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Grief is how we feel – when a loss is a fact (watch the movie here)

Žal Žen (Grief / Sorrow)
Regissør: Andrea Culková

ECO FILM / Extinction Rebellion is a fast-growing protest movement. They are in favor of transforming the love of nature and the rage over politicians' passivity into collective action. But what about the political potential of grief?


NOTE! MODERN TIMES has been allowed to show the film, so it can be seen in September (password: GRIEFFILM)

In Pasadena, California, I recently attended a briefing on the climate organized by the Extinction Rebellion and learned that their main message is basic facts. Using figures and diagrams, local representatives summarize the climate future we are facing, and the grim statistics for the so-called sixth extinction – the ongoing mass extinction of species in the wake of human industrial society. This is knowledge of the kind that requires a reaction. The first principle of the Extinction Rebellion, "Tell the truth," is followed by the elegant and provocative second principle: "Act as if the truth is real." By discreetly alluding to climate denial, which is widespread on both a political and personal level, they thus go directly into the explosive emotional conflicts we all go through in the face of an impending climate catastrophe. Emotions are, after all, what must drive the changes we need – beyond pure expertise.

Emotions are, after all, what must drive the changes we need.

Among themselves, the participants in Extinction Rebellion often begin messages and e-mails with the greeting "with love and rage", which is also written before the opening titles of the Czech documentary Žal Žen – "Sorrow". In the opening scene of director Andrea Culkova's new film, a mother and daughter in the Czech Republic sit in front of a fire and talk about the environment. The mother talks to the camera about how the grief comes and goes, how it is even difficult to be faithful to it, since we have to protect ourselves from the melancholy. The daughter, who is less stubborn in her reactions, starts crying when she hears about the fires in Australia and asks about the koalas. "I do not want them to die," she exclaims, before exploding with a frustrated sensitivity to nature that has turned into grief, anger and prophetic desperation: "All the animals will die! All the people too! Everything will end! ” Her mother makes her cry. There is also nothing wrong with crying over the future in front of the children, says one of the women in the film, because there is nothing inappropriate about the reaction.

Solar nostalgia

I was amazed at the emphasis on grief and trauma at the XR event I visited in California. Grief is how we feel when a loss is recognized as a fact. Doesn't that also mean a kind of resignation? One answer could be that a large portion of grief is the price of loving nature in our time – and without such love there is no credible environmental movement. As this film demonstrates, grief can also create a community. Have not many societies throughout history been built on the recognition of a shared trauma or a common loss? At the same time, it is gathering people to provide an unusual and innovative strategy for a political movement.

Žal Žen is a portrait of activists, most of them women, who by processing their own environmental depression have also managed to turn the feeling of sadness into political action. Environmental grief, sometimes called solar nostalgia, is becoming a real and widespread phenomenon. From a psychological point of view, we are told that activism may ease depressive symptoms. In other words, working for change and expressing oneself is both a redemption and a form of therapy.

The art, activism and despair

Artists have long known this, and pain is a fully integrated stimulus for much artistic work. As the film expresses in abundance, art is also an important part of the public campaigns and demonstrations Extinction rebellion. Serious and theatrical performance elements: "die-ins" where people lie down in the streets herald the coming mass extinctions for us and other living beings; the quiet pantomime movements of the "red brigades" with their pale faces; the people standing under the gallows with ropes around their necks while standing on melting ice blocks.

In a more humorous tone, we meet in another scene people dressed in plastic bags invading a mall in a burlesque and ironically played-out celebration of the consumer society.

A way to experience life in our historical moment.

The intimate, almost private portraits of the activists at home and with the children all reproduce different nuances of devoting themselves to a cause. Identifying with the global environmental catastrophe is becoming a worldview, a way of experiencing life in our historic moment. Some activists go through heated discussions and heated conflicts with other family members. Some couples find a new energy in uniting in a common cause, while other couples are driven apart because they disagree about how serious the situation is – and end up feeling that they no longer live on the same plane.

Long clips are also dedicated to random people in the street who say that the whole uprising is misunderstood, exhibitionist and alarmist. This is how the story also gets two pages. We may recognize ourselves in the critics' perspective, but we can often see that they are prejudiced and uninformed. The film also makes no secret of the fact that the activists themselves are often full of doubt and feel disoriented. They despair that people do not understand the message, they feel powerless in the attempt to create real change and take on the challenge represented by the environmental situation.

The movement is characterized by a humble humanity, which the film beautifully depicts.

Can a message of grief and despair create a mass movement? Perhaps – when it becomes clear that grief springs from love, and that such love can trigger righteous indignation, which is the most important means of revolution. Despite the despair, the tone and style of the movement is characterized by a humble humanity, something the film beautifully depicts.

A global tribe

In my local XR collection, one of the speakers reminded us that you only need to engage 3,5 percent of the population to create a drastic societal change. Divided into groups, we were encouraged to talk about our own fears and worries, as well as about a place in nature we love. Eventually, we ended up bonding, and new friendships emerged.

This Czech film is about burning for something – what it means to take in an indigestible, incomprehensible and unmanageable truth and process it in common with the society it touches. It feels like being part of a tribal council – in a way that is rare in our time. The troubled tribe that discusses its problems in these small, improvised councils is not really the activists – but humanity as a whole.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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