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Peter Sellars's "California Uber Alles" speech at SFIFF :: Speech also about art, democracy, Mozart, and hope in cinema

As the Dead Kennedy's once criticized California by alluding to Nazi Germany, so does renowned theater director Peter Sellars in this long and very interesting speech re: art, the role of the artist in a democracy, culture and its relationship to the well being of the nation and other important ideas. The speech - The State of the Cinema address, was given at the San Francisco International Film Festival on 4/29/07. Here is a portion where Sellars talks about Nazi Germany, the last days of the Roman empire and its treatment of an honest man - a philosopher. Also about the value of digital age storytelling (transcript at SF360):

"So, state of the state. All of those groups who say, "Why were the German people silent?" And now I have to ask, "Why are the American people silent?" The German people were told that this other set of people were just not human beings, so it didn't matter what happened to them: "Pay no attention as these people just suddenly disappear. As this apartment is suddenly empty. As this job is suddenly available. They're illegal people; they do not have the right to be here. And they need to learn the value of work."

To watch all of this ideology be resurgent in this day is pretty heavy duty. I have to say, for me, I'm constantly searching as an artist for how we respond. One of my favorite stories and one of my favorite texts is -- I don't know how many people here know Boethius's "Consolation of Philosophy." From the sixth century, late Roman Empire, when the Roman Empire was at the end of the line, one of the last Roman emperors was Theodoric, a Goth, and things were so corrupt and so disastrous, they said, "We need to at least lift the tone a little bit here. Let's hire a major philosopher to be chief of staff and let's get some integrity back into the administration." So they hired a man named Boethius, who was a great philosopher, who actually wrote beautiful six books on the philosophy of music, based on Pythagorean principles of harmony in the universe. And they invited this man to be chief of staff for one of the last Roman emperors. He, of course, like any of us would, says, "Oh, my goodness! They're asking me. They want a philosopher, they want a wise person. How beautiful." So he showed up at the office, and soon enough began to say, "Oh, you cannot take these people's homes away from them. That would not be fair. It's not just." And he starts to be very mean to have around the office because he can't get anything done. The guy has integrity. So, they eventually have had enough, and they frame him and put him away in a dungeon where he lives the last five years of his life in a subterranean chamber with all sensory deprivation. Like a supermax at Pelican Bay. After a while, it's just too annoying that he's still alive, so they go in with big clubs and they just beat him to death, and turned him into putty on the floor. And then they don't have to worry about him any more, because he saw too many things. In these five years, when he was buried alive -- I don't know how; on toilet paper or what -- he wrote a manuscript. A manuscript called "Consolation of Philosophy." The manuscript is the story of him sitting in his cell and then a woman walking through the walls of the cell and singing to him about the nature of justice. And they would sing songs to each other through the night in this subterranean cell. So, of course, I'm right now working on a new version of "Consolation of Philosophy" for the state of California.
My favorite part of the story is that, five centuries after this man was eliminated and silenced, "Consolation of Philosophy" was the most copied manuscript of the Middle Ages. At a time when there was no publishing industry, and if you wanted to have a text, you had to copy it out yourself by hand, it was the most copied text. And now, 15 centuries later, it is the only text written in the entire sixth century that you can get in paperback in an airport. I really love that! Which brings us to the digital age and the stories that no one thought you would ever be told. And the access that you never thought you would have to certain communities. And the communities that were actually going to live, be silenced and never heard from again by the rest of humanity are actually the stories now that we're all looking for, gravitating towards. And the stories that actually have the life force that we're so thirsty for. And that we're hungering after."

And later, after talking about the value of Mozart's career and ideas that animated the creation of the United States, Sellars talks about a film about Khemer Rouge Cambodia and he also talks about contemporary US:

"The survivors ask the guards, "What were you thinking? How could you do this?" Those answers are overwhelming. In all of human history, it's one of the most overwhelming documents. "S21" -- it's an overwhelming film -- which gets us to something we don't normally feel we can do, which gets us to a type of bearing witness, a type of embodying history, recognizing history, processing history and craving a space for a future that only film can accomplish. And places us not at arm's length from history, but quite the opposite: right in the heart of it. And invites us to place ourselves in the place where you have to make the hardest decisions of your life.

As Americans, actually, we are in that place right now. It's just that the commercial culture around us conspires to never make you think that that's really where we are. That the decisions that are in front of us every day have this type of weight. And that the body count and the devastation. On our watch, world poverty has tripled. Tripled. Fifteen hundred years from now, they'll be saying, "What were those people thinking? Did they not notice? How could they not know? How could they not see? How could they not deal. It's unthinkable. What were they looking at? What were they talking about? What was so important for them?"

And even later, on cinema and its relationship with hope for a better world:

"Cinema is part of a new possibility of hope. Cinema is part of gathering in small groups and reinforcing a sense of where we're coming from, but also where we're going. And what it means to hold the images in front of us to say, "We're not there yet, but it's where we're going, so let's not stop here. Let's keep going there." That idealism is actually what art was invented to do. To hold in front of you something that you aspire to."

Read the full speech here, at SF360. Read it twice or more.

Thanks Hell on Frisco Bay for the link.

- Sujewa


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