In the last few weeks I've been confronted with information and ideas that, while not necessarily challenging or confirming my assumptions about the world, have sharpened my focus. In addition, the influx has curiously felt like a sign of sorts. Of course, my signs come in the form of movies.
Carla Garapedian's documentary Screamers, shown recently at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, spotlights the efforts of the Rock band System of a Down to engage, educate and enrage audiences around the world about several First World Nations' (primarily the United States and Great Britain) desires not to officially recognize the Armenian genocide in Turkey in 1915. The through-line of the film is that if the world had done more to acknowledge and prevent this from happening at the time we might have been able to curtail other genocidal situations -- from Hitler's extermination of Jews in Europe up to the current horrors in Darfur.
History shows that we stood on the sidelines and watched as these terrible atrocities have occurred. Our silence makes us complicit.
But System of a Down offers a dual-front model for action. They scream from music arena stages around the world to young people who pay to listen and are moved, if by nothing else than this new knowledge.
The secondary front, the whispers if you will, comes in their ability to reach out to persons in power, like U.S. congressmen, through letter-writing campaigns and direct appeals at forums where they have greater access. In toto, the case is made that "screamers" will not stand by silently but will raise their voices by any means necessary.
Another documentary filmmaker, Michael Wilson, adds his voice of dissent to the mix in the film Michael Moore Hates America, out now on DVD. I was intrigued by Wilson's rather shrewd approach to poking holes in the hot air balloon that is Michael Moore, a man whose politics in many ways line up with my own, though I abhor his somewhat shady style of presenting his opinions.
Wilson, like Moore a Midwestern guy, attempts to support his claim that there's another America standing in unique contrast to the one Moore rails against. Wilson delves into some of the stories and talks to the people and representatives of organizations Moore has exploited in his award-winning films to prove his points.
Wilson gamely and with more than a little ironic humor seeks -- ultimately in vain -- to secure an interview with Moore to discuss their differences in person, just as Moore did in Roger and Me, the film that centered on his quest to interview General Motors CEO Roger Smith.
These screamers -- System of a Down and Wilson -- can be seen and heard by large audiences. But what about those of us who toil behind the scenes, who whisper daily in the ears of children and families in local communities instead of world leaders and crass manipulating filmmakers?
Screaming isn't the most effective way to tap on their eardrums. Rather, our whisper vibrates and buzzes and hopefully gives rise to action. But sometimes I have my doubts.
I teach afterschool programs to kids at Riverview East and Lighthouse and offer support to organizations like Happen, Inc., which recently partnered with the Freedom Center to offer kids and families an opportunity to produce a short film about faith and freedom and their immense power to change the world.
Great orators gave voice to the deeds at the Freedom Center, but the railroad itself -- those houses along the way, those families and individuals who put their lives on the line -- did so in whispers, hushed tones that collectively became screams of justice.
Happen, Inc. events begin with a cheer, and whenever I take part I watch the kids and adults gathered there as they prepare to raise their voices. We're all self-conscious at first, even the kids, but they overcome it and give in to the joy and unbridled passion that comes from letting the sound erupt from their chests, hearts and souls.
Sometimes you see it in the adults, too, some of them, the ones who tap into that child-like place that doesn't worry about following the rules or how their voices might crack and strain. They don't think about anything. They just let the truth come from within.
I try to create a space in the classrooms at Riverview East where the students feel they can scream -- maybe not literally -- and speak their minds without fear of reprisal or correction, whether for grammatical errors or for politically incorrect content.
Speak with a voice that's loud and clear about what bothers you, I tell them, about how the world treats you now and how you might one day come to shape and reshape, treat and retreat in and from the world to come. Speak, and maybe others will be moved to join you.
That's one of the hopes of the Riverview East Community Learning Center. They're issuing a call to have the community unite with them, so they want the children's voices to shake that new building's foundation.
Sometimes that's the only way to make sure someone is listening.
When you scream and sometimes even when you're trying to listen, as I do with them, it takes a scream to break through the din that surrounds us. It gets loud with all the competing voices out there, especially when each one says it's the truth.
Maybe they are, each and every one. Maybe they offer a truth even when they lie.
You just have to listen for that one line or one phrase or one word. It might sound like a whispered note, an almost silent tone among the wall of symphonic sound orchestrated to drown it out.
But it's there, and it can be deafening.
CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: letters(at)citybeat.com. His column appears here in the third issue of each month.