Saturday, August 2, 2008

Imprisonment, Part 3

Bergman's Faith trilogy examines the internal dynamics of faith and how it can imprison us if we use, or lose, it. Blackmon's "Slavery by Another Name" rips straight into our real world sensibilities by uncovering ugly imprisonment, and worse, in post-Civil War America.

What is the relevance to us today? Internally we want to be free and believe everyone should be. Ideologically we should feel that wrongful imprisonment is bad. But how bad is imprisonment otherwise? Who should be jailed? How should they be treated when they are jailed? These are bigger questions and each of us may have our own answer.

Let's look at two current texts that dovetail nicely in exploring imprisonment and finding similar answers. One is a dramatic film; the other is a science fiction novella. In the current film "The Visitor", imprisonment of illegal immigrants in America is the explicit driving force of the narrative. How the effects of that imprisonment work internally on a middle-aged European American forced to confront the situation is the real exploration of the film. Is he imprisoned also? By what? Does he escape that imprisonment? How? In "The Political Prisoner", written by Charles Coleman Finlay (and found in the August 2008 issue of F&SF), a high level political agent of a volatile government on a "religiously" oriented planetary colony finds himself on the wrong end of an uprising. He is soon imprisoned in a hard labor camp, where every prisoner strives to stay alive by whatever means are necessary. He eventually winds up enmeshed in forced labor along with a group of alien Adareans. What he learns about history, people and fairness makes this hard-hitting, well-written story one to read.

The protagonist of "The Visitor" is a college professor whose love of life was sucked out of him when his wife died. He improbably gets tied to the lives of two immigrants that he helps out with a place to stay. He gets help from them by being immersed in discovering his own music and meeting new, friendly people. These new people are all recent immigrants. When one of them gets detained for later deportation, his life changes. He begins to consider what America means, but also what imprisonment is. Is it proper to simply lock people up, denying them easy access to help and information? There may be a better way to handle people's lives than the impersonal and distinctly rude way that this film portrays the immigration system. Illegal immigration may be just that, illegal, but this film speaks to these real people's common humanity. They should at least be treated like people.

In the novella "The Political Prisoner", the situation is different. It is the well-connected government agent that, perhaps mistakenly, gets arrested. He is packed in with other prisoners and sent to a hard labor camp. It is difficult to be on his side completely, as he is a brutal agent involved in double-dealing and murderous plots. But even this hard man becomes sympathetic; the brutality of camp enforcement and the conditions of so many men pushed together in small spaces works on his, and our, sensibilities. Finlay shows us the problems inherent in such brutal treatment. When the agent ends up with an imprisoned group of aliens, who have been treated by the humans poorly at best, and exterminated whenever possible, the irony, of course, begins. Their sense of who they are, their strength, pride and unity, show the human prisoner not just the only sympathy he can find in prison, but also what it actually means to be alive. Those we demean and abase should be mirrors for us, as they are never fundamentally different from ourselves. This is often the function in science fiction when "humans" and "aliens" meet. It also should apply in our world, as we meet any other person from around the world.

"The Visitor" and "The Political Prisoner" both end up focusing on the humanity of their respective detainees. The lessons in both should be obvious when we look back at our history. Hopefully they also speak to us about our current society. And perhaps Bergman's films should have a last commentary - as artistic cinema, what lessons are we to take from his films? When each of his character's lose faith in others, they get imprisoned in their own mental jails. Inevitably, this leads to tragedy. The worldwide Golden Rule says to treat others as we want to be treated. When it comes to prison, detention and human rights, it seems we often forget this.

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