500 Mountains — Greed vs. Responsibility

My friend Bryan created this music video to promote environmental responsibility and raise knowledge of a problem.  I would like to share it with you here.

Here is an email he sent to give it some context.  I hope you take a moment to watch the video and read about Mountaintop Removal.  Thank you!

Hi everyone.


Today, I am happy to share with you a music video I’ve wanted to make for over a year.  Last Spring, after learning about a destructive form of coal mining called “Mountaintop Removal (MTR),” I composed a song called “500 Mountains” to draw attention to the 500+ mountains that have been destroyed in West Virginia and surrounding States.  This process has resulted in thousands of miles of streams being buried, the pollution of the drinking water of millions, floods of coal slurry (water + coal waste) poisoning communities and the flattening of some of our nation’s most biologically diverse land, a size the equivalent of Delaware.

I first heard about mountaintop removal through my cousin, who lived in West Virginia for many months and witnessed first hand what MTR is doing to our country.  It went from being an issue I’ve never heard of to an issue at the forefront of my mind.  That’s why I am so grateful to be able to share this with you today.  Through word of mouth, social networking and email, this issue can receive the urgent awareness and attention it desperately needs.

To view this short 2 minute film / music video, please go to www.youtube.com/bryanwebermusic or click here.  This will give you a powerful visual introduction to mountaintop removal.

If you’d like to learn more about this issue and find out how you can break your State’s connection to mountaintop removal coal, please visit:  www.ilovemountains.org

Thank you for taking the time to watch my video and learn more about this important cause.

Please forward on to family and friends and share anyway you can.

Regards,

Bryan
Montclair, NJ


What is mountaintop removal? According to EarthJustice.org, Mountaintop removal coal mining, is an extremely destructive form of mining that is devastating Appalachia. Coal companies first raze an entire mountainside, ripping trees from the ground and clearing brush with huge tractors. This debris is then set ablaze as deep holes are dug for explosives. An explosive is poured into these holes and mountaintops are literally blown apart. In the past few decades, over 2,000 miles of streams and headwaters that provide drinking water for millions of Americans have been permanently buried and destroyed. An area the size of Delaware has been flattened. Local coal field communities routinely face devastating floods and adverse health effects. Natural habitats in some our country’s oldest forests are laid to waste.”
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Food Inc. — The Ethics of Eating

Film:

Food, Inc. 2008

Synopsis (from Netflix):

Drawing on Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, director Robert Kenner’s documentary explores the food industry’s detrimental effects on our health and environment. Kenner spotlights the men and women who are working to reform an industry rife with monopolies, questionable interpretations of laws and subsidies, political ties and rising rates of E. coli outbreaks.

My Thoughts:

First I would like to thank the reader who voted in the poll and suggested this film.  Secondly I would like to advocate that *everyone* watch this.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s on Netflix Instant.  Watch it now.  Ok, on with the post.

Robert Kenner begins this documentary saying that the food industry has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000 and that his hope in creating this documentary is to “pull the veil back” and show people how they are really eating and where there food had come from.

Remove the veil from their eyes, and enlighten their hearts with the light of guidance. —‘Abdu’l-Bahá

This is a veil that I myself have been pulling back slowly but surely over this past decade, and it is quite shocking and disheartening.  Our food industry has become so industrialized and so far removed from those consuming the food that it’s interests no longer match those of the consumers.

In this documentary there were several interviews with farmers and one shared some statements that I thought were pretty profound that I would like to share with you. First:

“Industrial food is not honest food.  It is not produced honestly.  It is not priced honestly.  There is nothing honest about industrial food”

As we know truthfulness is the foundation of all virtue, and without it there cannot be justice.  The industrial food system is so highly subsidized that the food can be sold below cost.  This puts pressure on both independent farmers, as well as farmers outside of the US who cannot compete because they don’t have these subsidies and can’t sell below cost.  Also, the cost to the environment is not factored in to these industrialized methods which are not as ecologically sound.  E Coli was not a problem before this system.  These hidden costs are dishonest.  The food industry also uses undocumented workers who they can pay cheaply, and treat poorly.  It is the workers who are punished if caught even if the industry purposely goes to Mexico to recruit them.  Chickens have been manipulated to grow three times as fast but in doing so their bones can’t support their weight so they can barely stand.  This is also unjust.  How can we treat people and animals so cruelly? As the farmer so aptly put it:

“A culture that just views a pig as a set of protoplasmic structures to be manipulated will probably view other people in its community, and the community of nations with the same controlling type mentality”

