Politics of the Unseen

October 30, 2019
The Great Hack
The Great Hack. Photo: Netflix

Terry Tempest Williams, HDS’s writer-in-residence, and film producer Geralyn White Dreyfous have curated a special film series that is open to the Harvard community as well as the general public, and includes the chance for audience members to engage in discussion with directors, producers, and subjects of the films.

The film series, “The Politics of the Unseen: Exploring the Moral Imagination,” includes screenings of The Great Hack, The Two Popes, The Biggest Little Farm, Us Kids: We Call BS, and Harriet. The films focus on issues of social and racial justice, ethics of data collection and its impact on free elections, moral leadership, gun violence, and dreams of farming and caring for the land—all of which at their core are spiritual issues, say Williams and Dreyfous.

Each of these films are stories about how nothing is as it appears, how courage matters, how failure can create reflection, and how the world can change. Participants will discuss the role of the moral imagination in addressing these concerns, examining how film contributes to our understanding of societal change and how we as a community might engage more fully in movement-building rooted in creativity and compassion.

Among those who will be speaking after the films are journalist Carole Cadwalladr from The Guardian, producers Debra Martin Chase, Jonathan Eirich and Laurie David, director Kim Snyder, the Rev. Gloria White Hammond, Swartz Resident Practitioner in Ministry Studies at HDS, David Hogg, Harvard student and March For Our Lives founder, and Bria Smith, Emerson student and March For Our Lives board member.

Dreyfous founded Impact Partners Film Fund, which is dedicated to documentary storytelling that “engages with pressing social issues.” Williams’s new book Erosion: Essays of Undoing was just named as one of the 10 books to read in October by the Washington Post.

Below, Williams and Dreyfous discuss the film series and how the spiritual dimensions of the films.

Harvard Divinity School: The title for this film series is “The Politics of the Unseen.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

Terry Tempest Williams: Last year, when writers Richard Powers and Robin Wall Kimmerer came to visit Harvard, a conversation ensued about this moment in time. What is required of us to keep "the open space of democracy" open? Dean Robin Kelsey, [Dean of Arts and Humanities and Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography in the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard], said, "We must expose and interrogate the politics of the unseen." This phrase struck me as being at the heart of the matter.

The power of storytelling be it a novel, an essay, a photograph, or a film can expose that which has been hidden. The politics of the unseen is witnessed in The Great Hack as we see Cambridge Analytica knowingly influence political campaigns throughout the world through the manipulation of millions of pieces of personal data into fabricated ads and stories.

The politics of the unseen are the private conversations that take place behind closed doors and manifest in public policy in government, the academy, or the Catholic Church as seen in The Two Popes.

The politics of the unseen can also be extended metaphorically to the mycelium network of mushrooms that thrive underground and regenerate depleted soil. Why we fail to have sound gun laws to protect our communities is another example of the politics of the unseen, what the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School fought to expose—the disproportionate power of the NRA on members of the United States Congress.

Each of the films we are showing are emblematic of what has been hidden that must now be exposed, including the beauty and integrity of the living world as exemplified in The Biggest Little Farm.

Geralyn White Dreyfous: Terry always evokes a prescient feeling in her writing. When she named this course, it felt right to me. Having just finished The Great Hack, we are living in a world that increasingly is not as it seems. I also know from teaching and studying with Dr. Robert Coles at Harvard that documentary film making is field-based learning. The field informs and reveals the politics of the unseen. Another way of saying that is—the story behind the story. And the politics reveal themselves pretty personally and politically. But on a spiritual level, it resonated as well. How do we navigate the unknown? What if the unseen reveals itself through story—do we look the other way? Do we give language to what we see?

HDS: Terry, how do you see this series intersecting with your work as an activist and writer, particularly with your new book Erosion: Essays of Undoing?

TTW: “The Politics of the Unseen” asks us to look more deeply into our private and public lives. When we have the time to reflect on what is happening within us and outside us, we can begin to respond in a more meaningful and authentic way. Awareness is power. Each film heightens our awareness to a particular issue through story. Art shows us nothing is as it appears. By focusing on the what is in any given situation, we can delve more fully into what we want the world to be. We are inspired to act with the gifts that are ours.

