At one point in her biographical documentary on French philosopher Simone Weil, An Encounter with Simone Weil, director Julia Haslett reveals that she’s intent on finding a way to “situate Simone” for a contemporary audience, a tricky task given the ways in which Weil’s life and philosophy were so tightly intertwined. Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Paris, Weil was an academic prodigy, but her acute sensitivity to the sufferings of others and her deeply held Marxist convictions led her at several points in her life to abandon her teaching job to join the class struggle.
It’s precisely this sense of compassion that leads Haslett to Weil in the first place. Still healing from her father’s suicide when she was in her teens, the adult Haslett is troubled by the suffering she sees in the world and, closer to home, in her brother’s bouts of depression. When she stumbles across a line by Weil (“Attention is the rarest form of generosity”), a palpable degree of wisdom in the words inspires her to seek out more of Weil’s thoughts. As she confesses in voiceover, her quest to read everything Weil ever wrote—most of which was published posthumously in massive, multi-volume tomes—leads her on a quest to locate Weil in the modern world somehow.
Like transmissions from another time or dimension, Haslett’s personal journey bleeds into her biography of Weil; this may be the only documentary in which family members are sought out to be interviewed because they are rumored to resemble the subject. Haslett combs through hours of footage of French communist party rallies looking for an image of her (in vain, since Weil broke with the Stalinists early on), and eventually undertakes a risky gambit to bring Weil to life: She hires an actress to play her.
Part hagiography, part performance piece, Haslett’s film is flawed but haunting. Weil died in 1943 while sick with tuberculosis, refusing to eat more than French soldiers were issued as rations. Haslett identifies with Weil’s empathetic philosophy, which she finds distilled in the question Weil returned to: “What response does human suffering demand?” And while it’s unclear whether Haslett is able to take any real comfort in the actress’s portrayal of Simone Weil, it remains all too clear that our modern world has yet to develop an adequate answer to the question.
Questions of compassion and performance are also central to A Good Man, a new documentary focused on choreographer Bill T. Jones. Jones, one of the great modern artists of dance, was approached by the organizers of the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago to create a piece celebrating the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 2009. Filmmakers Bob Hercules and Gordon Quinn were given access to Jones’s practice space and rehearsals in the months leading up to the premiere of the piece, titled “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray.” What they come away with is a remarkable testament to the creative process, which, like much of Jones’s best work, is centered around themes of history, identity, and love.
Upon visiting the Lincoln family home in Springfield, Jones is overcome with emotion. Lincoln, we are told, was the only white man he was allowed to love unconditionally as a child. Lincoln was his hero. One of the dangers of looking too closely at your heroes is that the aura can wear off, as Jones discovers when, scouring the Lincoln-Douglas debates for inspiration, he comes across a series of quotes that seem to indicate that Lincoln saw blacks as an inferior race. The film sets Jones and Lincoln off in relief; just as Jones must question his belief in the man that Lincoln was, so too do we see the members of his company grappling with his fiery, mercurial temperament. The underlying question that Jones seeks to answer is as much about himself as it is about his idol: What does it mean to be a good man?
Jones views the Lincoln commission as a great honor, and a great challenge. And yet, ever the artist, Jones is canny about the circumstances in which he’s been asked to deliver this piece. In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, he leaves an audience at a fundraising dinner for the New York Historical Society squirming in their seats when he bluntly states that he feels he’s been approached for the project because, as a black man, he could be expected to put together something “correct” for the age of Obama. In other words, he says, he’d be likely to approach Lincoln as an abolitionist first, and a man second.
This is a film about artistic vision, and how it’s communicated. Jones explicitly calls into question the validity of the modernist project (and his own participation in it), wherein the artist is seen as a singular, visionary genius, entering another plane of experience to invent the work. We see grainy black-and-white video excerpts of several of Jones’s duets with his former partner Arnie Zane. At 59 years of age, Jones is not actively dancing in this Lincoln piece, despite being in possession of a body every bit as chiseled as a professional athlete. Instead, he must choreograph with words, and at several points his powers of expression seem to fail him. Jones is struggling to communicate his vision to a generation that is too young to remember his own groundbreaking works. Is it any wonder that he’s having trouble conveying what Abraham Lincoln’s legacy means to him?
Rather than build to a conclusion where we see the performance, the filmmakers choose to reveal it in glimpses throughout the course of the film. It’s a brave choice for a documentary centered around the creation of a work of performance art, and yet it reiterates the film’s themes of art as a continual work of process. Jones would be proud.
This year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival ran from April 14 - 17.