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The Philosopher Kings

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I watched a documentary tonight called, The Philosopher Kings; the synopsis, which I’ve taken from the website:

In search of wisdom found in unlikely places, The Philosopher Kings takes us on a journey through the halls of the most prestigious colleges and universities in America to learn from the staff members who see it all and have been through it all: the custodians. This thought-provoking, feature-length documentary interweaves the untold stories of triumph and tragedy from the members of society who are often disregarded and ignored, and seeks out the kind of wisdom that gets you through the day and the lessons one learns from surviving hard times, lost loves, and shattered dreams.

From the producers of the multiple-award winning Flight from Death, The Philosopher Kings gives us the opportunity to learn from eight incredible individuals whom we would never have otherwise taken a moment out of our day to acknowledge.

It introduced you to 8 people who ordinarily aren’t seen or heard. We have, as a society, certain stereotypes and assumptions about the people who clean up after us and this documentary does a very good job of challenging those assumptions. After the film, there was a brief Q &A, and what was interesting (at least to me) were the comments that some people felt manipulated by the documentary. That while the personal stories of these individuals were very compelling, people felt that it was disingenuous to portray them as content with their lives. The editors must have some agenda to promote because surely they couldn’t be that happy with their lives, could they?

I thought it was fabulous that there was no narration in the film. All of the words that you hear come directly from the participants and their individual stories are compelling like the story of Josue Lajeunesse, a janitor at Princeton University, he works there nine hours a day and then he departs to his second job, where he drives a taxi, at night. He sleeps on average of about 3 hours a night, at which point, the cycle repeats and he does it all over again the next day. He uses his earnings not just to support himself, he sends money back to Haiti to support his children and his extended family. On top of that, he and his brother have embarked on a project to help bring fresh water to his father’s remote village in southern Haiti. The people in that village have to walk 35 miles away to obtain fresh water, because of that they are also unable to farm their own food. They’ve been partially successful and have worked a temporary solution but the goal is to build for a permanent one and a solution that will not only service his father’s village but the surrounding ones as well.

To say that it made me check my privilege at the door is an understatement. The film reminded me of Studs Terkel’s own research into the nature of work, the films “findings” lined up with what Terkel seemed to find in his own investigations. That people who we deem to be the “lower classes”, the invisible people that we take for granted that make our lives better and who we would be lost without, really resist identifying themselves by their jobs and that they make their meanings and make a conscious effort to interact with the world outside of their jobs.

Packaged in between the words and the stories of the people, were the social issues that they had to deal with: Melinda’s mother slipped into a coma because of a hospital error, she remained in a coma for eleven years before she passed. Melinda would have preferred that she had died. Luis was in a terrible car accident that cost him his arm, he was in a coma for a month. The other driver had no insurance and wasn’t employed with a family of his own. Corby works at an art institute that by all rights, he would have fit right in with his independent artistic pursuits. Why didn’t he?

And despite their personal pain, they call themselves lucky and are still able to look at the world with hope and wonder. Who am I to judge what’s supposed to be “normal” to their situations? Why are we so suspicious in our assumptions and what is it that makes us automatically assume that their stories aren’t genuine?

We have a problem within our culture to “otherize” everything. Our mentality is almost always a binary of us vs. them, and “they” always seem to want what we have or is doing something that is threatening to us, “their” intentions are never good and we’re always just protecting what’s ours. I don’t see this philosophy as being particularly beneficial for us as a country. People can (and do) make the argument that outside forces are whats tearing the country apart: Islamic terrorists, China acquiring all of our debt, giving aid to other countries, to just name a few. I disagree with that particular theory, I think we’re tearing ourselves apart and in the end we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.

The mantras that the various custodians lived by were very simple in words but extraordinarily difficult in action and yet they seemed to have found their keys to contentment. So many of us are so hopelessly lost that we can’t even recognize what contentment with our lives even means, we just know that we haven’t attained it yet and just want more, more, more.

Anyone interested in social justice work, class and socioeconomic conditions in the US or if you just really enjoy a well made documentary would really enjoy this.


From → musings

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