Or if you prefer Holy Writings:

Burden not an animal with more than it can bear. We, truly, have prohibited such treatment through a most binding interdiction in the Book. Be ye the embodiments of justice and fairness amidst all creation. ~Bahá’u’lláh

Eating food is something we do everyday, three times a day.  How can we do so with integrity?  With justice?  Over 100 years ago Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle and that changed our food industry for a time.  People demanded better regulation.  But that system broke down as the food industry became more powerful.  Also, the cheaply subsidized food is not the healthiest food, but instead commodity crops, and has led to the epidemic of obesity.  At the end of the documentary the filmmakers list several suggestions as to how we can work together as a society and as individuals within this society to combat this problem.  Here are three:

You can vote to change this system. Three times a day.

Buy from companies that treat workers, animals, and the environment with respect.

If you say grace, ask for food that will keep us, and the planet, healthy.

It is up to us.  We can be the change we want to see in the world.  Those who can afford to, to vote with our wallets and support ethically grown food.  Doing so is better for us, for our health, for the world, and for peace.

My friends have also posted a wonderful blog on the topic of ethical eating.  Check it out here.

Capitalism: A Love Story — The perils of greed and injustice

Film:Capitalism: A Love Story Movie Poster

Capitalism: A Love Story

Starring Michael Moore

Synopsis (From IMDB):

On the 20-year anniversary of his groundbreaking masterpiece Roger & Me, Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story comes home to the issue he’s been examining throughout his career: the disastrous impact of corporate dominance on the everyday lives of Americans (and by default, the rest of the world). But this time the culprit is much bigger than General Motors, and the crime scene far wider than Flint, Michigan. From Middle America, to the halls of power in Washington, to the global financial epicenter in Manhattan, Michael Moore will once again take film goers into uncharted territory. With both humor and outrage, Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story explores a taboo question: What is the price that America pays for its love of capitalism? Years ago, that love seemed so innocent. Today, however, the American dream is looking more like a nightmare as families pay the price with their jobs, their homes and their savings. Moore takes us into the homes of ordinary people whose lives have been turned upside down; and he goes looking for explanations in Washington, DC and elsewhere. What he finds are the all-too-familiar symptoms of a love affair gone astray: lies, abuse, betrayal…and 14,000 jobs being lost every day. Capitalism: A Love Story is both a culmination of Moore’s previous works and a look into what a more hopeful future could look like. It is Michael Moore’s ultimate quest to answer the question he’s posed throughout his illustrious filmmaking career: Who are we and why do we behave the way that we do?

My Thoughts:

I was a little skeptical going into this film because Michael Moore can be a bit of a bully in his films, but I really liked the message of this one.  Michael Moore looks at how capitalism enables greed and the accumulation of wealth into the hands of the few.  Really what this film is about is injustice.  There is a poignant part of the film in which there are protesters who were illegally laid off without notice or backpay and they were holding up signs that said “All religions promote justice”.    But I get ahead of myself.

Moore’s true critique comes in the deregulation of capitalism.  We have had this experiment for a while, but during the first half of the century regulations were put in place to cap greed and to put use wealth to help all of society.  The myth is that those who work hard will make more money, but Moore looked at airline pilots who were on food stamps and others who were clearly working hard but not getting by, versus those in the financial industry who capitalize off the labor of others without adding any value to that labor.

Moore is not criticizing rich people in general.  What he is criticizing is those who get rich at the expense of others, those who are willing to take 10 million dollar bonuses when there are others in their company who are either being laid off or working below the poverty line. And he is criticizing the poor for falling for the American Dream and allowing deregulation in hopes that one day they too will be rich.  And he is criticizing the government for putting the needs and interests of the richest 1% ahead of the rest of the citizens’ needs.

The problem is that with wealth should come responsibility.  There should be gratitude with having material means and stability, and there are some wealthy who practice the virtue of generosity and work to help the poor.

O YE RICH ONES ON EARTH! The poor in the midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease. ~Baha’u’llah

or if you prefer sterner language:

O CHILDREN OF DUST!  Tell the rich of the midnight sighing of the poor, lest heedlessness lead them into the path of destruction, and deprive them of the Tree of Wealth.  To give and be generous are attributes of Mine; well is it with him that adorneth himself with My virtues. ~Baha’u’llah

The problem is that poverty leads to instability.  Poverty leads to desperation and raised crime rates.  If we want peace we have to work on ending poverty, on creating jobs and protecting our poor over profits.

