passage. He can’t, of course, and this leads the boy to the university library where even with a concordance, he cannot find his passage, but does discover several others that conflict with what he has been taught about the Bible. .

The above, and many other incidents, are all told in flashbacks by an older Gerrit and his wife. They are at the church meeting (where the Peter Lekota still serves) when a white terrorist rushes into the church just ahead of a vigilante group of blacks wanting to kill him. Still with burnt cork on his face, the white is the lone survivor of a band of white terrorists who had roared through the black township spraying bullets into the bodies of people standing and sitting outside their shacks. The white extremists had not realized that a group of black guerilla fighters were on hand, the latter grabbing their guns and blasting the car and causing it to crash,, so that only two attackers survived–one whom the mob seized and set afire with a tire pinning down his arms, and the other, who, after watching in horror his comrade die, has fled to the church.

Pastor Lekota refuses to turn over the terrorist, but does agree to allow the angry mob to enter the church, if they will leave their weapons outside. It is then that the pastor asks Gerrit to tell his story so that the mob will see that not all whites are hopelessly evil, but can change. There are surprises ahead in the story, similar to those encountered in a Dickens’ novel, and Gerrit does not get to finish his story, so filled with hostility are his skeptical listeners.

I loved the way that the script worked in one of my favorite novels, and how it shows that the Bible can be twisted and also used to get at truth. The characters are not cardboard cutouts, but fallible human beings seeking justice and vengeance–and eventually, reconciliation. Indeed, the last part of the film calls to mind the great scene that climaxes Alan Paton’s novel—and which leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu have embraced as the best policy for healing their society.

This is a film not to be missed by peacemakers and lovers of Alan Paton’s great novel Cry, the Beloved Country.

The movie currently is not for sale on DVD via Amazon or other usual online retailers. However, the film is listed in Netflix both via streaming or DVD service.

NOTE: My Westminster/John Knox book FAITH & FILM: A Guidebook for Leaders contains a 9-page discussion guide for this film.





Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 19 min.

Our Advisories: Violence 5; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

  For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.

                        Psalm 72:12-14


Despite harsh treatment on Robben Island, Mandela remains defiant and hopeful.
(c) 2013 The Weinstein Company

South African producer Anant Singh’s decades-old project of bringing to the screen the life of Nelson Mandela has finally come to fruition. Directed by Justin Chadwick and with William Nicholson’s script based on Mandela’s autobiography, the film was premiered in South Africa, but the great leader was too ill to attend. Ironically, it was during the London premier that Mandela died, the actor who portrayed him, Idris Elba, coming onto the stage afterward to give the audience the news. Providing the more complete survey of the life of the leader than of any of the other dramatic films, the movie will be known more for Mr. Elba’s forceful performance than for its artistic merit.

Beginning with a quick glimpse of Mandela’s Xhosa village and the boy’s coming of age ceremony, the film jumps to his early years as a lawyer in Johannesburg in the early 1940s. Obviously enjoying his status and income that allows him to dress in three-piece suits, he marries his pious first wife Evelyn Mase (Terry Pheto), but still pursues other women. No saint is he at this time! However, his court cases soon brought him up against the apartheid system. He at first thought of the struggle against it as a personal one, but a leader of the ANC (African National Congress) convinces him—by displaying one finger, followed by others until a fist is formed—that there is more strength in working together than alone. He also sees that the justice system to which he is joined is corrupt when a friend dies under police custody.

I wish the script had rounded out the colleagues of Mandela more so that we could see that the anti-apartheid fight was less of a one-man struggle than this movie suggests. We are not even told their names, though they are listed in IMDb’s cast list. However, this is not too useful because in many cases the usually reliable IMDb does not provide a portrait of many of the actors. The leader using his fist as a symbol of unity might have been Walter Sisulu (Tony Kgoroge), who also was convicted and sent to Robben Island, or it might have been Albert Luthuli (Sello Maake), better known to the world as Chief Lutuli, head of the ANC and the first African to win the Nobel Peace Prize. (I wish we could have seen more of this great pacifist leader, whom Mandela opposed when he decided to resort to violence.) Ahmed Kathrada (Riaad Moosa) is seen in many scenes with Mandela, but also is never introduced by name: however, as the one activist of Indian descent, he is at least easy to identify.

