Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Unbearable Lightness of Freedom

The cinematic moment which symbolizes for me  loss of freedom is when Tomas, the protagonist in the film The Unbearable lightness of Being, 1988  ( based on the novel by Milan Kundera 1984 ),  returns to Czechoslovakia from the west, after the Soviet invasion, and his passport is confiscated at the border, leaving him stranded.

This is not a dramatic scene, quite the contrary, it presents a routine transaction, but the power here is in the implications of the trivial act:  not having a passport means that you are stranded and no longer free to come and go as you wish.  Perhaps I was so moved by this scene because it reminded me of different occasions when I too felt a loss of freedom. One example is when, at the end of the first day of basic training, I realized that no, I could not go home: I had to stay in the army for 20 more  months.

To this day whenever I recollect this scene from  The Unbearable I feel a pang of anxiety not unlike the one experienced when I first watched the film. But I find it hard to envision the picture of me, the unhappy  18 year old girl who could not go home. Although The Unbearable is a poignant film, it is hard to explain why  this  short scene remains more vivid in my mind than my own experience.

Wayne C. Booth in the Rhetoric of Fiction stresses the importance of Showing over Telling in fiction, and we all are familiar with the old saying  that one picture is worth a thousand words.

However, I believe that the strength of this scene is not only in the visuals: confiscating a  passport is a symbol of the arbitrariness of the totaliterian regime and the helplessness of the individual, who is stripped of a most basic freedom, in this case the freedom of mobility. 

 Sometimes we remember meaningful events that we have not personally experienced. Here I have appropriated the memory of life in post-invasion Czechoslovakia.  My family history provides me with an even stronger memory, my father left Nazi Germany in 1934 when he was 21 year old and never got to see his parents and his younger brother. They  were not free to leave Germany or to get a certificate to come to Israel, and they perished in the camps.

Whenever I think of  that  scene at the border, it gives me a chance to reenact, in a small way, that exact moment when freedom is taken away. Lucky for me I can push away the memory and go on with my life, I should not forget those who are not so fortunate.

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