“The inordinate disparity between rich and poor, a source of acute suffering, keeps the world in a state of instability, virtually on the brink of war. Few societies have dealt effectively with this situation. The solution calls for the combined application of spiritual, moral and practical approaches. A fresh look at the problem is required, entailing consultation with experts from a wide spectrum of disciplines, devoid of economic and ideological polemics, and involving the people directly affected in the decisions that must urgently be made. It is an issue that is bound up not only with the necessity for eliminating extremes of wealth and poverty but also with those spiritual verities the understanding of which can produce a new universal attitude. Fostering such an attitude is itself a major part of the solution.”
(The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Oct, The Promise of World Peace, p. 3)

In the end this is how we will be judged and how Michael Moore already is judging the American society.  There was a time when we enacted a New Deal, when we championed a Great Society but that is no longer.  Instead the middle class is eroding and poverty rates are increasing as we deal with this economic crisis created by the greed of the financial industry and what is essentially legalized gambling (microtrading).

A democratic society is to be judged not by its success in catering to the needs of its privileged members or even its average ones. Instead, look at how it treats the poor, the disadvantaged, the ill – and the unpopular. ~ Lord Wolf, UK’s Chief Justice

Amistad — Discovering Truth

Film:

Amistad, 1997Amistad DVD Cover

Starring Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Morgan Freeman, Stellan Skarsgard, and Anthony Hopkins.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

Amistad is the name of a slave ship traveling from Cuba to the U.S. in 1839. It is carrying a cargo of Africans who have been sold into slavery in Cuba, taken on board, and chained in the cargo hold of the ship. As the ship is crossing from Cuba to the U.S., Cinque, who was a tribal leader in Africa, leads a mutiny and takes over the ship. They continue to sail, hoping to find help when they land. Instead, when they reach the United States, they are imprisoned as runaway slaves. They don’t speak a word of English, and it seems like they are doomed to die for killing their captors when an abolitionist lawyer decides to take their case, arguing that they were free citizens of another country and not slaves at all. The case finally gets to the Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams makes an impassioned and eloquent plea for their release.

My Thoughts:

This film touches upon many different ethical and spiritual themes. The film centers upon a slave revolt on the Spanish ship “La Amistad” and the subsequent court cases in the United States as the justice system tries to unweave the various crimes from their victims and perpetrators. As for spiritual themes, there is the obvious issue of slavery itself, and the injustice it represents, but there are some other more subtle themes interwoven into this larger one.  The Abolitionists, who serve as advocates for the slaves, are ardent Christians and see slavery as opposed to their faith.  Other Christians come and pray at the prison in which the West Africans are being held.  The faith of the West Africans themselves is in question, though they could be Muslim due to a few shots of them on the boat praying all together in one direction, potentially Mecca.
Throughout the film, each side begins to better understand the other.  At first the West Africans seem wild and violent to the Americans, and even their advocates are at time confused, frustrated, or fearful of their behavior.  The Americans are just as strange to the Africans who cannot understand their language, or customs, and are also confused to see freed American blacks dressed just like those of European heritage.  Throughout the film, the advocates strive to learn the language and to find a translator, and to better understand the West Africans so that they can better serve them.  The West Africans also learn more of the ways of the white people when they are given a Bible.  Through the pictures they see the suffering these people went through as well, and how they revere Christ as in every picture “the sun follows him”.

“When a man turns his face to God he finds sunshine everywhere.  All men are his brothers.  Let not conventionality cause you to seem cold and unsympathetic when you meet strange people from other countries… Let it be seen that you are filled with universal love.” ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

While this may seem over simplified or contrived, I think it is important to think about how people of different cultures learn about one another.  In this age of the Internet, and global tele-communications, it is much easier and more common to interact with people from different places, cultures, and backgrounds.  Two hundred years ago, while there was still cultural interaction for sure, mixing took effort and was not on equal footing.  It took months for ships to cross the ocean, and people were brought over under duress.  The effort of the abolitionists to truly understand the West Africans cannot be taken lightly.  It really was a sign of changing times.
Another interesting dilemma throughout the film was the issue of what was a “win” to the Abolitionists.  The property lawyer argued that he could get the West Africans acquitted for murder of the crew by claiming they were unlawfully acquired property, since in 1839 slaves were no longer supposed to be taken, but had to be born into slavery.  To the Abolitionists this was repugnant since the West Africans were just as human as they were and to use the language of property would be backward.  But what is most important? Noble ideas or action?  If this could save the West Africans from the death penalty, and could allow them to return to Africa is it ok?

