It was purely coincidental that as Rwanda prepares to mark the 22nd anniversary of the Genocide against Tutsis in April, American filmmaker Greg Bennick was showing his documentary film Flight from Death: The Quest For Immortality at the Kwetu Film Institute.
The 2002 award-winning documentary investigates the motives and causes of human violence, focusing on the anxiety about death as a mechanism for self-defence.
Speaking after the filming, Bennick said that, “When we decided to make Flight from Death we wanted to answer one central question: Why human beings behave the way they do specifically in regards to violence.”
Parts of the film’s inspirations are the events of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda, and the movie features some real footage from the genocide.
“To screen the film here tonight is deeply meaningful for me as someone who was so intimately involved in its making,” he said.
The screening was not well-publicised and was attended by a few Rwandans and a group of American history students doing research on the country’s history.
After the screening, the filmmaker answered questions from the audience on violence.
According to the documentary, death is inside the human mind at a level beyond thinking and it influences most behaviour.
On one hand, experts featured in the movie say that the idea of immortality is good as it pushes people to live better lives but on the other hand, it is likely to cause violence as some want to conquer others and dominate them in different and unacceptable ways.
Bennick was inspired to write the script of the film by the views expressed in the book The Denial of Death by award-winning cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker.
In the book, Becker writes that human civilisation is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defence mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual underpinning of our basic survival mechanism.
The documentary delves into the mystery of death while trying to understand why people want to distance themselves from it. The movie also links the fear of death to behaviours on a psychological, spiritual and cultural level.
“If we don’t even know what death is, why should we fear it?” asks Merlyn Mowrey, a professor of philosophy and religion, an interviewee in the movie. “For all the things we don’t know about what follows death, there are plenty things we know about what precedes death to make it unwelcome and even seem like an evil interruption of life,” she explains.
The film is based on interviews with contemporary social scientists, among them philosophers, psychologists, authors and teachers.
The social scientists interviewed have studied Becker’s’ theory of death-denial and found out that when reminded of death, a test subject reacts with aggression to the “other.”
Inspired by Becker’s views, Bennick decided to write to world leaders to establish a deeper understanding of situations in their countries and the causes of violence and conflicts.
He met Patrick Shen (the director and editor), who was already working on capturing Beckers’ ideas in film form, and they decided to collaborate and spread the author’s ideas to the world using film.
According to the filmmaker, “People show biased and xenophobic behaviours, such as gravitating towards those whom they perceive as culturally similar to themselves and holding higher negative feelings and judgements toward those they perceive as culturally dissimilar to themselves.”
The film, which has won seven best documentary awards at film festivals around the world, is food for thought that can spark discussion and reflection on life.
The filmmakers hope to help viewers around the world understand their own behaviour, saying that and hopefully this will lead to a more peaceful world.
Photo credit: New Times