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Commentary: "The Will To Live"

By Mark Ashwill

Buffalo, NY – On a recent Sunday afternoon, I drove to the post office to check the box of USIEF, my small non-profit organization. I found what I was looking for in the form of a documentary that I had seen in my mind's eye and heard in my dreams entitled The Will to Live: A Notebook About Love, Hate and Reconciliation by the Danish filmmaker, Anne-Gyrithe Bonne.

Bonne, whom I met early last year while she was filming in New York, speaks of "black periods'" in her life and her desire to meet people who have conquered their pain and survived, people who have suffered brutal oppression and tragic loss but who, instead of harboring hate and seeking vengeance, have worked toward reconciliation with their oppressors.

While she engages a range of people, from recovering drug addicts in South Africa to cab drivers in New York City, the film revolves around Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, prominent human rights activist and medical doctor Juan Almendares of Honduras, and Chanrithy Him, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide and the award-winning author of When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge.

In the filmmaker's words, "the idea behind The Will to Live is to document the way in which dignity and strength, universal human qualities, can develop in the midst of the most terrible mistreatment or persecution The three main subjects possess those qualities of human hope and enlightenment that we wish to portray in this film."

Bonne is looking for answers to such fundamental and universal questions as "what is love?," "how do you define hate?" and "how do you forgive your oppressors and tormentors?" The answers she receives mirror different communities' differing perceptions of love, hate, and reconciliation, and enable us, the viewer, to explore the possibilities of forgiveness.

And, yes, there are answers from people who know of what they speak, who know what it is like to be starving to death, to lie awake at night, their minds swimming with visions of death and dying, who wonder whether the noise outside heralds the arrival of the Grim Reaper in human form, who have been to Hell and back, who continue to be traumatized by past brutalities, yet who have learned how to forgive and free themselves from the hatred that smolders in so many of our hearts and minds.

Bonne tackles these towering existential issues, grist for many a poem, ethics course, and political speech, with grace and skill by letting her subjects and their surroundings speak for themselves. Questions are answered by example, by contrast, or by words - by what is said and by what is left unsaid. The film naturally leaves many questions unanswered, while raising new ones.

Her sparse yet eloquent narration, combined with the masterful use of painstakingly selected video, still images, and archived material, hauntingly beautiful music, and the use of paraphrased English subtitles, serves to amplify the effect of the messages that form a sort of collective wisdom. The filmmaker herself is not the Sun around which the Planets revolve but the humble messenger who invites us to accompany her on this moving, thought-provoking and uplifting personal journey that coincidentally and poignantly unfolds against the backdrop of 9/11.

The Will to Live is a 59-minute cinematic and artistic tour de force that is intensely personal yet speaks to all of us in profound ways about the human condition and the paths that we as individuals and nations choose - for better and for worse.

Mark Ashwill is director of the World Languages Program and Fulbright Program Adviser at UB. He is also executive director of the U.S.-Indochina Educational Foundation, Inc. (USIEF).

Members of the western New York and southern Ontario community are invited to attend the U.S. premiere of The Will To Live: A Notebook About Love, Hate and Reconciliation on Thursday, November 20th at 7 p.m. in the Screening Room of the Center for the Arts on the University at Buffalo's North Campus. Both Anne-Gyrithe Bonne and Chanrithy Him, who was in Buffalo three years ago to talk about her memoir, will be there to discuss the film.