“Some men and women glorify in their exalted thoughts, but if these thoughts never reach the plane of action they remain useless: the power of thought is dependent on its manifestation in deeds.” ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

In the end, after taking the case to the Supreme Court and getting a favorable verdict, one of the Christian Abolitionists argued that perhaps it would have been better for the greater Abolitionist cause had the West Africans been put to death, since martyrdom tended to motivate individuals to action and to fight for change.  He pointed to the example of Christ.  While this may be true, it disgusted the other Abolitionist, a freed slave himself, since life itself is sacred and it should be the goal to free these innocent people who were defending themselves, and not to seek the martyrdom of other people.
This film really caused me to grapple with our cultural heritage, as well as how far we’ve come.  The most progressive people in the 1839 case would probably seem pretty backwards now.  It was 5 years that the Báb came heralding in the new age and calling people to unity, and 11 years later that He Himself was martyred.  I can see how humanity so very much needed the message of love and unity He and Bahá’u’lláh after Him, championed.

“Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.  Deal ye one another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship.” ~ Bahá’u’lláh

The Women — Infidelity, Gossip, and Backbiting

Film:The Women Movie Poster/DVD Cover

The Women, 1939

Starring: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and Joan Fontaine

Synopsis (from NetFlix):

George Cukor directs an all-female cast in this catty tale about battling and bonding that was edgy for its time — and is considered the ultimate women’s movie of the 1930s. Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and other Hollywood leading ladies are among the array of husband-snatchers, snitches and lovelorn ladies who argue and gossip about each other at astonishing breakneck speed throughout the film.

My Thoughts (NO spoilers 🙂 ):

I’ve received some critiques regarding the length of my posts, so I am going to try to be brief and get to the ethical punch with this post and cut out the plot points and summary that could ruin it for those who haven’t seen the movie.  All plot issues I do discuss stem from what is seen in the first 5 minutes so do not worry.  I haven’t seen the remake, though I’d like to when it comes out on DVD, but I’m told that most of it is the same, except the ending due to the changes in US divorce law since 1939.

The first thing one would notice in this film is the fact that it is all women… 130 of them… and not a single male!  Even the animals in the movie are the female of the species.  Pretty cool.  That is, until you realize that none of these women are of exemplary character (except maybe Mary and her daughter).

From the very beginning gossip and backbiting are a huge theme of the film, and it is through witnessing how pervasive it is with this crowd that we can see just how damaging these behaviors are.  There was so much buzz around Mean Girls regarding this, but “frenemies” are nothing new.  It makes the following Hidden Word all the much more understandable:

O FRIEND! In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, and from the nightingale of affection and desire loosen not thy hold. Treasure the companionship of the righteous and eschew all fellowship with the ungodly.

It does not say to condemn or judge the ungodly, but merely warns against interacting with them, and this film surely echoes that.  Mary already had a heartbreaking issue to deal with, her husband’s infidelity, but this was compounded exponentially by The Women she interacted with.  While the problem would not have disappeared without the wagging tongues, it certainly would not have been magnified.  Mary would only have to deal with her husband’s betrayal, not the betrayal of her social companions, as well as their judgments and scorn.

O SON OF MAN! Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner. Shouldst thou transgress this command, accursed wouldst thou be, and to this I bear witness.

a.k.a. Don’t judge lest ye be judged…

Even Mary succumbs to the behavior of her peers but it really just serves to amplify others pain rather than to ameliorate her own.

Another issue in the film is how some of the characters treat marriage and love.  For Mary marriage was about love, but for many others it was about economics and financial security, or about a status symbol.  For some it was even a game, about what could be taken away from other women.  That vindictiveness serves nobody.  As for Stephen, though we never see him, we know he also confused lust for love in his interactions with Crystal.  Physical and spiritual love are two separate things, and unfortunately in English we are limited by the catch all term “love” that has so many meanings.

Marriage, among the mass of the people, is a physical bond, and this union can only be temporary, since it is foredoomed to a physical separation at the close.

Among the people of Bahá, however, marriage must be a union of the body and of the spirit as well, for here both husband and wife are aglow with the same wine, both are enamoured of the same matchless Face, both live and move through the same spirit, both are illumined by the same glory. This connection between them is a spiritual one, hence it is a bond that will abide forever. Likewise do they enjoy strong and lasting ties in the physical world as well, for if the marriage is based both on the spirit and the body, that union is a true one, hence it will endure. If, however, the bond is physical and nothing more, it is sure to be only temporary, and must inexorably end in separation.

