April 7 marks the tenth anniversary of
the Northern Essex Foreign Film Festival, which my wife, Esther, and I started
with the help of the former dean of the Lawrence campus, Kathy Rodger. The idea behind it was simple. Provide community college
students a social experience that they miss because they don’t live on a university campus. And do something to build
community, because a community college should be more than just a vocational and educational resource, but a cultural presence
Building community. What exactly does that
mean? Many young people nowadays have no clue. One student asked me the following question: “Why should I attend a film
festival if I can rent the DVD and watch it in the privacy of my own home?” He obviously doesn’t get it. And it’s
not his fault. His generation has never known a time without electronic messaging, video games, email and Internet. They communicate
through machines. They live mostly in standardized suburban communities, hermetically sealed off from the experiences-both
good and bad- that characterized the human interactions of the old ethnic neighborhoods. In
Lawrence, where I grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s, my generation was the last to
know their old-world grandparents, most of whom were born in 19th century Europe.
One of my grandmothers, for example, was
a Lithuanian babushka, and I still remember the delicious black peasant bread she would bake in her kitchen. And from the
Italian side of my family, I remember my grandfather making his own wine in the
basement of his three-decker. Looking back on experiences like these, which I took for granted at the time, I feel enriched
to have had these connections to people. I go through my life with the memory of the obstacles they overcame, the challenges
they faced and their aspirations, and these memories are integrated into who I am, not just intellectually, but viscerally-
right down to the soul level. But kids nowadays are confused about what a community is, who they are, where they come from.
Too often unconnected to others and to nature, their time and energy are displaced by Internet and television where nothing
has context. Some actually believe the Internet is their community. No wonder then that the spirit of our times is underscored
by depression, boredom and loneliness.
Something is isolating about modern life
in America- and perhaps all industrialized countries. Unless people actively seek and build relationships, they can easily
become islands. The era of private electronic entertainment is upon us, where
people are more adept at communicating with and being entertained by machines than with other people. Even the ultimate human
contact of real sex is being displaced by the pornography industry, whose worldwide revenues hit 97 billion dollars last year, most of it made on the Internet.
A bestseller came out a few years ago called
“Bowling Alone,” by Robert Putnam who was a guest speaker a few years ago at NECC. Bowling was always a fun sport, which few people took very seriously, and practiced to have a fun night out with others. But an unprecedented trend has emerged in recent years in the bowling industry
in which people have started coming to bowling alleys alone. The author uses this phenomenon as a metaphor for disengagement
with community, the inhibition of collective participation in society or what he calls “the erosion of social capital.”
I was reminded what social capital is when
my mother-in-law was staying with us a couple of summers ago. My wife is Latin American, as is her mother. And when her mother
got sick, a continuing parade of her friends came to our door to bring food,
flowers, to visit, to inquire if they could help her. It continued every day
until she was well again. Latin Americans so often have a finely developed sense of community, possibly because their governments
do so little for them, except by default to leave them alone. So people must form associations and build relationships to
resolve problems. We Americans used to do that here, but we don’t anymore.
For most of human history, there was the
family circle, and its extensions of kinship and the larger social group- all
reinforced by codes, obligations and rituals. People of yesteryear had no choice but to form communities –and fit into
them-or find themselves abandoned to nature. That’s the way it was, but buried within the complexities of today’s mass society, one of our deepest needs is still for community and connection with others.
So where does the film festival come in?
We won’t change the world anytime soon by holding film festivals. But to
build community where there was none, means to start where you are. A cultural
renaissance has been emerging in Lawrence for the past dozen or so years. People
want shared experiences. The Taoist sage, Lao-tse, said, “A journey of
a thousand miles begins with a single step.