DOXA 2012: An Encounter With Simone Weil reveals a variety of struggles
An Encounter With Simone Weil (USA)
If you were looking for an iconic writer to become obsessed with, you could certainly find one less elusive, difficult, and personally demanding than the French philosopher Simone Weil. And filmmaker Julia Haslett is nothing short of obsessed, as she shows in this occasionally frustrating, ultimately moving exploration.
Weil, who died in 1943 at the age of 34, was altruistic to the point of self-harm. Theory meant nothing to her if it didn’t stir action against oppression and brutality, whether political or economic. (In the mechanized industries of the day, she wrote, “Things play the role of men, men the role of things. There lies the root of evil.”) Her quest to respond to suffering led her away from a comfortable existence and into gruelling factory work, battle against fascists in the Spanish Civil War, and, near the end of her short life, a form of mysticism.
In Weil’s thought and example, Haslett sees hope against her own torments, most of which are caused by the current of mental illness that runs through her family. She chases Weil’s phantom from city to city, interviewing scholars, philosophers, and the writer’s aged relatives, all in an effort to “sit across from her and ask my questions”. But when Weil refuses to appear at the séances, Haslett resorts to creating a living mock-up to interrogate—dressing up a young actor with prop glasses and cigarette and having a series of bizarrely stilted conversations with her about Life.
These scenes are hard to watch, partly because of their clunkiness, but mostly because of Haslett’s raw need. Still, as the depth of that need is revealed in the director’s struggles not only with her brother’s clinical depression but with the “sham” of American politics during the Bush years, the real-world power of Weil’s legacy shines through.
DOXA presents An Encounter With Simone Weil on May 10 at 3:45 p.m. at Pacific Cinémathèque.
Watch the trailer for An Encounter With Simone Weil.