~ `Abdu’l-Bahá

So what should we take away from the film?  That we need to be better than that, especially us women.  Even though it was Stephen who was unfaithful, the entire emphasis of the film was on the women.  Blame needs to be put where it is due, which is not simply on the “other woman” but on the man who made the choice to betray his marriage vows.
Also, our behavior, even if it seems like it is behind closed doors, is observed and commented on.  While each of us can and should control our own tongues, we cannot control the tongues of other people which is why our comportment is all the more important.  Mary learned this lesson when she succumbed to ill behavior, which was what the gossipers were waiting for.  It is hard to be held to such a high standard, but people notice both the good and the bad.  In fact, it was because Mary was so happy that Sylvia took so much delight in dismantling it in the first place.  That being said just because others are devious does not mean we shouldn’t strive to transcend that.

Your thoughts?

Slumdog Millionaire — Love Overcomes Adversity

Film:

Slumdog Millionaire, 2008

Starring Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, and Frieda Pinto

Synopsis (from Fox Searchlight Pictures):

The story of Jamal Malik (Patel), an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, who is about to experience the biggest day of his life. With the whole nation watching, he is just one question away from winning a staggering 20 million rupees on India’s “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” But when the show breaks for the night, police arrest him on suspicion of cheating; how could a street kid know so much? Desperate to prove his innocence, Jamal tells the story of his life in the slum where he and his brother grew up, of their adventures together on the road, of vicious encounters with local gangs, and of Latika (Pinto), the girl he loved and lost. Each chapter of his story reveals the key to the answer to one of the game show’s questions. Each chapter of Jamal’s increasingly layered story reveals where he learned the answers to the show’s seemingly impossible quizzes. But one question remains a mystery: what is this young man with no apparent desire for riches really doing on the game show? When the new day dawns and Jamal returns to answer the final question, the Inspector and sixty million viewers are about to find out. At the heart of its exuberant storytelling lies the intriguing question of how anyone comes to know the things they know about life and love.

My Thoughts (SPOILERS!):

My first thought is this- if you haven’t seen this movie, do it, now.  It is worth driving an hour to the nearest big city and going to an art-house theater, trust me.  Also if you haven’t seen this movie, I warn you, this post may have spoilers.  That being said if you want to continue reading I would be thrilled.

Now, onto the film.  There are many spiritual themes in the movie, including love, destiny, and the need for the elimnation of poverty.  The film focuses on the life of Jamal, a Muslim who grew up in the slums of Mumbai (may the city be in our thoughts and prayers due to the recent terrorism there).  We learn of his story through his participation in a game show, and how the answers to the questions relate to periods throughout his life.  Early on the film sets up the two major characters in Jamal’s life – his brother Salim, and his love Latika.

It is clear that he and his brother are tied together, two side of the same coin.  Their teacher refers to them as “Athos” and “Porthos”, two of the three musketeers, that is how close they are.  But, for how close they are they have radically different characters.  Jamal is younger, more idealistic, hopeful, as well as pure, whereas Salim is older, an inherent schemer and survivor.

Early on we see their characters diverge when Salim locks Jamal in the outhouse for taking too long and costing Salim a customer.  The biggest moviestar in India was landing in his private helicopter and Jamal is determined to see him, so he plunges through the hole to the vile muck below in order to escape.  Covered in human waste he rushes to the crowd and his commitment is rewarded with an autograph.  Jamal is ecstatic, but only briefly because Salim ends up stealing the prized signed photo and selling it for a buck. Devastated Jamal pleads to his mother, but there is nothing that can be done except to forgive his brother.

“Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.”  ~Bahá’u’lláh

Their dependence on one another is solidified when acts of violence erupt in their slum as radical Hindus attack them for being Muslims and their mother is killed in the fray. This moment is incredibly sad, and more so when one thinks of all the unnecessary strife between people of different faiths when each religion holds similar principles such as the sanctity of human life and the golden rule.  So often in the United States, especially post-9/11 we are shown the violence caused by radical Muslims, but I think this scene is incredibly important in showing that Muslims too can be victims of violence and persecution.  If only we could all take to heart that:

“The purpose of religion as revealed from the heaven of God’s holy Will is to establish unity and concord amongst the peoples of the world; make it not the cause of dissension and strife.” ~Bahá’u’lláh

Looking back at Jamal and Salim, the now orphaned brothers, only about 7 and 9 must depend on one another.  Salim, being the older brother, makes it clear that he must now be the leader and provider of the family.  To do this he must make the hard choices in order to protect Jamal.  This adds more depth to his character.  Now it is as if his sins are a way to keep Jamal pure, protecting him from having to make the morally ambiguous decision.