Mandela’s many absences from home due to his immersion in the freedom struggle leads his wife to leave, but he soon meets the more like-minded Winnie Madikizela (Naomie Harris). The brief sequence of their courtship and wedding—the two going through two ceremonies, the first in Western style apparel, the second in traditional tribal attire—is the last pleasant time for Mandela, this being followed by the shooting of 69 black protestors in the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, after which Mandela is shown renouncing non-violence and, as leader of the military wing of the ANC known as “Spear of the Nation,” embracing a bombing campaign against power stations and other government facilities. (He actually gave up pacifism before this in the mid-1950s.) There follows his going underground in an attempt to stay ahead of his relentless pursuers.

He and his colleagues are caught and brought to trial, this dramatic sequence including his raised fist “Amanda” declaration in court and the following statement heard in the trailer: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

The group members are found guilty, but the judge, seeking to deny them martyrdom, sentences them to life imprisonment at hard labor on Robben Island instead. There amidst harsh conditions and brutal treatment, Nelson Mandela matures as a man and a leader. We see some of this by the way the furnishings of his tiny cell change through the years—from just a barren room with a cloth or mat for a bed to one equipped with a bed, a stand and some books and a picture of Winnie. Allowed but one visitor a year at first (and no children because visitors have to be at least 16), his conversations and his mail are censored for any political content. One letter from Winnie is almost in shreds, so many lines have been cut out with a censor’s sharp knife (for more on this see the film about Mandela’s censor The Color of Freedom.) Although I wish that his learning Afrikaans in order to communicate with his Boer guards had been included, the details that are shown reveal how, despite the abusive treatment, Mandela kept his sense of dignity and self-worth, ably passing it on to his fellow prisoners, even a group of newly arrived young Turks who at first regard him as out of touch. One of these small victories shown stems from his complaining that the prison uniform of short rather than long pants was undignified.

Interspersed are scenes of Winnie being harassed by the police while her terrified children look on. She screams her resistance, and when imprisoned herself, refuses to give in to her tormentors. The movie could be seen as a portrayal of the contrast of two reactions to injustice. At first Mandela believes that violence must be resisted with violence, but his years in prison lead him to reach out to his oppressors, considering them as fellow human beings. On the other hand, Winnie moves toward a hard line opposition. Emerging as a celebrity in her own right, she lets out her anger in her fiery speeches, urging her followers to punish the blacks among them who have served as police informers. We see them doing this in a terrible scene of what was called “necklacing.” A crowd chases down an informer; places an old tire around his neck while dousing it with gasoline, and then setting it and the victim afire. A quick succession of scenes then shows youth hurling Molotov cocktails at armored police vehicles. Many of them are shot in the streets as they attack or flee.

During the latter part of the film we see Mandela, against the advice and the votes of his colleagues sitting down to talk with government officials, eventually with the new President W. de Klerk (Gys de Villiers). The long international boycott against South Africa, shown in numerous newsreel clips, has brought the more moderate members of the white government to the bargaining table. A heavy pall of fear hovers over the negotiations: can either side trust the other? The whites are especially fearful of retaliation. It is only Mandela’s announcement that he has forgiven those who took 27 years of his life and destroyed his family that the white leaders begin to see what manner of a man they are dealing with. After snatches of the negotiations, with the whites and among the black leaders also, the film moves forward to Mandela’s release, his campaign to win over the angry rioting people, his break up with Winnie (the film makes it appear that it is her refusal to give up violence, the filmmakers leaving out her extra-marital affairs), and his election to the presidency.