I see no difference in my life as a writer, an activist, a teacher, or a citizen. It is a life engaged. Engagement is a prayer.

We are eroding and evolving together. Our task is to find the strength individually and collectively, to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts.

We hope this film series will inform, strengthen, and inspire our community.

HDS: Geralyn, your company is dedicated to documentary storytelling that “engages with pressing social issues.” How do the films in this series speak to your mission? Why is that important for you?

GWD: Stories help us travel and explore life's biggest questions and challenges. Films, in particular, when done well, are empathy machines. They help us explore our own feelings and humanity while learning from the characters in our films.

All the films we curated have big stakes and big spiritual and moral battles. The Two Popes is a film about and unlikely friendship between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, but is also about the implications of how doctrine can become morally rigid versus morally re-imagined and re-visited.

All the films are about leadership and the future of institutions. The Biggest Little Farm is about beauty and reverence and how we preserve what we love. But it is also a love song and Wendall Berry poem on how to save the planet.

Harriet is an epic yet untold story that we think we might know about Harriet Tubman. Who was Harriet Tubman? How do movements underground and unseen get born, and sustained?

Us Kids takes a modern-day look at a generation of youth coming of age in the wake of gun violence at their school. We paired Harriet and Us Kids together because March For Our Lives and Extinction Rebellion leaders are experiencing “the politics of the unseen” in real time and two of the subjects in the documentary are Harvard undergraduates.

All of the stories ask us to engage and look at complex issues with compassion and hopefully a renewed sense of faith in community and each other.

HDS: You describe the films in this series—which deal with issues of social and racial justice, the ethics of data collection and its impact on free elections, moral leadership, gun violence, and dreams of farming and caring for the land—as having “spiritual issues” at their core. Can you preview some of the spiritual dimensions in these films?

TTW: Integrity is a moral issue. Personal reflection, self-knowledge, and acts of forgiveness contribute to the moral imagination that leads to spiritual growth and transformation as you witness Brittney Kaiser wrestle with her conscience in The Great Hack. To trust the principles of biological diversity within ecological systems over time is not only an act of faith but revelatory when witnessing the dream of an organic farm bearing literal fruits as in The Biggest Little Farm.

And perhaps, most importantly, individual responses to films can create unexpected depths of insights, inspiration, and epiphanies that can contribute to our moral imaginations—how we begin to not only see the world differently, but experience it more fully. Awareness is a prayer.

GWD: Why do stories matter? Where do stories come from? What are the stories behind these good stories? How do we pay attention? How do we listen? These are spiritual questions. How do we connect and feel connected? How do we husband and share our resources? These are spiritual questions. But these films also ask us what we can and must do in the face inertia and silence. And that question always begins with a story.

HDS: What do you want attendees at these films or of this film series to become aware of?

TTW: Harvard Divinity School is a place of inquiry to the moral and ethical questions of our time rooted in community and our capacity to serve something larger than ourselves. This film series is an opportunity to gather as a community and discuss, interrogate, and ponder what it means to be human and a participating member of a democracy in peril.

It is also a time to gather in the name of wonder and awe as we listen to storytellers, filmmakers, and activists discuss the questions that led them to create an artistic response to some of the critical questions of our time.

At a moment when it is easy to feel despair, we need not lose hope, we just need to know where it dwells. For the next four Mondays, from 3 to 6 pm, this is where joyous engagement can be found together. We hope participants will leave each film energized with a heightened capacity to engage in this beautiful, broken world.

GWD: I want attendees to leave with questions and an appreciation for the primal power of storytelling. I also want them to feel the power of connection and community. We are all busy and have stressful lives. Why do we make room for? What is the power of a Monday matinee? In the end all we have is our word, and the Old Testament tells us in the beginning there was the word. I will leave the rest to their imagination.

—by Michael Naughton