Enter Latika.  An orphan, like the boys, we first meet her standing in the rain.  The boys have found shelter, and Jamal wants to let her share, but Salim vetoes.  Again we see Jamal’s purity and inherent “goodness” and Salim’s view that survival means looking out for themselves.  In the end Latika is invited in when Salim is sleeping, and her friendship with Jamal is solidified.

The three frequent dumps where they can find scraps of food as well as rubbish to clean up and sell.  It is here that they are discovered by a man who runs an orphanage.  At first he seems like a savior, providing them food to eat, shelter, a place to sleep, and other kids to learn and play with.  However, it becomes clear there is a dark side to this seeming utopia as the kids are taught how to be more effective beggers through learning songs and holding babies.

Here it becomes even more evident that the extremes of wealth and poverty need to be eliminated, because these children have fallen through society’s cracks and are now being taken advantage of because they have no other options.  It is sad that so close there are wealthy neighborhoods where the crime bosses and moviestars live.

Salim who is obstinate and strong becomes the right-hand-child to the bosses, acting as a bouncer of sorts and keeping the other kids in line.  His ego is puffed up and he treats the other kids roughly, but all this changes when he is given an assignment, to bring a fellow orphan to the bosses.  The orphan sings a song he has been taught very well and is praised for it.  The boss says he is ready, and then chloroforms him, and proceeds to blind the child with a hot spoon.  This is because singing blind children make more money begging.  Salim wretches, unbelieving that these men would take away a child’s sight to make some extra money.  Even that is a line he can’t cross morally.

Then he is told to bring Jamal over.  He plays along, but his protection instincts are fully alerted.  He does not want Jamal to suffer the same fate, and so when the time comes to chloroform Jamal, Salim instead throws the bottle in the face of the man, grabs Jamal’s hand and runs.  Latika, watching from the bushes, runs with them.  They know they must escape or they will be beaten and probably blinded.

Soon the kidnappers catch up to them as the children are about to board a train.  Salim makes it up first, and pulls up Jamal.  Then it is Latika’s turn, but as Salim holds her he lets go.  Jamal is appalled, but Salim claimed it was Latika who let go and that she is strong and can fend for herself.  However, this is another instance where for Salim protecting himself and his brother is more important than anything else.  For him Latika was a sacrifice, a way of slowing down their pursuers.

The boys then spend the time on trains selling odd things, and stealing from passengers out of desperation.  Eventually they make it to the Taj Mahal where they realize they can make a lot of money out of gullible tourists who also have much guilt for not being able to help end the poverty they see all around them.  Yet another instance of how these extremes of wealth and poverty cause disunity, as the impoverished are so desperate and in need that they thieve and deceive the wealthy, foreign tourists, probably leaving them with a dislike of India as a whole.

Though out time Jamal convinces Salim to return to their native Mumbai and to get legitimate jobs at a restaurant and to look for Latika.  Salim makes it clear that he is placating Jamal, and that he likes this life they now have, preying on tourists.  He also reminds Jamal that of a city with tens of millions of people he is not likely to find Latika.  Again the character traits of idealism and hope on the one-hand, and cynical survivalism show through in these brothers.

Jamal runs into the blinded friend on the street singing, and gives him a US$100 bill he had stolen from a tourist at the Taj Mahal that he had been saving- partially out of penance, and partially to find information about Latika.  The blind boy tells him she is in the redlight district and goes by the name of Cherry.  Jamal is ecstatic and goes to tell Salim.

Together they go, and find her, about to have her virginity taken for a high price by an old man, and the Orphanage Boss is clearly now her pimp.  In order to save her, Salim brandishes a gun and kills the boss-man to the shock of all involved.  It is clear there is no going back.  The three “musketeers” reunited seek shelter in an abandoned hotel, where Latika tells Jamal she knew he would come back and save her.  Unfortunately Salim, drunk, and clearly destroyed from having killed for the first time, kicks Jamal out of the room and makes it clear that because he saved their lives and saved Latika from prostitution he deserved her virginity. Salim’s moral compass has now completely dissolved as he broke his brother’s heart and violated the girl he claimed to have saved.

When Jamal returns Latika and Salim are nowhere to be found.  Years pass and he is alone.  He makes his way in the world legitimately first in the restaurant, but finally as an assistant at a Phone Company.  It is here that he rediscovers his brother by finding his phone number in the directory.  He had first tried Latika but did not know her last name so she was impossible to find.