This might not be a great film, but it certainly offers a brief (despite its almost 2 ½ hour length) look at a man capable of enormous moral and spiritual growth under harsh circumstances. There are some, as you can see by tweets and comments at various Mandela websites, who still regard him as a Communist and a terrorist. Both charges are true (though his flirting with Communism ended in disillusionment), but they are not the whole truth. During his long struggle, his acceptance of the support of tyrants such as Qaddafi showed that his judgment was not fallible—something I believe that also was shown by the young Mandela’s giving up nonviolence. But there can be no question that he was the one man able to prevent the blood bath that most observers thought would ensue with the dismantling of apartheid. In 1949 the prophetic South African writer Alan Paton in his world-class novel Cry the Beloved Country had an Anglican black priest express this fear, “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they (meaning “whites”) are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating.” Be sure to watch this film and learn why the winning of the freedom of one race did not result in the attempted destruction of the oppressing race. I am looking forward to a second screening in the hope of identifying some of the other worthies who also were prepared to die with him for their ideal of freedom.

People of faith also will appreciate Mandela’s commentary on his reconciliatory policy made near the end of the film: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” This film certainly shows that former terrorist Nelson Mandela was a very good learner—and then a very good teacher of a whole nation! And through this film, of the whole world.

The full review with a set of questions for reflection or discussion will appear in the January issue of Visual Parables, which will be available early in January. If you are not a subscriber, go to The Store to find out how you can become one. A subscription gives you access to several years of journals that contain many program and preaching ideas for the church seasons.

Philomena (2013)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 13 min.  .

Our Advisories: Violence 4; Language -1; Sex/Nudity –1.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

            Psalm 72.4

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church* sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times.

Matthew 18:21-22


Philomena and Martin seek clues for the fate of her lost son at the convent where 50 years earlier she had given birth to him, only to have him given up for adoption without her consent.
(c) 2013 The Weinstein Company

Director Stephen Frears, best known for his The Queen, Mrs. Henderson Presents, and Dangerous Liaisons, gives us his best film yet—and Judi Dench presents us with perhaps the best of a long string of great performances. Although overshadowed by the huge blockbusters, this film—no doubt to become a part of the Oscar buss soon—will be around and cherished long after the mega-producers have ceased counting their hundreds of millions in box office receipts. Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope’s screenplay is based on Martin Sixsmith’s 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, a story as filled with grace and forgiveness as it is of oppression and institutional cruelty.

The film at the very beginning brings together the strands of three stories:

1. That of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) dealing with his dismissal from a post in Tony Blair’s administration, amidst charges of scandal, and his attempt to restart his career in journalism.

2. Retired nurse Philomena Lee, holding a picture of a toddler boy and, musing guiltily over the events, and, on the day of his birth, deciding to tell her daughter Jane (Michelle Fairley) her secret story of how Anthony, as she had named him, was taken from her.

3. Frequent flashbacks to the young Philomena (Sophie Kennedy Clark) meeting and having a one night stand with a boy; of her father abandoning her to the cruelties of life in an Irish convent run by overly moralistic nuns who showed her no sympathy.

Jane, working as a server at a catered party, overhears one of the guests, Martin talking about his journalistic ambitions, tells him about her mother in the hope that he might help her find out what happened to her son. However, Sixsmith, a former BBC correspondent and bureau chief, has his heart set on “serious” journalism, not what he condescendingly calls “feature story” writing, so he blows her off. He would like to write a book on Russian history, but the lack of enthusiasm from those to whom he mentions the project makes him aware that this is not the way to go. Talking over with his wife Jane’s invitation, he makes an appointment at a restaurant to meet the mother and daughter.

He is upset by Philomena’s story in which the nuns, believing that she is a depraved girl, dismiss her terrible childbirth pains with, “Pain is her penance.” She and the other Magdalene girls are forced to work in the laundry to pay off their care, allowed to see their infants for just one hour a day. Then, when Anthony is three, the nuns sell him to a wealthy couple without any warning or the opportunity to say goodbye. The one bright spot in her incarceration was a young sympathetic nun who managed to take a picture of the boy and give to her on the sly. Through the years this small framed photograph had become like a holy icon, bringing Philomena a measure of comfort, even a tiny pleasure, as she takes it out and gazes at it.

