This Is Not a Good News Story
On Saturday, I saw Agnieszka Holland’s new film Spoor at the New York Film Festival and felt—for almost the duration—pretty rah-rah for the central character, Janina Duszejko, a passionate advocate for animals and practitioner of astrology who lives alone in the woods, a literally marginalized figure in the Polish community the film portrays.
Duszejko is staunchly, it would seem, on the side of the oppressed. She forms a kind of queer family, over the course of the film, with other social outcasts—a self-possessed entomologist, a traumatized and lonely neighbor, a sex worker named “Good News,” an epileptic computer programmer with a minimalist home. She is a lover and defender of animals in a community of poachers. The town’s mayor, police chief, priest, and other “leaders” are all men who hunt wastefully and illegally for sport. They also drink to excess, abuse their wives, and frequent an underground sex ring where the women are made to wear Playboy Bunny costumes.
I saw Spoor the weekend after Hugh Hefner’s death, which occasioned a lot of conversation about his “body of work.” He was “an American icon who promoted black artists, writers and athletes, tackled social issues like segregation and advocated for the LGBT community,” Ray Sanchez wrote for CNN. He also handed out Quaaludes and obligated women to group sex, Holly Madison shared in a BuzzFeed News article that received significant online recirculation. Writing off Madison’s description as “tell-all” pulp—or vindictive retaliation—might speak to the credence we give to different media publications (CNN vs. BuzzFeed, for example). But that response is almost certainly gendered, as well, in the characterization of women as vengeful, hyperbolic, and hysterical.
The men of Spoor treat Duszejko likewise. As she raises the pitch of her protest—from merely reporting off-season hunting in letters to dumping animal parts on the police chief’s desk—she becomes more and more the object of ridicule. The film raises questions of what “legitimate” activism is, or whether activism can ever be conceived of as legitimate, since it is predicated on a disruptive rejection of normalized violence and oppression—work which often requires standing alone. When are so-called legitimate avenues of activism (letter-writing, engagement with the law) insufficient? When, if ever, is violence justified? What constitutes what we call violence?
What gets coded as what, and how, seems an almost week-to-week question posed in our media and discourse. Was the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas a “lone wolf” attack or domestic terrorism? When NFL players kneel during the national anthem, is it an act of solidarity or disrespect? There are tangible consequences to the language and narratives we use for these kinds of moments.
How we tell the story of a disaster, for example. In the week following Hurricane Maria, online activism played out to real effect. Media coverage of the life-threatening situation in Puerto Rico was happening, but as the Columbia Journalism Review has pointed out, a number of factors rendered this reporting inadequate—limited visual coverage, the failure to give this crisis top billing, and the fact that nearly half of Americans don’t acknowledge Puerto Ricans as fellow citizens.
Individuals on social media rejected the media silence, putting on the pressure for material attention and engagement. The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, has become a highly visible and widely heard critic of the administration’s response, calling out the portrayal by Elaine Duke, acting secretary of homeland defense, that this is a “good news story.” When the president commented on Twitter that “They want everything done for them,” his critics responded with images of Cruz comforting victims and navigating floodwaters with a bullhorn.
At the book release I attended for sam sax’s remarkably heated Madness, the poet Patricia Smith drew an implied comparison to the media coverage and lackluster government response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, reading a poem in more than 40 parts from her collection Blood Dazzler.
8. When help comes, it will be young men smelling like cigarettes and Chevys…to save us they will rub our gums with hard bread. They will offer us water…
10. I’m cold and I’m strapped to this country…
20. I have forgotten how to pray, cannot find my knees … I want somebody’s hand
The voices in these poems form a defiant chorus, a community of personae resoundingly opposed to marginalization and silence. Smith and sax both do careful work to bring forward narratives and experiences which in various ways have been swept under the rug— Smith, in Blood Dazzler, articulating the massive scale of abandonment in New Orleans; sax, in Madness, writing against prevailing notions of illness, addiction, medical treatment, and recovery.
Both poets—like Holland in her films, and in Spoor especially—demonstrate the damage inflicted by false feel-good narratives, pointing out the realities of ignored destruction, obstacles to food and water, and inadequate state-provided care. This is not comforting or neatly resolved work. It’s work that insists on our attention to what we are neglecting.