His brother is thrilled to take the call and sets up a time to meet.  Unlike Jamal, he has not gone the legitimate route.  He is now a thug for the biggest mob-boss, who he sought protection from for killing the smaller orphanage running crime-lord.  Jamal imagines throwing his brother off the building, and ends up punching him, the most violent action he has taken thus far.  His brother pleads for forgiveness and claims that he didn’t mean to abandon him but that he and Latika had to flee because the security guard for the hotel had come.  Jamal is still skeptical.  He asks about Latika, and his brother says to forget about her, that she is the property of the mob-boss now.

Jamal finds her anyway, posing as a dishwasher, and convinces Latika to run away with him.  However, their attempt is unsuccessful and she is recaptured and cut with a knife as punishment.  Jamal is devastated that he harmed Latika and when he finds that the mob-boss has moved fears he will never see her again.  That is why he sought out to be on “Who wants to be a Millionaire?” because he prayed she would be watching and that they would find each other again, even if he didn’t win the money (but if he did, he would use it to help her escape and provide a good life for her).

Unfortunately, because he was an uneducated slumdog, the producers of the show thought he must be cheating.  This is where the movie began, with him being tortured into telling them how, and it is where we are at the end, feeling bad for our honest hero who just happened to know the answers claiming it must be destiny.  Despite all the adversity he stuck to the truth, even if it meant a lot of torture.  However the thugs could see that he was being honest and convinced the producer to hear out his explanation before judging.

In the end our hero’s virtue is rewarded and he is reunited with Latika as well as won the $20 million, but not without the help and sacrifice of his brother.  Salim, upon seeing his brother on TV and seeing Latika’s hope, gives her his cell phone and helps her escape.  She wants him to come with her, but he refuses saying he will stay behind and stall.  He then takes all of the mob-bosses money and a gun, and fills the bathtub with it and hides out there.  When the boss discovers that Latika is missing he knows Salim is to blame and bursts into the bathroom which Salim had barricaded.  Salim procedes to shoot and kill him, but the Boss’s other goons kill him and as he bleeds he turns the cash into literal blood-money.  It is clear that this is both Salim’s last attempt to protect his brother, and his attempt at redemption to allow Latika and Jamal the happiness they deserve, and to make up for his betrayal of them both earlier in the film.

Jamal and Latika are unaware of this, and are reunited when Jamal uses his “Call a Friend” lifeline and calls Salim’s number, the only one he knows, and Latika is the one with the phone.  She desperately gets to the phone just in time but is of no help since she doesn’t know the answer.  It doesn’t matter though, because he has found her, and he puts it in fates hands as 60 million fellow Indians watch, hoping to see this literaly rags to riches story pan out.

It does, and the film ends with Latika and Jamal embracing at the train station, and then a Bollywood style dance number over the credits.

This film was incredibly heart-warming, and I could barely touch on all the spiritually potent content there was packed into the beautiful film full of hope, tragedy, and redemption.

Your thoughts?

National Treasure: Book of Secrets — The Great Search

Film:

National Treasure: Book of Secrets, 2007

Starring Nicolas Cage, Justin Bartha, Dianne Kruger, Ed Harris, Jon Voight, and Helen Mirren.

Synopsis (From NetFlix):

Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) and Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) — who found riches and romance at the end of their first hunt for national treasure — reteam with their wisecracking partner in crime, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), for another romp through U.S. history. Now, armed with a stack of long-lost pages from John Wilkes Booth’s diary, Ben is obsessed with finding the truth behind President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

My Thoughts (There be spoilers this way):

While this film is what you would expect from a big budget sequel to a knock-off of the Davinci code, because the main characters are heroes with a sense of mission and purpose there is actually a lot one can analyze about their choices and the virtues they exhibit, as well as the vices held by the ‘bad guys’.  I am going to ignore all the historical inconsistencies and anachronisms because this is a work of fiction after all, and focus on the metaphor and motivation behind the characters actions.

First off, Ben Gates is motivated to investigate the truth.  He wants to clear his great-great-grandfather’s name from being alleged a Lincoln Assassignation Co-conspiritor with John Wilkes Booth.  Even though in the end of the film a great cultural treasure is found that is not the motivation of Gates’ search.

