If you’ve ever felt conflicted about how to respond to seeing others suffer, you may find a kindred spirit in An Encounter with Simone Weil, a very personal documentary about its director’s own struggle with that dilemma by seeking guidance through the writings of French philosopher Simone Weil. The pressing question Julia Haslett poses at the start is, “What response does seeing human suffering demand of us?” Though she never settles on an answer, she raises many difficult questions, ones that don’t make up for the film’s shortcomings in terms of biography or insight about Weil, but that morally sensitive audiences can expect to take home and chew over.
While the real value of the documentary lacks broader focus, it’s still there, off to the side of the film’s spotlight on what’s essentially Haslett’s margin notes on her favorite philosopher. This value is simply the moral questions Haslett asks herself and us, ones so rare in a medium that glamorizes violence and bloodshed, and that beg to be asked since we live in a time of increased awareness. As the interviewed activist Anna Brown asks herself, “Why do we allow others to carry the burden of oppression, of starvation, of impoverishment? Why do we live at ease while others suffer?” That Haslett bravely chose a subject so contrary to our times—America seems more concerned with action than thought, seems more material than spiritual, is more about calling the shots rather than feeling the consequences of them—is praiseworthy, but her exploration of Weil’s words in modern times doesn’t feel thorough enough, focusing instead, for instance, on the atheist Haslett’s own reservations about Weil’s turn to Christianity later in her short life.
It’s probably safe to say that throughout history the average person’s awareness of suffering has grown in conjunction with new communication technologies. In the past, a person could only encounter so much suffering in their physical surroundings, and when they did they could conceivably intervene with assistance and expect to see a direct effect from their efforts. Today, however, suffering can be observed everywhere and has the effect of making one feel helpless. All of this tacitly forms the jumping-off point of An Encounter with Simone Weil, with the film only occasionally coming back to directly touch on these underpinnings, as when Haslett expresses protest to the idea of sticking her head in the sand over America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but acknowledges that Weil’s prescription for just paying attention to suffering our country is inflicting feels “like a woefully inadequate response.”
At the heart of the film is Haslett’s feelings for the line of troubled men in her family. She feels a responsibility for her father’s mental illness and suicide, an event that happened in her childhood and has caused her to feel like, if she doesn’t do something, “someone might die.” How to deal with her brother’s battles with anxiety and depression concern her, as when she says, “If I can’t do anything to help him, then it seems like all I can do is be unhappy beside him. Anything else would feel like a betrayal.” These familial threads give the doc an unexpectedly confessional tone, not exactly as over-sharing as Jennifer Fox’s Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, but bearing similarities in terms of the films’ openness to self-examine the lives of their creators, both of whom are educated, liberal, painfully self-aware, single, and middle-aged.
What An Encounter with Simone Weil is more than anything is a document of the unsettling effects philosophy can have on one’s mind and spirit. It’s not that one won’t come away from the film learning something about Weil, but that the film is more about how Haslett responds to reading Weil, the affects Weil’s words have on Haslett’s life, and how they seems to enrich her experience while aggravating it. Ultimately, the film doesn’t feel like it ever left Haslett’s head, leaving us a little cold.