2016 Artist in Residence Chris Knight presents his completed film "Collected Thoughts," inspired by Ecclesiastes 1:8-13.
Note: This film contains brief moments of violence and strong language, and may not be suitable for all audiences. Discretion is advised.
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8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. 10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.
12 ¶ I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.
I grew up in the South, which in New York City where I live now, is sometimes considered unusual. A magnolia-scented strangeness hangs over the region. People ask what Alabama is like in ways I would never consider asking about Iowa or Oregon, like it’s uncharted territory, somewhere not just off the grid but beyond it. When they do, I explain that I ate the same Bloomin’ Onions, sat in the same movie theater darkness and rode shotgun past the same indistinguishable suburban homes. The suburbs are the same everywhere, and the secessionist mix of ignorance and anger I know they’re really asking about is everywhere, too.
But I know what they mean. Something about the South is different. Our greatest writer said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” and it’s true there. We learn to bathe in our past, to resent it and revere it, to hate it and re-enact it and never ever to escape it. We feel, and are reminded of, our nation-rending selfishness born of greed and inhumanity. We built monuments to warriors fallen in the service of an ignoble, revolting cause, and we imagine that our connection to the past makes us somehow more substantial.
Ecclesiastes reminds us that our past will not save us. It’s a book about impermanence and failure. It reminds us that everything under the sun will be forgotten. The riches we gather will be scattered, the towers we raise will fall. It asks us to find small comforts while they’re available because oppression and fear and the yawning grave are coming for us. In this most hopeless of years, filled with dead heroes and decayed ideals, I chose as my inspiration a book quite literally about hopelessness. So I made a film about hope. The hope that we might be remembered while our failures are not. The hope that we aren’t the people our worst actions reveal us to be. That we are better than what we have been. Because that’s the promise of the Bible: that there’s something beyond this hopeless world we find under the sun. That there our sins can be scrubbed from our fetid souls, and we will be preserved, clean and upstanding. That we will be redeemed.
Almost one hundred and fifty years ago in the American South, the men whose monuments I visited on class trips instituted an era of horrific violence and rapacious looting across the region. They set out to make the South great again by disenfranchising the newly freed slaves, installing corrupt, oligarchic leaders and using the power of the state to destroy anyone who resisted. They called it Redemption.
The arc of the moral universe does not bend toward justice. It bends under our own hands, in whatever directions we choose to bend it, and we are craven, spiteful and vicious. We lose ourselves in daily routines and petty jealousies and fail to see the principles we’ve betrayed and the devastation we’ve brought down until we’re standing in the rubble. Eventually, the villains always win.
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes knows all this, but he knows something else, too: “There is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime.” We can’t change human nature, our thirst for power over each other, our eagerness to turn away from the pain we cause and get back to the mundane tasks we have to do. Like Randall in the film, we tell ourselves we must be doing the right thing because we’re doing what makes our own lives easier, what advances our own needs. But in the midst of it all, maybe sometimes we can glimpse each other stumbling around in the howling night and perform a small mercy, to shed some light on their path and push away the darkness, if only for a moment. And the struggle to do that is worthwhile in itself, even if it is hopeless. Especially when it is hopeless.
“That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done.” Corruption, violence and fear suffuse the world that we live in. We can’t escape them, and in this world under the sun they will never be beaten. But we can fight them. We can work to see the people in our lives who need our help. And we can try to be better tomorrow than we were today.
History may not remember us, but at least we will know what we did.
Chris Knight is a director and writer based in New York City. His short films and feature scripts have been selected for a variety of film festivals across the country.