3 Skype Calls that Killed a Beautiful Film

Photo by Ed Araquel - © 2014 Egoli Tossell Film/ Co-Produktionsgesellschaft "Hector 1" GmbH & Co. KG/ Happiness Productions Inc./ Wild Bunch Germany/
I recently watched a little known film called Hector and the Search for Happiness which starred the always funny Simon Pegg in a Walter Mitty-esque story of one unfulfilled man's search for life's true meaning.  The story unfolds as London psychiatrist, Hector (Pegg), takes a surprising whirlwind journey around the world, making notations and sketches in his notebook along the way in order to discover what makes people happy.  The parallels to the far superior film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, are obvious and plentiful.

In the case of Hector the filmmakers don't reach the heights of Mitty in terms of cinematography, which is sad since it can hardly be blamed on budget given the existence of the Hindi film Highway which kills them both in that regard and does so with less money than either.  And I bring up cinematography -- or a filmmakers ability to know beauty when they see it and capture it skillfully -- because it hints at Hector's greatest sin -- it's blatant ethnocentrism.

Unlike Mitty and definitely unlike Highway, Hector doesn't know a non-white human when it sees it.  All it knows are stereotypes -- Chinese are monks and prostitutes; Africans are sick kids, simple villagers, and violent thugs.  We do get some tender moments from an ill-defined, terminally ill Muslim woman, but she too is merely a vehicle for showing us that Hector is a better guy than he realizes (we don't know here nation of origin or language but we do get a nice, cliche "how you say ..." moment).

Here's is where the ethnocentrism really shines.  Several times, Hector video Skypes back to London to talk with his girlfriend, Clara.  In these calls, he begins by telling Clara where he is.  Here is the summary:

Call #1, "I'm in China!"

Call #2, "I'm in Africa!"

Call #3, "I'm in L.A.!"

Do you see what I see?  A bit of Google research will help you know that Hector is actually in Shanghai and then later somewhere in Tibet.  Of course, this several day overland journey is never explained in the film nor are we told the names of these locations.  Because, after all, China is China.  It is the land of mystical monks living in the mountains and abused prostitutes living in the cities.  Even one potentially important moment of conversation between Hector and his prostitute friend regarding a group of migrant laborers is glossed over with a superficial observation of the comparative happiness of the laborers in the context of frowning, wealthy businessmen.  Ah, yes, poor people are so happy.  I should point out that one character in the China act of the film gets a fair amount of development -- a wealthy, white British business man.

So, China is China.  But at least we aren't saying that Asia is Asia.  Which is exactly what we get from Hector's second call.

"I'm in Africa!"  Yes, he is.  But where?  We are never told.  It appears that most of the African scenes were shot in South Africa, but it isn't necessarily supposed to be South Africa.  It is an intentionally undefined African nation.  Local languages are not captioned or identified.  Nor are cities for that matter or local dishes or, really anything.  Of course, we learn the names of a local white NGO worker and get to hear about his calling and even his sexual orientation.  We also get to know quite a lot about a local drug dealer who gets a healthy amount of character development. We even get to know about his wife's mental health problems.  Of course, he isn't African but rather a transplant from Latin America or Spain (we aren't told which).

The Africans who do get lines in the film are some simple villagers who spend their day's eating "sweet potato stew" and partying, cruel thugs who kidnap and imprison Hector, and, of course, sick African children.  This is Africa.  And Africa is Africa.

There is also the inexplicable journey of Hector from Shanghai to South Africa which involves a final flight on a comically rickety propeller plane upon which passengers are freely smoking and holding livestock in their laps.  Since there are multiple major airports throughout South Africa served by many fine airlines, one wonders why Hector must fly on this clearly unsafe plane.  I'll be the first to admit that Emirates and others don't use their best planes on flights in and out of Africa, but this is just silly.  Clearly, the filmmakers want to emphasize very clearly that Africa is underdeveloped and unsafe.

Africa is Africa and Africa is bad.  Not without its charms, like elephants grazing and fun dance music, but bad.

So we come to the third call.  In which Hector reports to Clara that, "I am in L.A."  He we get lots of lines and names and character backgrounds -- after all, the characters are white and Western.  They live in nice houses and happy children and go to fine colleges.  I don't need to say more.

China is China.  Africa is Africa.  But when we get to the West, we get to know names of actual cities.  What filmmaker would ever dream of Hector reporting to Clara, "I'm in North America!"

Do a compare and contrast and see how Mitty and Highway portray peoples and places.  These other films are flawed but truly beautiful and not only show us how rich and unique various ethno-linguistic people groups are but also do a fine job of searching for and finding out some wonderful and insightful things about happiness.

Hector, to be fair, doesn't miss this entirely.  An eccentric old professor at the end of the film tells his students to not worry so much about the pursuit of happiness but rather the happiness of pursuit.  Yes, that is a turn of phrase worthy of the Sphinx (cf. Mystery Men), but it isn't wrong.  That is basically what we learn from Mitty and Highway but I am not convinced that Hector gets it in the end.  He is closer, but the very fact that his life-changing journey is reduced to ethnic stereotypes and a notebook full of platitudes suggests that he hasn't enjoyed the pursuit much at all.

Friends, pay attention.  As I once read in a qualitative research design methods textbook, "There are some who say that the most important step of any journey is the first one.  There are others who argue that the most brilliant and resplendent step is the last.  But, in fact, it is all the steps in between that make the journey.  Be present for every step."

