Moving Beyond "Meh"

A Report from the Berlinale 2016. By Micah Bucey

So I just got back from twelve days in Berlin, where I served on the 25th Ecumenical Jury for the 66th Berlin International Film Festival, which is affectionately called “The Berlinale” over in Germany. It was a hopefully-not-just-once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it still felt like a once-in-a-lifetime-experience, and I’m entertaining so many different emotions as I emerge, bleary-eyed, from watching and judging over 40 films and attempt to dive back into real life, outside the shadowy fantasy of the cinematheque. Thankfully, my emotional return to New York has coincided with Facebook releasing five new ways to e-emote oneself with what they call, “Reactions,” so I don’t have to just say I “Like”d my time in Berlin, but I can also feel “Love,” “Angry,” “Sad,” “Wow,” and my personal favorite, “Haha.”

If you are a Facebook user, you already know what I’m talking about. If you’re not a Facebook user, God bless you; I’ll try to be concise. For years, users of the world’s most popular social media platform have had the option to either leave a “Comment” on anything that their friends have posted, or to simply hit a little button that looks a lot like a “Thumbs Up” to say that they “Like”d the post. But according to Facebook, the majority of their users now primarily access Facebook on mobile devices and typing out nuanced responses on a tiny screen just takes too much time and effort. Users need a way to leave feedback that is quicker, easier, and what Facebook calls “gesture-based,” and “Like” wasn’t offering enough options. So Facebook has generously expanded our collective reactionary powers to include five more appropriately-vague emotive possibilities. And I still haven’t figured out how to appropriately use a single one of them.

Thank God my own beloved mobile device didn’t get service in most of the theaters I frequented during the Berlinale. Because I’m as addicted to clicking little buttons as anyone else.

I spent the last two weeks away from the comforting simplicity of Facebook. Instead, I was invited to engage with the reality right in front of me, “Comment”ing in ways that were far more nuanced and time-consuming than anything I’ve ever typed online. Here’s how it worked: The Ecumenical Jury is put together by two faith-based, film-focused organizations who place juries at all three of the major film festivals of the world, Cannes, Venice, and Berlin, and also at various smaller festivals. Though the backing organizations are Christian, jury members are not necessarily clergy people. In fact, my jury consisted of six eclectic folks, a German photographer, a French economist, a German journalist, an Australian film critic, a French film studies professor, and little American minister me, all tasked with viewing dozens of entries in the Berlinale, judging them, and awarding prizes to “films of directors who have shown genuine artistic talent and succeed in expressing actions of human experiences that comply with the Gospel, or in sensitizing viewers to spiritual, human or social questions and values.”

No big deal.

But the thing is, the Berlinale isn’t a faith-based film festival. It’s a regular-old, secular, big-time film festival, and the films didn’t make it easy for our “Gospel-interested” jury to judge their value. Instead, we had to view the films and suss out their worth together, democratically, with some tension here and there, with some aesthetic differences apparent, and with a mutual agreement to not leave the table until we could convince ourselves and one another which films most ably expanded our understandings of our own cryptic criteria. On top of this, one of the other magical things about the Berlinale is that, unlike Cannes, which is a closed, private festival for the elite-and-invited, the Berlinale is public and attended by thousands, all clamoring to watch films and talk about them on every street corner. It’s a populist, democratic delight. You can’t escape a random critical conversation with someone random, even if you try. One of my thoughtful colleagues likened the festival to a modern-day Pentecost, with countless films descending on the city in countless different languages, telling stories from countless different cultures and being absorbed, discussed, and critiqued in countless languages.

Now, I see a lot of movies, see a lot of theatre, listen to a lot of music, visit a lot of galleries, read a lot of books, and, often, because I don’t normally serve on a lot of juries, my responses to the art I encounter doesn’t have to delve deeper than a quick button click. Even as I dismiss the silliness of one-word, one-click “Reactions,” my real-life reactions don’t have to move beyond a similar kind of easy, serene surface. I seek nourishment, I want to be fed like I’m at a four-star restaurant, but I treat the meals on offer like I’m scarfing down a quick lunch at McDonald’s. I say I want vitamin-rich nutrients, but I really just want to fill up on calories. I want the good stuff now, or I’m going to move on. So, even when I “Like” something, my “Thumbs Up” is often really no more than a “Meh. Moving on.”

