ROMA: Bioethics and the Mobius Loop

                                         Production still compliments of Mill Valley Film Festival
                                         Alfonso Cuaron with actress Yalitza Aparicio

It is difficult to describe the number of ways that writer-director Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-biographical ROMA represents an Ichthian leap in cinema. There are no special effects to speak of, no costumes except at a New Year’s Eve party cum fire. To compare the film with the level of change that Italian Neorealism presented in the middle of the last century seems strident, yet true. Equally valid is the sense that this film represents the 7th Art at its best in both the creative and technical expression of cinema. There is not a super hero among them — but a sense of magic at the level of Murakami’s Wind Up Bird  Chronicle or Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle.  It is a universal film from the soul of a Spanish master.  
Written by a man, ROMA is defined by the relationships between three women and their children. There is little or no chatter—The movements, expressions and geography are left to tell the tale. The women are of three generations one an elderly woman sharing a home with her daughter and grandchildren. The daughter is approaching middle age, brilliant in her own right, and a mother of three. The daughter is also a wife, left distraught by a  middle class doctor-husband who has gone cad and ludicrous. Above all other characters rises their Indio maid/nannie, Cleo. Kept company by her roommate, Cleo  transcends everything poverty and servitude. If the Virgin of Guadalupe had corporal form, Cuaron proves it would be that of the actress Yalitza Aparicio whilst playing Cleo, during the turmoil of change in the cross cultural class and gender politics of 1970s Mexico.

The writing  of Roma itself leaps across any venial representations or stereotypes. Swaddled in black and white footage, in a giant  65 mm frame, with layered visual symbolism, ROMA is a breath taking journey. In a season competing with the best Marvel films yet made, and a year of the too close to call superior performances by women actors—What might have been a long shot, ROMA is brought by Netflix, sans color but luminous, decked with subtitles, and surpasses all as it flies over the moon.

Added to the visuals ROMA’s sound is extraordinary. Having seen the film at the Dolby Lab Screening Room (San Francisco) with echo-locating sound technology—the viewer becomes an adroit listener as though sharing a room with the characters. Voices move from the right, left or seemingly ahead of of the viewer.  Fair warning, the subsequent screening of other movies may leave you pining for that sensation of being in the midst of the action. You will crave auditory immersion in other films, less technically adroit,  long after seeing ROMA. 

Twenty is the number of  films I've seen since screening ROMA this past October, 2018. Images continue to drift back to me and make me sigh—when I see a bird fly, a dog bark, or a child cry. There is a purgatory of beauty whipped with pain which is the home where certain souls live. Like birth and death — ROMA closes a circle of which the viewer is unaware of being open until the break is sealed. That new poetic mobius loop, twisted between life and death, catapults ROMA into the realm of bioethics.  

Miyazaki, Hayao HOWL’s MOVING CASTLE https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0347149/


Part II, A PRIVATE WAR: Bioethics meets the Guardians of Truth

Marie Colvin with Mike Wallace (CBS,60minutes) receiving the International Women in Journalism Award Media foundations in 2000.

Time Magazine designated “The Guardians of Truth,”  as its 2018 person of the year. The Guardians of Truth are journalists who risk it all to assure that those who might force their governments to make change have the information with which to guide their quest. Marie Colvin, the protagonist of  A PRIVATE WAR was a woman who notoriously defined the meaning of her life  and journalistic profession by her capacity, and that of her colleagues, to actualized Article 19 of the UDHR. (cf: A MIGHTY HEART). 

The United Nations is history’s best aim at the potential of human beings without the luxury of the naivety of a single generation’s overt success. Every document promoting human enlightenment, including the USA constitution, bears a statement supporting freedom of information. This is the result of the intuition that information is power and, without safeguards,  it will always be coveted by the most powerful to the detriment of the least. In precaution, The UDHR specifically states, in article 19 (of its 30), that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.  

It is a principle by which  Colvin lived and for which she was prepared to die.  Even with that, Colvin verbalized personal and professional responsibility on occasions when she missed the boat. She famously admonished her profession for not seeing the writing on the wall in Rwanda. One million Rwandan Tutsis were killed in only 100 days from April to July in 1994.Virtually no journalist understood and responded until too late.  Whether or not the world would do something about the massacre of innocents if made aware— Colvin knew that they certainly would not have the choice if they knew nothing of the offending incidents. This is because sans information, informed decisions cannot be made by individuals or societies. 

Shortly after in 1949 the Geneva Conventions were signed. Most of those atrocities were manifest using the technology which was created by scientist. In this way, the guardians of truth are not only journalist but those who understand science and its potential applications. The Syrian Journalists' Association (also members of the IFJ) has documented 153 journalists killed, in that country,  since the uprisings of 2011 which lead to the defection of  soldiers from the Syrian army in protest of the governments repressive regime. Among the journalist killed in Syria were American journalists Jim Sokol and James Foley in 2014, by beheading. In 2016, a United Nations official said 400,000 people had been killed in first five years of the Syrian civil war—the vast majority being noncombatants. At the time of this writing the president of the USA claims an unsubstantiated victory in Syria against ISIS and says he plans to pull  US troops out of the  country. 

As of March 2018, Lyn Maalouf, the Middle East research director for Amnesty International has stated that the "International community's catastrophic failure to take concrete action to protect the people of Syria has allowed parties to the conflict most notably the Syrian government to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity with complete impunity, often with the assistance of outside powers."

Since 2012 when journalist Marie Colvin was intentionally targeted by the government of Syria, through transmissions from her satellite phone, the International Federation of journalist (IFJ) reports that more than 600 journalist have been killed around the world. Nine in 10 cases remain unpunished. Hundreds of journalist are imprisoned. 

