This week, I had the honor to meet Amat Escalante, winner of the Best Director prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, arguably the most renowned festival of its kind in the world. He was there to screen his new film Heli. As it happens, there is a coming-of-age story in this fine piece of work. It’s a tale that recounts the hardships and trials that 17-year-old Heli has to endure as the Mexican Drug War slithers its way into his home and life.
This column will focus on the power of trauma and family in coming of age. It’s a topic I am fearful to venture into — I have had no experience with major trauma in my childhood, and I have made no official inquiries into the matter.
In a Q and A session after the movie, Escalante described the film as “A mix of horror, documentary, [and] western maybe.” Perhaps this reflection and the fact that I do have a family can help give insight into the residual effects of trauma on age. And in turn, by focusing on the extremes, we can gain a better understanding of more commonplace struggles.
The horror aspect of the movie is easy enough to glean. The violence that the drug war brings is demonstrated unflinchingly, graphically and truthfully. The realism that the movie portrays gives it its documentary feel. In a way, the violence degrades Heli until he finds redemption in vengeance. Then, he opens up more to the possibility of life.
It goes without saying that youth provides many challenges. But everyone seems to have the mindset that these adversities just make a person stronger. I would like to argue against this notion. Certain things may very well make us weaker. What is aging if it isn’t losing some of the vitality and innocence taken for granted at our age?
This is getting to be a depressing column. I’m sorry — it was inevitable. Fear not — the smart, chivalrous and valiant Eli Flesch will find a silver lining eventually. For now, let’s look at what might cause a person to grow weak, and how the idea of a Western movie addresses this. Often, a Western will deal with strong themes of individualism and personal struggles against villainy and unforgiving environments. They’re wild.
In any genre where the individual is put to the forefront, the inner thoughts and motives of a character must be challenged. Now, picture yourself standing in the burgundy-rubbed, extraterrestrial landscape of Monument Valley. Bullet in your belly. Miles away from the anaesthetizing qualities of a good whiskey. You’re weak, but you know what, there’s some romance in it. For all the orange dust in your lungs, that valley still looks good as ever. But all you think of are the people and events that brought you to this predicament.
Many people lose family members growing up. When these dearly departed have taken their leave, they take a piece of everyone who has held them in their affections. Strength may not recompensate the living. But instead of strength, how about wisdom?
I may have just defeated my own argument. Because the more wisdom you have, the more knowledge. And the more knowledge, the more power. Power, that thing so often equated with strength.
Here, I take wisdom to be the recognition of weakness, and the way a person subsequently responds. And how do people respond? Growth. Especially for children carving their paths to adulthood.
Growth comes in many forms. Some people grow up, taking responsibility for themselves. Some grow down, falling into despair. I believe the direction a young child takes is largely a product of the people surrounding them. Heli had his sister and wife to overcome the pain and degradation he experienced at the feet of the cruel “narcos.”
My final thoughts? Through trauma or struggle, keep good company. But be a cowboy. Have a vein of individualism that runs steadfastly. This compromise births wisdom, something vital in every age, but especially in youth. You don’t need a gray beard that grows a foot long to be wise.
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