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A Lesson in Intolerance
April 11, 1983: The motion picture Gandhi sweeps the Academy Awards, winning eight Oscars out of the 11 categories in which it was nominated, including Best Picture, Best Director (Richard Attenborough) and Best Actor (Ben Kingsley, in the title role). The film is the epic biography of Mohandas K. Gandhi, India's spiritual and political leader, who became famous by protesting British rule with his nonviolent philosophy of passive resistance. Gandhi helped gain India's freedom through boycotts and hunger strikes, and after his assassination in 1948, he remains a worldwide symbol of peace, love, and understanding.
I couldn't have cared less.
It was the spring of my eighth grade year at Sequoia Junior High School in Kent, Washington, a suburb stuck halfway between Seattle and Tacoma. My friends and I were preoccupied with Rubik's Cubes, dirt bikes, video games, and The A-Team. I was 13 years old.
My older sister Cheryl, a freshman at the University of Washington, was so moved by the film that she had to see it again, and insisted that our mom and I join her. Perhaps it was her nascent idealism and expanding worldview that drew her to the picture: she lived on the international students' floor in her dormitory and took courses in international studies, and she had already spent a summer during high school as an exchange student in Indonesia. Cheryl was probably hoping that Mom and I, upon seeing the movie, would become similarly enlightened.
I had absolutely no desire to "give it a chance," as Cheryl kept phrasing it. I was well aware of the film's ridiculous three-plus-hours' running time, and fairly certain it wouldn't include any spaceships, cartoons, or naked ladies. I tried to talk my way out of it, protesting on the grounds that I'd likely be bored, I'd likely be restless, and most importantly, I'd definitely have to see it the following week anyhow.
The teachers at Sequoia had arranged a field trip for our eighth-grade class of 200 to take in a Gandhi matinee. The date had already been set, our admission money had already been collected, and Mom had already signed my permission slip.
I reasoned with Cheryl and Mom that it made little sense for me to go to this movie against my will, especially since I would soon be seeing it anyway. While Mom herself wasn't terribly enthused about attending the movie, she didn't seem opposed to the idea either. She eventually sided with my sister, and subsequently exercised her parental authority over me. I should've staged a hunger strike of my own.
So, a week after the Oscars, the three of us see Gandhi at the Music Box Theater in downtown Seattle. Sure enough, it was a drag. Of course, most any teenager who enjoyed the action-packed summer blockbusters of the day, such as The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, would likely have felt the same. Even so, I tried to pay attention and make the most of it. However, when Gandhi was gunned down, I felt a bit of relief, knowing that the end was near. Not so with the rest of the audience: the auditorium's silence was punctuated only by a few stray sniffles and blowing noses. Afterwards, Cheryl gushed and Mom remained indifferent. I was just glad it was over.
Okay, I had to admit the movie wasn't a complete waste. I could appreciate the fact that it was a work of art with some cultural and educational merit, but it just wasn't for me. Besides, I was already a practitioner of nonviolent philosophy. I'd been roughed up on the playground a few times, but mostly just from horsing around. Even though my smartass remarks usually deserved a knuckle sandwich, I'd never been involved in any actual fistfights. I'd always been relatively lean and not particularly tough, and it didn't take long for the weightlifting set I received on my previous birthday to begin gathering dust. On a broader scale, I'd never been partial to guns, and maybe I'm naïve, but it seems as though most wars are completely unnecessary. So, my preexisting nonviolent stance didn't have anything to do with the Mahatma; it simply seemed like common sense.
One screening down, one to go.
The following week, we eighth-graders fill a couple of school buses and are driven to the Tacoma West Cinemas to see Gandhi. A trip to the zoo or a Boeing plant would've been much more fun, but a field trip is still a field trip. The teachers made their usual request that we all remain on our best behavior and conduct ourselves like young ladies and gentlemen and all that, but they should've known they were asking for an awful lot. Did they really think that a crowd of restless kids could calmly sit through a slow-paced, dialogue-heavy movie whose running time exceeds three hours?
Though it hardly seemed possible, I found the picture even more boring the second time around. I behaved myself anyway, drawing on the coping skills I learned by sitting through Catholic mass every Sunday. All things considered, everybody else remained fairly quiet and attentive as well -- at least for the film's first half.
As the automatic curtains began to cover the screen to signal the intermission, a smattering of applause rose up, as some of my classmates mistakenly thought the movie was over. (Few of us had ever been to a movie so long that it actually necessitated an intermission.) We all stood around outside, eating popcorn and drinking sodas. The general consensus was that the flick had been pretty lame so far. Many kids made jokes about the weird little brown man with the funny accent who spent much of the movie thus far running around in a diaper.
By the time we filed back in for the movie's second half, our collective eighth-grade attention span had already stretched well beyond its limit. We grew increasingly restless and bored and somewhat agitated, as if the film's sole purpose was to torture us kids. Gandhi himself was not seen as symbol of inspiration, but instead he became a focus of our hatred. Then it snapped.
Gandhi was assassinated in a hail of gunfire. The auditorium exploded into cheers, applause, hoots, hollers and laughter, as if Luke Skywalker had just destroyed the Death Star. Gandhi was dead. The damn thing was over. We were already storming the exits while Gandhi's ashes were still being sprinkled into the Ganges, before the final credits even began to crawl up the screen. No lessons were learned; Gandhi died in vain, at least on that afternoon.
The teachers were shocked. After all the effort and logistics involved in getting a couple hundred eighth-graders to see the motion picture of the year, the point of the film was completely missed. Certainly they meant well, but what did they expect? Like my sister Cheryl, they were perhaps a little too idealistic, too swept up in Gandhi's post-Oscar hype, and too eager to share it with the rest of world. They didn't realize that, for a bunch of kids to whom boredom is one of the worst things in the world, a movie theater isn't a place to be educated, but entertained.
The irony of the day's events was not lost on me, as I was taken aback as well. The intent was not to provoke bloodthirsty cheers, but rather feelings of sympathy and compassion towards our fellow human beings. Though I didn't join in the celebration, I still felt some guilt by association. But secretly, I too was glad it was over. Twice and for all.
Today, 18 years after the height of Gandhi-mania, my sister Cheryl has since graduated from the UW School of International Studies, got a graduate degree from the University of Rhode Island, and worked for the American government in Mali, El Salvador and Egypt. Seattle's Music Box Theater was razed in 1987 and the Tacoma West Cinemas closed down. Gandhi has been released on DVD and the digits in my age have been transposed.
I don't know whatever became of my classmates who gleefully cheered at Gandhi's demise. I'm not sure I want to. I mean, what's so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding?
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Written in May 2001.
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