At screenings of two seemingly very different movies, writer Dayna Slusar finds commonality in their evocation of home, and ponders the word’s enduring power for a culture increasingly lost in its hopeless little screens.
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When you think of the word ‘home’ do you think of a place? A person? A mental state? A feeling? Home can mean different things to different people. Home can be an arriving, a searching, a resting place. Home can be a conflict of two places you want to be, but have to either choose one or divide your attention between them. Home can be safe. Home can be messy.
Two of my favorite films deal with this concept of home: both protagonists are searching for it, and also choosing it for themselves. The film Lion and the film Brooklyn (both released in 2016) tell the stories of people who are searching for home while also choosing where home is for themselves in their young adult lives.
Lion tells the true story of how, as a five-year-old, Saroo Brierley was separated from his home in India by accident. He boarded an empty train that later relocated while he was asleep, stranding him in a bustling Kolkata (then called Calcutta), where he didn’t know the language or the proper pronunciation of the name of his village, and had with no one to care for him. He survived on the streets, narrowly escaping death, and ended up at an orphanage where he was adopted by a Caucasian couple, Sue and John Brierley, from Hobart, Tasmania.
The second part of the film follows him as a young man starting business courses with the goal of becoming a hotel manager. All it takes is the sight and smell of a traditional Indian desert—thin, curly, deep-fried wheat flour covered in sugar syrup, called jalebi—while at an Indian friend’s house to jar his memory of his childhood home. With so many unanswered questions, he suffers a crisis of identity, knowing he is not originally from his home in Tasmania. He is ‘lost’ and he feels the overwhelming need to find his original home and family in order to be at peace. With the help of an emerging GPS technology called Google Earth, he tangibly satisfies that need, meets it face to face, and yet makes the ultimate decision to stay in the home he grew up in, and with the parents who raised him.
The film Brooklyn follows Ellis (pronounced EE-lish) Lacey as she leaves her home in Enniscorthy, Ireland to pursue further education and a career as an accountant in America. Leaving her mother and beloved older sister, she arrives in 1950s Brooklyn, New York City, dressed in an emerald green pea coat and mahogany beret-style hat. Cheeks flushed with culture shock and the fact that she’s alone in a strange new world, she makes her way to a women’s boarding house to live with three other, more Americanized, women. Enveloped by the big-city borough culture that is so very different from her tight-knit Irish town, Ellis struggles to fit in to this multi-cultural immigrant neighborhood.
Over time, Ellis learns and even adapts to the culture. She meets new people (mostly through attending Irish dances with the girls in the house), falls in love, and ends up creating a new kind of life for herself, one that has her pursuing an education as well as enjoying the entertainment in a bustling city. Brooklyn becomes a place that feels like home for Ellis to the degree where, when faced with the opportunity to go back to Ireland for good—less than a year later—she is conflicted about which place she feels she belongs. The ending is not what you would expect from the Ellis she was at the beginning of her voyage, but it rings true to the stories of most Irish immigrants as they immigrated to North America to start a new life. She puts down roots and makes it home.
Saroo and Ellis are separate from their original homes for most of their stories. At some point, both longed to be back and surrounded by all that is familiar. But they couldn’t; they had to accept where they were. They had to create new homes. And they did.
A thread of commonality that these two characters experience is the technological limitation of interacting with their hometowns. All Ellis had as communication with her mother and her sister were letters—regular, but certainly not instant communication. She had one three-minute phone call on the pay phone in the post office, gripping the receiver with two hands as her mother delivers devastating news from across the sea. It turns out to be news that ultimately brings her back to her Irish hometown where she faces the decision about where to call home.
Saroo has access to more mobile and instant communication, but he doesn’t know with whom he is trying to communicate. Google Earth is in its infantile stages, and the village Saroo likely came from seemed to have zero access to such communication technology. But, since it is a true story, it’s revealed in some interviews with the real Saroo Brierley that he was actually able to reach out to a group of young people from the village’s surrounding area on Facebook (rudimentary as it was at the time) to get confirmation of some geographic familiarities that he recalled from his five-year-old memory. The Facebook group of strangers helped him find his home.
We all need a place to call home. We might search for it and find it after a quarter of a century like Saroo, or create it right where we are, like Ellis. We might go back to a place that used to be home, only to find that where we began our search is more of a home than anywhere else.