There is it, and if Hector was paying attention, he would have had the chance to learn this lesson earlier when his NGO friend said, "There is a difference between being here and being here to be photographed being here." Yes, that was a good line and worth watching the whole movie just to hear.  So, while Hector feels more like a short-term mission team came home and tried to make a movie about the meaning of life, it's not without its insight.  Or at least, insight can be drawn from this leaky cistern.

If you want to be happy along life's journey, start by being present for every step and don't take too many selfies.


For Example, let's end Rohingya Suffering

Photo courtesy BBC World
So, here is an example of what I'm talking about.

Most people have still never heard of the Rohingya peoples, but for those of us who have been in refugee ministry for a while, we have heard of their plight for years.  I still remember the shock and joy of discovering an entire, large apartment complex totally filled with Rohingya refugees in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  I don't know them well, but whenever I hear an update about their plight, my spirit groans.

I'm not going to tell their story here but to say that they are the ultimate people without a country.  They are South Asians who have spent the last few generations in Burma thanks to the post-abolition policies of Great Britain who semi-forcibly reshuffled the peoples of the world through their ghastly system of indentured servitude (which alone is enough for the entire world to call the UK to step up and solve the Rohingya problem that their greed is ultimately responsible for creating).

But I digress.

Yesterday, I mused about Grey's Anatomy (which is playing in the background as I read through the morning news and blogs) and how TV series' writers with a vision only as big as the world seem to have great difficulty in writing about changing the world.  It's far easier to write about a great character getting killed off in a car accident than to imagine them actually realizing their potential to make history.  In trying to inspire our newly arrived set of summer interns, referenced this and hoped to convince them that God isn't like this at all.

Perhaps it is the logical outcome of my evangelical generation's upbringing that we either give in to the numbing influences of the prevailing culture or finally throw off the restraints of small-mindedness -- to rebel against the drop-in-the-bucket kind of thinking and utterly give oneself to actually changing the world.  Those early days of Piper and the Passion Conference Posse must finally take on flesh and dwell as uncomfortably as the Hulk in a china closet in this basically status quo world of trendy protests, je suis whateverisms, and awareness campaigns that never do anything.

So for me.  What I do now when I hear about the Rohingyas is I start to ask myself, "What is the plan to actually solve this problem?  Why can't I be the one who makes it?"  Because I'm sick of assuming that I can only do my part!  If I am content to only do my part, transformation won't come because by now I realized that the vast majority of people will never do their part!  Some won't because they cannot.  Others won't because they simply don't care.  At 37, I know that I must do the part of thousands if things are going to change.  And I know that while I came to the Lord's table empty handed at first, I've been at the table so many times for so long that I can only blaspheme Him by the suggestion that my hands are still empty.

I can change the world.

Indeed, the one who has written in his book all the days of my life before even one of them came to pass intends that it should be.

So, Amen! May it be!


Keep McDreaming! You Won't be Written Off.

Photos Courtesy
So, I have to confess now that I am a rather huge fan of Grey's Anatomy.  I have no excuses and some of you will definitely think less of me after having just read that.  I'm okay with that.

Recently, an original character on the long-running TV series was written off in a horrible, fatal accident.  Grey's creator, Shonda Rhimes has gained bit of a reputation for killing off cast members.  This one rather upset me.  I scoured blogs and news articles for an explanation.  Why kill Dr. Derek "McDreamy" Shepherd?  Why?  Yes, I even cried a little.

I was more upset when my favorite character, Sandra Oh's unforgettable Dr. Christina Yang was written off a season earlier.  Fortunately for her, she didn't die.  She moved away to some amazing European medical research center with limitless funding and potential -- to change the world and yet never be heard from again.

And there is my point.

Characters Yang and Shepherd were portrayed for season after season as aspiring to and encroaching upon genuine historic medical greatness.  They were going to print hearts and map brains and otherwise save millions of lives.  And then suddenly, a car accident or a move to Europe and we are asked to forget about them and focus on those mere mortals left behind.

I think true greatness must just be really hard to write about.  Inevitably the explanation comes from TV writers that sounds something like, "We just felt like there was nothing else for us to do with this character."  After several seasons of exploring a variety of relationships, and scenarios and adventures, the writers feel they have done all they can do with that character.  That they've explored every angle.  That they've rather painted themselves into a corner.  The character must die or they must venture into greatness off screen and achieve it in a way that doesn't disturb the little universe we've created.

Read that last line again.

That's what a vision as big as the world will get you -- writer's block after a few seasons.  Eventually you conclude that there is nothing else to be done with Derek or Christina or Frasier or with any of Daniel Larusso's girlfriends (still stings).  Though you may be a screenwriter with a fictional universe of your own creation and though you literally have a blank piece of paper in front of you, when your vision is only as big as the world, it is difficult to write about it changing.  

Photo Courtesy

Speaking of Fraiser.  At least they tried.  Some 20 years of stories written about my all time favorite TV character and at the very end, the writers essentially admitted their limitations when they had the beloved Dr. Crane read from Tennyson's Ulysses:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

How glad I am that God isn't like that! He never runs out of stories or angles or adventures or dreams for my life.  He knows how to write about greatness.  He knows how to write about changing the world.  He'll never get to a point with me where he shrugs and says, "Well, I think we have done just about all we can do with you."  There is always another season.  The show is always renewed and every time I think I've just gotten through the climax of the tale he is authoring in my life, he repeats, "That was just the beginning."