But, at the Berlinale, we couldn’t do that. True, we had to see four to six films a day. True, my last film of each day usually let out after midnight and I only had a few hours to sleep before I had to wake up and get myself to the next day’s first 9am screening. True, I woke up most mornings in that state of teary disbelief that I was not going to lie down again for another 20 hours. It was exhaustingly exhilarating. But, to add to the exhaustion, in between all of this film-watching, our jury had to constantly be checking in with one another, reporting our reactions, feelings, emotions, “Wow”s and “Haha”s. We often agreed, but we often disagreed. And we had to sit at a table together, knowing that it was our job, our imperative, to find only a few films that could go home with our prizes.

This meant making hard decisions, but, more importantly, it meant I approached the table with my own opinions and had to leave those opinions open to nuancing. This might sound trite, but there’s nothing trite about it when you’ve got six very opinionated, very articulate, and very eager cinephiles at a table together. There’s nothing trite about saying, “We cannot leave this table until we have come to a consensus, or at least have a majority.” Movies are serious business, people. And having someone completely and articulately tear down the film that you loved and then ending up sort-of-kind-of-frustratingly-agreeing with him, is absolutely maddening. Movies are maddening business.

But what made all of this gentle frustration worth it was the fact that, with each head-butt of crusty criticism, we, individually and collectively, were saying, “This matters. Art matters. Critical conversation matters. Convincing and changing and critiquing and judging and deciding matters. And the fact that all of this matters means that life matters.” No film slipped through the cracks without mention and at least a moment of conversation. No film was judged fruitless and cut down without first being examined with interested eyes. And, in doing this, in paying attention, each of us was affirming that we also wouldn’t judge one another without serious consideration.

I spend most of my time promoting the idea that anything in the world can have theological significance, if we will give it a moment. But I’ve never been invited to live this notion, for two weeks, every moment of every day. The hypothesis really gets put to the test. But I’m not espousing a simple and soggy acceptance of everything that comes down the pike. I’m talking about something as complicated as what Jesus suggests in today’s Ancient Testimony parable. He’s responding to a question about Pilate, foreshadowing the violent way that Pilate will cut Jesus himself down later on in the story. In Jesus’ response, a man wants his gardener to cut down a currently-fruitless tree and the gardener asks him to wait. But the moral of the story isn’t that the tree won’t eventually get cut down. The moral of the story is to give it a moment, just to see what happens, to step beyond the initial, “Meh,” and put a little work into it. Because, at the root of it all, we’re the fig trees, barren, misshapen, and a little bit ugly. But we’re not useless. And I think we all could use a jury that’s been tasked with approaching our own growth through the lens of a generous Gospel, searching sincerely for our beauty, for our gifts, for our best selves, and giving us a moment to become.

“Criticism” gets a bad rap in art culture, but criticism isn’t inherently snarky. Articulating our own criticism invites us to clarify not only our aesthetics, but our entire evolving worldview. Engaging the criticism of others invites us to reevaluate, to reengage, and to reinvigorate. Doing both invites us to move beyond the easy emoticons of our own opinions, to appreciate and explore the opinions of others, and to intelligently approach question-asking as an eclectic-but-jovial jury.

This is not easy. Joviality isn’t always on the menu. Sometimes your colleagues refuse to look at your nominee, questioning your right to offer up your opinion, even when you’ve been elected to offer up your opinion. Our current U.S. Senate could take a lesson from Jesus and from this year’s Berlinale Ecumenical Jury. Jesus isn’t interested in easy acceptance. He’s interested in the struggle. And he’s interested in the possibility of repentance, of complete and utter transformation of life. And, not to get too grandiose, but I think our jury was as well.