Technology today gives us a much further reach than either of these two could dream of, but does that make us more connected? Do we not long for home in the same tangible way as Saroo and Ellis do? Saroo spent several months on this search to find his home; Ellis cried herself to sleep on many nights, her mother and sister’s letters clutched in her hands. As we speak to our loved ones through a device screen, separate from wherever our home might be, do we not have that same yearning for tangible connection as these two have?
With Canadian Thanksgiving having just been celebrated last weekend, and American Thanksgiving only a few weeks away, this concept is particularly clear. Among the busiest weekends to travel in North America, Thanksgiving on both sides of the border is a time when many people make their way to the various versions of homes they belong to for a gathering and a meal. It’s this image of togetherness with friends and family around a table, sharing a meal, that some might want to press pause and title the snapshot of reality ‘home.’
The fact that it’s a holiday long weekend probably helps, but most people make an effort to visit family in person on this occasion. It’s become an expectation in our Western culture because we know spending time together at home is so much more intentional than getting passed around on the iPad, greeting everyone through a device screen.
Sometimes that’s all we have, but if we’re being honest, it’s not enough. We would change it if we could. Just as Ellis longed for the embrace of her sister, and Saroo longed for the eyes of his birth mother, so we long for that person or space we call ‘home.’
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When I was a little boy, for instance, other kids would from time to time say mean things to me or make fun of me. This would make me feel bad. One time, the notorious Robbie Campbell, who lived a couple of houses to the east of 7224 96B Avenue (see, I still remember the address like it was my own name) which in 1962 was on the outskirts of Edmonton, even conked me on the head with a chunk of 2 x 4.
As per the taunting, Mom's instructions were to just remember to reply—repetitively—"sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me."
Regarding young master Campbell and the 2 x 4, Dad's instructions were: "Next time he tries that, punch him in the nose."
These were quite straightforward. The mantra that mother repeated was, I expect, inherited from her mother etc. and I found it useful. In late 20th-century terms it translates simply into "I am too tough and secure psychologically to succumb to your nasty little attempts to enhance your social position at my emotional expense. Give it up you loser—your words cannot hurt me and I won't be your victim." I thought of this the other day when I was reading about how hurt some people feel when reading online comments made in response to news stories or blogs. We are all courageous, of course, when we can wear a mask, ring someone's emotional doorbell, and run away. Many cyber comments are well beyond the pale and certainly wouldn't have been made back in the day when you had to look the object of your critique in the eye human-to human-like and, in the case of Robbie Campbell (whose dad was from Flin Flon), run the risk of getting clobbered by a 2 x 4 in response.
In a statement sent by e-mail over the weekend, Mr. Cameron said he had never intended Ms. Weaver's character, Grace Augustine, to be "an aspirational role model" for teenagers.
"She's rude, she swears, she drinks, she smokes," wrote Mr. Cameron. "Also, from a character perspective, we were showing that Grace doesn't care about her human body, only her avatar body, which again is a negative comment about people in our real world living too much in their avatars, meaning online and in video games."
Speaking as an artist, Mr. Cameron said: "I don't believe in the dogmatic idea that no one in a movie should smoke. Movies should reflect reality. If it's O.K. for people to lie, cheat, steal and kill in PG-13 movies, why impose an inconsistent morality when it comes to smoking? I do agree that young role-model characters should not smoke in movies, especially in a way which suggests that it makes them cooler or more accepted by their peers."
Smoking, Mr. Cameron concluded, "is a filthy habit which I don't support, and neither, I believe, does 'Avatar.' "
I am not in favor of smoking, either, for the record (though I do occasionally wish I was, when the weather is very, very cold outside). But it struck me that the anti-smoking lobby might be compared to certain factions of the Christian movie-going audience who argue against, for instance, realistically written dialogue for characters who would, in real life, use a lot of obscenities. Or, those who argue that it is bad to watch a movie in which extramarital sex is even implied, lest we come to believe that is a legitimate lifestyle choice.
At the beginning, you're just trying to sneak in an episode before dinner, and before you know it you're on a bender—clocking over ten hours in a span of only two days, full seasons watched from start to finish. I've been there, and it is a dark time. I shamefully admit that my Netflix and I are so well acquainted, it has filtered in an entire category of "things I might like" titled "Eighteenth Century Period Dramas with a Strong Female Lead."
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