See No Evil (part 1)

A few weeks ago I went to the movies to see “Blindness.” I´d been planning that for a long time, and was super excited: first, because I had heard many good things about the book and second, because I was in Brazil when they shot the movie (most of the movie, if not all, was shot in Brazil).

My feelings as I left the theatre are a bit harder to describe. Part of me thought it was a good story taken too far. It wasn´t just that some scenes were extremely unpleasant, but that they seemed unnecessarily so. In my judgement, therefore, the lack of verisimilitude was a big check minus for “Blindness.”  Thus I finally reached a verdict:  too unplesant to be true. Period. Which shows how little I know. 

A couple of days later, I went to the movies again, this time to watch “Triage:  Dr. Orbinski´s Humanitarian Dilemma.” As I entered the theatre, the film had already began, and the feeling of “I know this place, I know this person” gave me a tingly sensation of contentment as I searched in the darkness for a seat.  

When I first moved to Toronto in 2002, Massey College, a scholarly community at the University of Toronto, was my first home (and it still is my permanent address in Canada). I lived there for more than two years, during which time Dr. James Orbiski and his wife Rolie Srivastava were also living there.

They were both very active in the community, and always very willing to talk to the less famous members of the College such as myself. But I, in my immense timidity, had never in these almost seven years had the courage to do more than exchange nods and smiles whenever I passed them.

I knew he was famous. I knew he was busy. I knew he had been in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994. I even suspected that he had won a Nobel prize, thought I wasn´t really sure about that, because in my mind it was simply too unlikely that I´d be sharing  the same address as a Nobel prize winner. 

More than six years later, here I am in a cinema complex watching a documentary about my former neighbour Dr. James Orbinski. The familiar face and the familiar scenery gave me a sense of proximity that I had never experience in a movie theatre.

As the movie progressed the sense of “deja-vu” got more and more intense, but in a bizarre way: all of a sudden, I felt like I was watching “Blindness” all over again. Again, the punch in the stomach as I think of the awful things human beings are capable of when they know that “no one is looking.” Again, the sense of awe at the almost involuntary heroism of people who see themselves providing care to others in the most inhumane circumstances — not knowing whether they themselves would come out of the situation alive. I was trembling.

In a way, I was overwhelmed by the some of the same intense feelings that “Blindness” had provoked in me. But this time I couldn´t put them in a box, seal it and label it: “caused by a work of fiction taken too far.”  Rwanda was no fiction. It happened. And I know someone who was there and survived to tell the tale.  

I was in shock for days at end.

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