“Repentance” gets as bad a rap in our postmodern culture as “criticism” does, but the word really means “to turn,” “to question the path you were using, the road you were so sure of, to turn and move in a new direction, to trust a different point of view.” And where do we get more examples and possibilities for changing our point of view than in encountering art, judging our own reactions to it, listening to other responses to it, and mixing them all together, allowing something new to take shape?

My favorite personal moment at this year’s Berlinale happened at 7:30am, midway through the week, between myself and a straight European man several decades older than me. We had both seen a film in which two gay men, one HIV-positive and one negative, meet in a Paris sex club and proceed to have a risky encounter during an orgy that then leads them to a late-night trip to the ER for antiretroviral drugs. As they obtain the first dose and await the morning, when the long, scary 28-day waiting period will begin, they begin to quietly fall in love.

This was my favorite film at the festival and it won the queer Audience Favorite Award. Though it didn’t win an Ecumenical prize, it caused me to have an edifying conversation with this man who said, “Meh. If that movie were about a man and a woman, no one would give it a second thought.” I immediately bristled and declared the film an important triumph, not only because it’s beautifully-made and beautifully-acted, but also because the film, for many reasons, could not have even existed fifteen years ago. He responded with tons of questions about HIV and the U.S. and I responded with tons of questions about his country and, basically, about straight people. And, finally, he said, “You really like this movie. I like that.”

And I liked that.

And we changed. I still loved the movie. He still kind of was OK with the movie. But we refused to cut the tree down until we had searched its branches for fruit. That was our job, it was our imperative, and it still can be, even as the bright lights dim and the festival carpets are rolled up. Little buttons can start the conversation, but pushing one another’s buttons is one of the added layers that art and life offer us. Engaging the buttons further is actually what makes life into an art. Stepping away from the conversation leaves a “Meh” where some fruit might have grown. The Gospel calls us to not give up on others and to not give up on ourselves, because the fruit grows and stays sweetest somewhere in-between.


Let us pray:

God of fruits and waiting periods,

Hold us as we hold one another.

Give us second chances and vision to see those chances when they come.



For Your Meditation:

“Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched -  criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led - this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society.”
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk


Ancient Testimony, Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”


Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”


Modern Testimony, from Better Living Through Criticism by A. O. Scott

“Anti-intellectualism is virtually our civic religion. ‘Critical thinking’ may be a ubiquitous educational slogan—a vaguely defined skill we hope our children pick up on the way to adulthood—but the rewards for not using your intelligence are immediate and abundant.


As consumers of culture, we are lulled into passivity or, at best, prodded toward a state of pseudo-semi-self-awareness, encouraged toward either the defensive group identity of fanhood or a shallow, half-ironic eclecticism. Meanwhile, as citizens of the political commonwealth, we are conscripted into a polarized climate of ideological belligerence in which bluster too often substitutes for argument.


There is no room for doubt and little time for reflection as we find ourselves buffeted by a barrage of sensations and a flood of opinion. We can fantasize about slowing down or opting out, but ultimately we must learn to live in the world as we find it and to see it as clearly as we can. This is no simple task. It is easier to seek out the comforts of groupthink, prejudice, and ignorance. Resisting those temptations requires vigilance, discipline, and curiosity.”


Special Music, “A Hymn for Matins” by Jeff Turrentine

Of my treacheries and treasons
There’s not time enough for telling
And although I had my reasons
I’m sure you’d find them uncompelling
There’s a ledger up in heaven that is heavy with the record of my sin
But every morning I wake up to find you there
And you let me try again

Jesus called for his disciples
And he said “Boys, you’d better hurry.
All these cowboys with their Bibles
Have got me more than slightly worried.
When I told them ‘Turn the other cheek’
I meant ‘Learn to take it on the goddamn chin.'
But the gospel, it got garbled,
Now I'm afraid I’m gonna have to try again”

All things bright and beautiful
All creatures great and small
All people proud and pitiful
We flail, we fail, we fall

First we walk and then we run
And, baby, then we stumble
Let’s spread our wings up toward the sun
And together we can tumble
And if you don’t believe in miracles
Well, let's just say that that makes two of us, my friend
But ain’t it something like a miracle