There are many people throughout their lives who exhibit this quality of ‘seeking’ which the Gates family portrays.  We seek enlightenment, we seek belonging, we seek knowledge, we seek happiness.  Some people are more easily contented than others, and perhaps are not driven by this need to ‘find’ whatever it is they are driven to search for.  In Persia there is actually a famous story of Majnun (the name means crazy) who searches everywhere for his Beloved Layli.  Bahá’u’lláh counsels that:

” One must judge of search by the standard of the Majnún of Love. It is related that one day they came upon Majnún sifting the dust, and his tears flowing down. They said, “What doest thou?” He said, “I seek for Laylí.” They cried, “Alas for thee! Laylí is of pure spirit, and thou seekest her in the dust!” He said, “I seek her everywhere; haply somewhere I shall find her.” Yea, although to the wise it be shameful to seek the Lord of Lords in the dust, yet this betokeneth intense ardor in searching. “Whoso seeketh out a thing with zeal shall find it.” ”

I think the Gates’ purity of motive (to validate the truth) and follow wherever it leads (to Paris, London, The Library of Congress, or Mount Rushmore) is what enables them to find what they are looking for in the end.  The writers and producers may not have consciously intended the film to exhibit spiritual consequences, but in order to make a hero act like a hero he has to have those virtues praised for in the religious and philosophical texts that have shaped our world.  When Gates’ and crew actually find the City of Gold in the underground caves of the Black Hills of South Dakota, there are many tests of this purity.

At first there does not seem to be any gold, but just stone carvings in a large cavern.  Gates’, and his mother & father, are curiously trying to investigate, while Riley, Abigail, and Wilkinson (the ‘bad guy’ played by Ed Harris) are distracted by the only gold idol in the whole place.  As they approach it the floor shifts and they are propelled through a trap door into a potential pit of death.

“He is My true follower who, if he come to a valley of pure gold, will pass straight through it aloof as a cloud, and will neither turn back, nor pause.” ~ Bahá’u’lláh

Because the Gates’ Family had purity of motive they hadn’t fallen for the trap, whereas Wilkinson did not, and both Riley and Abigail were temporarily seduced by potential fame and fortune.  Luckily for them Ben Gates’ jumped into the trap with them in order to be of service.  He was willing to endure hardship in order to protect his friends and even his rival.

At this point they all land on a giant square slab.  They soon discover that this slab is balanced on a pinacle and that they must cooperate to balance otherwise they could all fall to their deaths.  Again another moral lesson. Cooperation is necessary in order to survive.

They soon find a ladder that is out of reach, and in order to reach it, they must manipulate the slab to tilt like a see-saw, at great risk to whomever is on the bottom end.  Wilkinson, realizing he is outnumbered and fearful of retribution, threatens everyones life by messing up the balance, insisting he must go first.  They heroes let him, and Ben, realizing that the math works out that somebody has to stay behind, offers to sacrifice himself so that the others will live.

Abigail won’t accept this, and instead finds a giant gold pillar and throws it onto the slab to counterbalance Ben’s weight so that he too can reach the ladder.  This gold pillar was probably worth millions, but Abigail didn’t give it a second thought learning her lesson about value.  By practicing the virtue of detachment she is able to reciprocate and save Ben’s life.

Detachment comes back later when the heroes, the bad guy, and the parents reunite in a drained, underwater palace.  There is no way out except by following where the water drains.  Ben’s father Patrick, without missing a beat, throws some dollar bills into the water to watch where the current takes them.  Sure, you may argue that to save your life you would be detached from riches too, but I think the lack of hesitation is admirable in both the case of the pillar and the money.  The heroes didn’t even pause long enough for the audience to realize what they were throwing away, indicating how purely they were driven by doing right by each other.

In the end, Ben again wants to sacrifice himself to save the others, but through freak circumstances Wilkinson is left in the position to make the sacrifice.  He laments that after all this he will not be able to get the recognition of discovering this massive archeological wonder and treasure city.  Ben assures him that he will tell the world, and does, despite the fact that Wilkinson tried to sully his great-great-grandfathers name.  Again, this shows Ben’s commitment to the truth.  Without Wilkinson’s help they would not have been able to find this place, and though Wilkinson was misguided (he could have just asked Gates to help him instead of motivating him by slandering his family name) he too made the right choice in the end.

Our hero had his flaws, and learned from his partners that his confidence was bordering on arrogance, and that he left others behind when he was mentally steps ahead of them in solving puzzles, but in the end he exhibited a pure commitment to the truth, and a realization of the downfalls of the ego, as well as the importance of cooperation, trust, persistence.

This may have seemed like a popcorn flick on the outside, but with open eyes I think it is not a stretch to see the moral choices and struggles these characters had to go through as well as to think about how we all can exhibit these qualities we revere in our heroes.