The ranks of the ignored are growing in our culture. Earlier this month, I was riding my bike in the North Bay during the grape harvest. Pedaling through the heavy Sonoma County fog, I could not help but be struck by the ghostly looking images of hardworking Mexican laborers on the horizon. These men wore jeans, plaid shirts, bandanas, and ball caps as they efficiently worked from row to row selecting the grapes that will pleasure us at our next meal. As I pedaled the brutal hills I wondered what they were thinking as they efficiently gathered the grapes. What is happening in their families, and where do they go when they are done? Most of all, why don't we care?
One of the most repugnant things about the obsessions of our current society is how the escapades of celebrities and the super-rich crowd out a real view of any of our other fellow citizens. Media representations of the "underclass" in recent times have focused on "irresponsible" poor people who bought houses in a futile attempt to live beyond their means. While the Limbaughs and Becks bleat about "we, the American people," those who benefit from the status quo hold up our market-based society as an effective and even just system that rewards talent and virtue. The subtext of this current narrative of the American Dream is that those who don't fit this definition of success don't quite measure up, in intellect or activity.
A new film provides an affecting and powerful retort to these cruel caricatures. I am always impressed when a movie is able to focus our gaze on a sector of society or an important part of ourselves that we have forgotten or may not have realized existed. The Philosopher Kings, a movie by the Los Angeles-based filmmaker Patrick Shen showing at the San Francisco International Documentary Film Festival, does just this. Wanting to explore current misconceptions of where to find wisdom today, the film features the work and narratives of eight custodians who clean our nation's premier universities. Their stories offer a powerful and poignant stew of the rich lives of our ordinary fellow, but often forgotten, humans.
The Philosopher Kings shows that real wisdom can be found in "unlikely" places. Each janitor's story is interwoven through several themes, including the tragedies that many have experienced and the dignity and pride with which they do their jobs. Of course, universities are special places. In spite of the recent heavy-handed response to the financial crisis at Cal, it is still a better place to work than many other places in the East Bay. Ideas matter there and not every legitimate gripe can be foreclosed by an appeal to profit and greed. Students who have not yet fallen into the cynicism of their parents are often erstwhile allies of these workers' efforts to receive a living wage for their work. This environment undoubtedly affects the workers, who seem to have time to ponder deeper issues.
Each scene in the film begins with a quote emphasizing its theme. Most of these are from Socrates, Plato, Shakespeare, and the like. My favorite comes from tennis great Arthur Ashe, who said: "True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost." Who among us can say they live up to this standard?
A couple narratives moved me to tears. Melinda Augustus, a custodian at the Florida Museum of Natural History, tells of enjoying making things look nice. She "likes to clean." Coming from a family of fifteen, her mom died from a doctor's negligence. This made me think about those who claim that the part of our legal system that provides a remedy for medical malpractice is somehow responsible for the ills of our medical system, and should be eliminated.
Augustus tells the camera she loves being at the museum. It has been a "nice learning experience," she says. "I did not know anything about butterflies before I started working here. To see them fluttering about, so carefree, and so lively. So trouble-free. It is a wonderful feeling. If I can get that out of life then that is a good thing." I can't imagine these sentiments coming from the Gordon Gekkos of Goldman Sachs.
Included in the film is Michael Seals, a custodian who has worked at UC Berkeley since 1979. His judgment and dignity is moving. He knows the homeless often come to take quick baths in the restrooms that he cleans. He treats this need with humane respect. In one scene, we see him being called to clean and restock a women's restroom. He waits patiently while a furtive student who seems unaware of his existence goes in just as he knocks to enter. This particular job is not an appetizing one, but it is something that needs to be done and he is going to do it well, with respect for all concerned.
"I have come to realize that when two people come together with two different backgrounds or ideas, it is not easy, but it can work if you want it to," Seals told me. "Saying 'good morning,' just treating people nicely, is an art within itself." That is true wisdom.
As our political system continues to fail us when confronted with human issues such as health care and the problems of the disadvantaged, we need to turn to culture to reestablish a humanistic bond with our fellow citizens. It is hard to write about those things that go to the deepest part of our being and are usually invisible to us. It must be hard to make a movie that does that too. But in The Philosopher Kings, Patrick Shen has succeeded at exactly that.
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