Our experiences in a movie theater can range from pure entertainment to art to a divine moment. The Year of Living Dangerously became a moment of “conversion” in my life.
We have just returned from a conference where engaging folks from around the world and across faith traditions, races, and professions, came for a time of personal refreshment and learning. The “program” consisted of the sharing of our stories with each other. One of the panel discussions was entitled “Turning Points”, and I was asked if I would relate one experience from my life. While my life has had numerous “turning points” or “conversions”, I knew immediately what I wanted to share with this diverse group.
In 1982, out of college and into my first job as a real estate appraiser at Bank of America, I saw the film The Year of Living Dangerously. The film, which is several stories within a story, is by Australian Peter Weir (other films of his include The Witness, Dead Poet’s Society, The Truman Show). It is on one level about Indonesia in 1965 and President Sukarno’s tight-wire walk between the poverty of his people and the revolutionary call of the communists. It is also a love story between Guy (Mel Gibson), an Australian journalist and Jill (Sigourney Weaver) a British embassy attaché. And like other Weir films it is also about the clash of cultures (in this case, east and west) and standing in the intersection. But these various “stories” only set the context for what spoke to me most in the film.
Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt—her stunning portrayal won an Oscar) is a half-Chinese, half-Australian cameraman who is literally and figuratively, the eyes for those around him. He shows Guy the heart of Jakarta, the slums and back alleyways, filled with the poverty and pain of his people. Having seen, Guy nevertheless responds that a journalist must expose the structures not get personally involved. But Billy doesn’t let him off the hook. Rather he quotes Tolstoy, who is quoting Luke 3:10, “WHAT THEN MUST WE DO?” Billy tells Guy that Tolstoy sold all he had to relieve the suffering around him. Guy is not persuaded, but neither is Billy dissuaded.
Through most of the movie, we see Billy trusting in Sukarno’s leadership for structural change, and at the same time being involved in personal acts of compassion as he supports a young prostitute and her child. It is only when Billy’s “family” is destroyed—the child dies from drinking polluted water—that he questions his role. He sobs as he pounds out on his typewriter “WHAT THEN MUST WE DO?!” and decides he himself must challenge the government. He hangs a sign which reads, “Sukarno feed your people,” only for the president’s police to murder him. When Guy and Jill find him dead on the street, they once again begin to “see.”
“WHAT THEN MUST WE DO?” I left the theater with that phrase and the agonizing eyes of the children of Jakarta burned onto the screen of my mind. In Luke 3, we first hear this question as John the Baptist is preaching repentance and calling the people to bear fruit worthy of their conversion. And when the crowd doesn’t “get it” and asks “WHAT THEN MUST WE DO?” he tells them to live ethically and generously (i.e. “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise;” or to tax collectors, “collect no more than the amount prescribed for you”). In Luke 4 we hear Jesus echoing the same ethic and compassion as he begins his ministry with these words, “ The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor…release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free….”
A combination of people, events in my life, and the Spirit had prepared me to “see” this film. It became a turning point, a recovery of sight. The next week I returned to my project at work, that of appraising a hospital and I saw the world differently. Within weeks I applied for a leave of absence and within months left for Mexico to work as a short-term missionary. Six months after my return, I resigned my position to start my own appraisal business in which I would only work 30 hours/week so that I could give myself to the youth of my church and community, to the financial and political struggle to build a shelter for women and children in my city, and to study in the area of cross-cultural theology and ministry. The last 17 years have included a variety of tasks, jobs, ministries, and people. And it seems that Billy Kwan’s, Tolstoy’s, and the Bible’s question still rings in my ears, “WHAT THEN MUST WE DO?” I pray that the Spirit will guide me in the years to come as I seek to be more responsive to that question and obedient to Christ. (And I shared that part of the story with my friends at the conference too!)