Movies and Meaning

There are times in my life where the pace of the world shifts, and when I’m in a space that sings to me on a very deep level, when even time feels like it has gone from cruising to slow motion. Back in April, I attended a bit of an event called Movies and Meaning.  It was founded in 2015 as a gathering of people around art and activism.  Right up my alley. It didn’t hurt that this particular event included talks with Pulitzer Prize winning author (and poet/activist) Alice Walker and acclaimed film director Mira Nair, two breathing legends of the women variety.

And that is where the first slow motion moment happened. I walked into the venue and casually, as if we were passing each other in an aisle of the supermarket, Alice Walker strolled past me. Things slowed down. I looked at the woman next to me, who had also caught a glimpse of her floating by, and we exchanged a look – the look you exchange when brilliance is within inches of you and you want to reach out and say thank you for all your work in this world…but you can’t because you move as if time were about to stand still in the slow motion reel and instead you settle for a glimpse while trying to be cooler than a Fargo winter, all while making eyes with a complete stranger.

I introduce myself to the stranger who I shared “the look” with.  Clarissa. We acknowledge this remarkable moment. The room begins to surface again.

Alice Walker, Gareth Higgins, Mira Nair.

Settling into our seats, the founder of Movies and Meaning, Gareth Higgins, offered his required thoughts on what was ahead that evening. I was prepared to be bored with countless thanks to people behind the scenes, but instead he tells a story and I was reeled in like a slippery fish caught on a taught line because stories are memorable when they’re done well. Gareth shared the precise moment that his affection for films began. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was to blame. I could feel the pull of his deep love affair with films in his storytelling. He shared a quote I had not heard prior by the late Roger Ebert, renowned film critic: “As its best, cinema is a machine that produces empathy.”  Indeed, it does. He spoke of film;s abilities to share stories of people who don’t seem like us – but they’re more alike than we realize.  This is one of many reasons I gravitate toward excellent film making and believe it is a vital educational tool to create dialogue about social issues, culture, and the human experience.

Clearly, there would be a movie at this gathering.  I have to admit, I had read that it would be a Disney movie and quickly assumed it would be a painful experience. Likely one that would border (or in its ignorance) be culturally insensitive, highlighting female characters with impossibly tiny waistlines, and more animal gangs than prose.

I was pleasantly surprised at how wrong I was.

Queen of Katwe was that pleasant surprise. The film documents the life of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan girl living in a slum in Katwe. She eventually becomes a Woman Candidate Master after winning the World Chess Olympiads, drastically changing her and her family’s economic conditions. The film provides a window into the pain of poverty in Uganda, the challenges of educational access, and how we dream despite it all. It is a film that any age group can benefit from and frankly, enjoy.

I couldn’t quite figure out why this film was directed by Mira Nair however the conversation after the film promptly filled me in.  Am I the last person on the planet to know that Mira Nair has lived in Uganda since 1989?! Her husband is Ugandan and it has been her home for nearly 30 years. She explained how she worked closely with the script writers to ensure that the film was culturally appropriate in terms of language and expression.  Brava, Mira! (Not to mention that this is the first Disney film screened there that does not focus on exotic animals and or a white savior moment. Hallelujah!)

Gareth led the post film conversation with Alice and Mira. (I’m calling them by their first names because they were so seemingly authentic and I could easily imagine sitting at a table with them talking about their activism and need to create.)  The conversation ranged from activism, history (how deliberately distorted it has been), and how joy is lacking in US culture because the US is missing a rebellious passion to LIVE and suffers from the malady known as a lack of spark.

I could have listened to them for days.

Unfortunately, I had to travel out of town and could not attend the weekend full of conversations, films, and dialogue that does much more than scratch the surface of social issues across our planet.  I was disappointed, but oh so grateful for the opportunity to attend at all.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next Movies and Meaning. It extends well beyond the norms of a routine film festival.  While this event offers less films, it does serve more depth around each one.  The environment is intimate, and the feel is community.

Learn more about Movies and Meaning here.