A Displaced Allegory
The final scene of ‘Through The Olive Trees’ culminates in an extreme long shot in real time in which Hossein follows Tahereh into the distance. She begins to return alone, does she maintain her aloofness, or is he returning to tell the film crew of his success? This final scene exceeds the perspective of the homodiegetic film narrator and thus our own.
Here, the pause of secondary motion in the cameras pursuit functions as a textbook example of a love scene made under the rule of modesty in the Islamic Republic of Iran – and thus a displaced allegory of the conditions of the film industry itself. So contra-Godard, rather than divulge the nature of the conversation between the young couple, Kiarostami reflects on the impossibility of heterosexual love in post-Revolutionary cinema. “Inasmuch as it shows things off, moving images restrict the gaze.” Such is the nature of the voyeurism that informs the structure of classical narratives as well, though we rarely take note of it, “These holes, these moments of failure are what makes for the construction,”
Just as the world’s major cities now have Holocaust Museums, it is time they all established Empathy Museums too. Their purpose would be nothing less than generating a new global culture of empathy by creating adventure spaces where you can explore how to view life from the perspective of other people.
A typical Empathy Museum would not house dusty exhibits inside glass cases, yet it would be a rival the finest galleries and tourist attractions that the city has to offer. On rainy Sunday afternoons you might wander through the Empathy Museum with a few friends or your mother-in-law. During the week it is likely to be filled with children on school excursions and inquisitive visitors from countries where the ideal of empathy remains embryonic. The Empathy Museum will ignite the imagination just like the first public museums in the seventeenth century, whose collections of curiosities revealed the wonders of nature and human civilization for the first time.
What actually happens in an Empathy Museum? What do you see or do when you get there? Here is what you might find inside.
In a room there are twenty sewing machines and a team of former sweatshop factory workers from Vietnam who will teach you how to make a shirt under the working conditions of your favourite fashion label. At the end you will be paid the average amount that a textile industry employee in a developing country receives per shirt. Unfortunately it will not be nearly enough for a cup of tea in the café, and might leave you wondering about whether you should really buy cheap clothes from discount stores that have been produced by low-wage labour.
A gallery depicts the life stories of empathists such as Mahatma Gandhi, George Orwell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, St Francis of Assisi and Nelson Mandela. There is also an adjacent space, with displays on empathy thinkers like Martin Buber, Jiddhu Krishnamurti, Desmond Tutu and Thich Nhat Hanh, which will reflect the place of empathy in Buddhism and other cultural traditions.
One of the most popular yet frightening spaces in the Empathy Museum is the section on Climate Futures. You get to experience what it is like to live through a major flood – the kind of weather event that could be common following the effects of climate change. Together with half a dozen others, you will be placed in a sealed chamber and watch the waters gradually rise around you. There are options of constructing a quick-assembly boat from corrugated iron or clambering into a rubber dinghy which is too small to hold you all. Life jackets must be worn.
Throughout the museum there are Conversation Booths where you can talk to other visitors about hope, friendship, love and curiosity. The walls of each booth are covered with questions to stimulate your conversation. On regular theme days they will be occupied by special guests to give you a chance to speak with people who you might not encounter in everyday life, such as mental health workers, off-duty soldiers, Quakers or management consultants. There are facilities for visitors to make an audio recording of their own empathic experiences which will become part of a publicly accessible archive.
A roomful of computer consoles invites you to play the empathy simulation game called The Veil of Ignorance. Your task is to decide how to distribute the planet’s wealth and natural resources (for instance making the world highly equal, or skewing the distribution towards some countries and social groups). The catch is that you don’t know where you might personally end up – you could be born a poor Indonesian rice farmer or a business tycoon in Houston. After you have chosen your distribution, the computer randomly allocates you to a particular life in a specific nation, indicating your standard of living. If you end up as a beggar in Calcutta, might you spread the wealth more evenly next time you play, just in case you find yourself at the bottom of the pile?
A dressing up box where you will find clothes you can dress up in to experience lives you have never tried. There is appropriate attire so you can go and beg for an hour at the entrance to the Empathy Museum, or help sweep and mop the floors and toilets. Another option is to wear a chef’s outfit and work in the café kitchen peeling potatoes and washing up during the lunchtime rush. If you are lucky you may be joined by the museum director who spends an hour each week scouring burned frying pans.
When you buy your lunch in the café, the cashier registers it with a special Lives of Others scanner and takes your seat number. Once you sit down, the screen on your table begins playing a video containing an interview with the workers who are responsible for the items you just purchased. If you bought fair-trade coffee, there may be a Mexican coffee picker talking about the new health clinic that has just opened on the cooperative plantation where he is employed. If you chose the standard coffee, it could be a Brazilian worker explaining how her wage is so low that she cannot afford to send her children to primary school.