Martin, backed by his editor at a newspaper, agrees to accompany her for still another visit to the convent in County Tipperary, Ireland. The two are received courteously at the convent, but are told that they do not have any further information because the old records had been destroyed in a fire. When Martin continues to push the matter, suggesting that they be allowed to talk to the older nuns to see if they remember anything, the nun curtly dismisses him so that she can talk privately with Philomena. Noticing through a window a dour old nun, he tries to enter and talk with her, but is prevented by the staff from doing so. He goes outside and comes across a graveyard. It is filled with the graves of unnamed babies, as well as of several mothers who had perished in childbirth. The nuns had not bothered to tend the graves, all of which are covered over with vines and weeds.

Discouraged, the two return to the village inn, but there in the pub Martin learns that they have been lied to by the nuns. The fire was a bonfire, the bar tender informs him, with the nuns themselves burning all of the old records. They also learn that American parents probably had adopted Anthony. Clearly the convent is not well liked by the villagers.

Deciding to go to America, Philomena experiences culture shock—you probably saw in the trailer her express her fear that Anthony might be overweight—because of the large portions of food they serve in America. Thanks to his journalistic contacts and his trusty laptop computer, he learns the truth about Anthony, who had been given a new name by his adoptive parents. There are several surprises in store for the two, as well as for viewers, so we will go no further with the story—only to say that it is a powerful one that deals with faith and forgiveness as much as with the solving of a the puzzle of a lost son’s fate.

The film reminds me a bit of Les Miserables in that it can be seen and discussed as one contrasting two ways of life—that of grace and forgiveness as opposed to one of clinging to past wrongs and refusing to forgive. Martin and Philomena both grew up in the Catholic Church, but whereas Martin now has given up his belief in God, Philomena’s faith is even deeper than when she was young. Martin refuses to forgive the church, and the nun in particular, Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford), whose cruelty so hurt his friend. Philomena, on the other hand, still goes to confession and loves the church, able even to offer the now aged but unrepentant nun forgiveness. Philomena is free from the bitterness and dour outlook on life that plague Martin.

It would be nice to be able to write that forgiveness softens all hearts, but the rigidly moral nun still believes that it was Philomena, not herself, who is guilty of mortal sin. Martin loses his cool and lashes out like an Old Testament prophet. If Philomena’s naïve faith has softened his atheism a bit, the nuns’ cruelty—their past wrongs against Philomena are added to by a new, incredibly cruel, one—quickly confirms his contempt for any and all religion, thus illustrating an old observation that the church has created more atheists than all other causes combined.

Despite the heaviness of the drama, Stephen Frear’s film is much lighter than the similarly themed Magdalene Sisters (2002). The script (co-written by actor Steve Coogen) plays on the class differences between the Oxford-educated Martin and the lower class Philomena. He quotes T.S. Elliot, whereas she goes on almost endlessly telling him the plot of a bodice-ripping novel she tries to get him to read. In fact, their status as odd-couple friends is confirmed by the ending when the last words we hear are her reciting again the plot of her favorite novel while he listens in silence.

The film also has many moments of grace that makes it a shoo-in for Visual Parables’ Top Ten Film list. One of them is when the couple are still in Washington DC at the airport, about to give up because the trail has gone cold. Reporting this to his editor back in London, the response is negative. She orders him to convince Philomena to keep up the quest. He is clearly reluctant to do so, seeing what pain she is in. He says nothing about his phone conversation. It is Philomena who decides they must go back into the city, thus relieving him greatly. Later, when she is highly troubled, his humanity is affirmed even more when he tells her that he will not write the story, quite an offer for a journalist to make!

This opportunity to see two actors at the top of their form is not to be missed!

The full review with discussion questions will be included in the January 2014 issue of Visual Parables, scheduled for posting early that month. To subscribe to the publication go to the Store. A year’s subscription will gain you access not just to this issue (which has far more features in it than just film reviews and guides), but also to issues as far back as Summer 2006.