Daily journalist are attacked, beaten, detained, harassed and threatened. Among women journalist surveyed in the 600,000 member IFJ, 24% have suffered physical attacks while working. Before those us in the USA shake their heads at the state of suppression of the press abroad, we must note that the US Present Freedom Tracker, since its launch in 2017, has documented 220 press freedom violations involving journalist and reporters have taken place in the USA.

Mathew  Heineman’s film pushes a  new audience of viewers to experience the world through journalist Marie Colvin’s eyes, emotions and suffering. She is not depicted as a superhero but a woman with flaws and scars who believed she could make a difference if she could get people to listen. A PRIVATE WAR adds  to Colvin’s enduring legacy and  reached out to those free to recognize and commit to protection of the most vulnerable victims of war. For Bioethicist and those who try to understand it, A PRIVATE WAR is a  “must see.”  The film is not only about a woman, or journalist but about an idea that that protects innocent third parties.

Part 1 A Private War: Bioethics meets the Guardians of Truth

A PRIVATE WAR had its USA premiere the opening night of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF42) October 4, 2018. The screening was prior to Time Magazine having designated “The Guardians of Truth,”  as its 2018 person of the year— and before the targeted killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Turkish Saudi Arabian embassy. Acclaimed documentarian Director Mathew Heineman’s supposed biopic focuses on the  life, career and death of  US born war correspondent for the London Sunday Times, Marie  Colvin. Surprisingly, Heineman has chosen to re-tool his award winning considerable documentary skills to create this, his first narrative film. A PRIVATE WAR is many things, a Hollywood mirror biopic not being among them. Instead, this screen work is a  gift of reality wrapped in art.

Marie  Colvin was killed in Homs, Syria, in 2012— during the second year of the Syrian civil war. This war still continues at this writing and is key to the undeclared World War raging in the Middle East with players from multiple nations beyond the region. Dying along with Marie was the acclaimed French freelance photojournalist RĂ©mi Ochlik. For nearly thirty years  Colvin had covered the “Middle Eastern War beat.”  Her reports uniquely defined the inhumanity of war while she herself role-modeled a hard boiled compassion, accuracy and truth.  She focused on the rights of civilians trapped in the cross-fires of hell on earth. An autopsy conducted in Damascus by the Syrian government concluded Marie Colvin was killed by an “improvised explosive device filled with nails.”  These are the facts but there is more to the film. 

Heineman’s film begins with the image of  a decimated house, in the demolished city of Homs where  thousands and Colvin died. It is so haunting  that the viewer should be forewarned that it will wrench you from your sleep months after the screening. You will scramble to play catch up. The film asks the viewer to choose… “What side are you on?”  Weeks later you will try to understand the history of how the wars in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Iran Libya  Sri Lanka, East Timor and Syria became part of the same war — the war were the most vulnerable, the noncombatants, are used as cannon fodder over near a century. 

Photojournalist Paul Conroy was injured in the attack that took Marie and Remi. He survived to provide context to his colleagues’ final hours.  Crazy with purpose, Colvin had used  her satellite phone to speak—one last time—the truth of the devastation of the civilian population of  Syria. Six years later, in 2018 a Syrian Forces defectors testimony was unsealed by a USA court. The document presented evidence that the forces of Assad, the president of Syria, locked into the slain  Colvin’s phone transmission to target and kill her.  

It is a visually gritty, granular polluted air Colvin breaths. Visually, A PRIVATE WAR ends with that same decimated ruin in Homs where it begins. So why is a film whose story begins and ends in the same place worth telling in yet another way? It is, after all, a story that has been told in documentary filmmagazine articles and in books elsewhere.  Importantly, much of the script is adapted from an interview by Marie Brenner with Marie in Vanity Fair magazine.  That is-- the perspective of the film derives from the war journalist herself telling the world parts of her own story. Therein lay the value. 

Screenwriter Arash Amel’s work was challenging because it is not from the perspective of an onlooker. We know what  Colvin said —because she said it. But how do you show the vulnerability and sometimes confusion she felt? If the purpose of the film was to leave her feeling, not chronological data, the work has succeeded. Context takes a back seat to the main characters reflection of her times at a given moment. 

“Biopic’ is a misnomer —  A PRIVATE WAR is a memoir. You jump geography and timeframes. Strangers appear without announcement of names or titles — as they do in one’s own memory. If we can’t tell why the scene is there  by Pikes performance — shame on us. The burden of Heineman’s complex film is absolutely carried by the power of Academy Award® nominee Rosamund Pike’s portrayal of Marie Colvin.  Pike channels Kate Hepburn, in a role the silver screen actress never played. The  performance is no less astounding for the uncanny likeness to miles of available film and sound footage of the slain reporter. Heineman allows Pike to express the pain and suffering in Colvin’s aging battered body, in her womanhood rattled love,  and  journalistic commitment to truth.  

But all is not dour. Pike’s Colvin masterfully conveys the physical comedy of facial expression as an irascibility when the character jokes. This heightens the contrast when actor also brings an exquisite  portrayal of a body and mind racked with tragedy. The accuracy of the performance even includes the slight imbalance of gait in the mono-optic, eye patch wearing Colvin—whose distant traumatic brain injury had resulted in a lost dominant eye. By allowing Pike to dive deeply into the body of the woman she portrays, Heineman delivers the character’s inner voice.  You can’t write or tell this stuff in words. 

A PRIVATE WAR is not a film for the faint, or even exhausted of heart. The actor’s task was to flip the character’s insides to the outside. Even laughing, Pike’s  Colvin is always only a tear drop away from being left naked and exposed to the devastations of war, post traumatic stress, and survivor guilt. The audience receives the same, as if from a ricocheting bullet.

For more, see Part II of A PRIVATE WAR: Bioethics meets Guardians of Truth at http://www.bioethicsscreenreflections.com