Thoughts On: Island Of Flowers
A short montage tracking the movement of tomatoes through society.
Island Of Flowers is a brilliant short that utilises mechanical explanations of society of such a simple nature that we come to perceive them as absurd. This intentionally creates a dissonance within the audience, one that has them see the consequences of their easy lifestyle reflected by a distant impoverished part of the world such as the Isle Of Flowers in Brazil, Porto Alegre’s landfill. It is on this island that poor families live off the scraps of food that are thrown away by those like us in countries like the U.S and England – that is, the scraps that aren’t given to pigs first. This allows a question of our society to be raised, a moral one that critiques materialism and unsustainable lifestyles. Beyond this emotional critique, however, lies an ever more intricate question of freedom. The last words of this short demonstrate this perfectly:
Freedom is a word that the human dream feeds on that no one can explain or fail to understand.
This closing statement does two things. It firstly explains our emotional reaction to seeing children eat the food we throw away that isn’t deemed good enough to be eaten by pigs. We, who live comfortable lives where we may pick up tomatoes or pork from the supermarket for the simple exchange of money, have a sense of levity and a lack of a continual struggle. This sense or feeling is what we would probably call freedom. However, this is an undefined feeling within us. In such, we subconsciously know just what freedom is and so can’t fail to understand it despite often not being able to articulate it. However, in being made to see our freedom through poor families eating garbage, we cling to this freedom with empathy and a tremendous sense of frailty – one easily transformed into a feeling of guilt and a yearning for change. The second thing the above statement does, however, is explain why we live in a world of such inequality.
As is picked up on many times beforehand, what puts people at the bottom of such a sprawling hierarchy is money and owners. Pigs have owners, just like children do in the form of parents, and so we look after them. We being the metaphorical children of countries are also looked after. Just as we are arbitrarily born from certain birth canals and are at the whim of the person owning it, this also seems to be true in respect to birth place. The only way to transcend (somewhat) this paradigm of not having an owner or someone to look after you is to have money. Money is a tangible representation of social exchange and, as the film points out, is a refined quantification of exchanging food. We’d exchange food for simple reasons – it keeps us alive and so we want it. However, because it is basically impossible to quantify how many chickens may be exchanged for something like a blue whale, we turn to money to streamline the system. In such, we see money as an extension of people exchanging life points. Just as eating food keeps your body alive, by proxy, so does money and an economy. By not being part of this exchange of keeping people alive, by not being part of a functional economy, you have no money and so are of little worth. Moreover, by having no owner, someone to arbitrarily, unconditionally care for you, you are of even less worth. This is what has children eat after pigs in this world, and it’s all to do with owners and money being the components of freedom.
Owners and money are terms that simple mean ‘bodies or entities that keep us alive’. (Note, by owner, the film, nor do I, mean to connote slavery or being owned as a person-turned-object – instead, it is ideas of ownership as linked to either having land or things as well as pets or children that we love that are implied). What then being owned or having money essentially means is that you are apart of a system that keeps other alive. This system is reliant on people playing their parts – on one person keeping another alive through money or ownership (unconditionally looking after them or providing material things). However, the latter, specifically, unconditionally looking after someone, is an element to life that is difficult to afford to many. In such, we usually preserve this for our children alone – we sometimes extend this to charity. Nonetheless, it is money and ownership that equate to freedom as they allow us to live without physical friction or hindrance. This simply means that it’s relatively easy, relative to the children eating garbage, to live a life where you pick up pork and tomatoes from a supermarket with your money because you rarely worry about bad things happening. Society thus solves so many of our problems, like sourcing and retaining food, allowing us to slot into this perfect clockwork and spin our little lives to their end freely, comfortably, effortlessly.
Island Of Flowers, whist a critique this, understands this to be the state of things – and such is the source of its ingenious design and precise stab of poignancy. Through this point-point demonstration, Island Of Flowers points out something that may be misconstrued to be a paradox. Because we exist in our perfect clockwork society with freedom, it seems to be a paradox that some suffer at the hands of it (two metaphors mixed, I know, but they fit nonetheless). The reason why some see this to be a paradox has been explained through our subconscious understanding of freedom. When our clockwork is questioned, we feel fragile as we are made to comprehend the arbitrary nature of life and so feel a great sense of precariousness in the world. It then seems to be a disingenuous non-sequitur to show gratitude for our own freedom by wishing it on others. This is because we often see this expression to be a false gesture and a passing emotion. This is understandable, however, as, through this film, through cinema, the human conception of our clockwork society is extended. By seeing children on an island in Brazil, we are made to see them as human – something made explicit by this short with the repetition of opposable thumbs and an advanced telencephalon. Through seeing Japanese, Jews, Brazilians and so on as simply human we see them as valid candidates for being apart of our clockwork. This is the truth belying the sometimes nonsensical reflex of empathy. It’s understanding this that you can see the genuine nature of those so easy to sneer at and dismiss – those that preach unconditional love, universal equality and so on.
Beyond understanding others and understanding the mechanics of the world, there is an overwhelming sense of futility belying this essay and this film alike. By seeing the world as a stark system, it is hard to see things changing. In such, it seems to be apart of human nature to both help others and put people in hierarchy. This all seems to be a consequence of our inherently self-centric nature. In such, it is our inherent imperative to want to continue our lives and existence. This human disposition is reflected by society, leaving it to struggle with capitalist and socialist philosophies. The crux of all of this, however, is a kind of freedom we have not touched on yet. When we consider poverty, hunger and inequality, we consider a physical freedom – one that keeps you from hunger, pain, danger and disease. When we consider the dissonance and intellectual pain we may face when recognising the nature of the world, those who suffer, the widespread struggles and the word’s apparent futility, we are considering an emotional freedom. To be emotionally free of stress, trauma and friction is what drives empathy, is what makes us feel sorry for the people eating our garbage. This leaves us with a nasty turn, however. To want to solve another’s suffering, to relinquish them and grant them physical freedom, is a mere plot to give yourself emotional freedom – all so you can stop thinking about another person’s problems.
This is the genuine essence of human self-centricity. We problem solve our own and and others’ issues away for freedom of the emotional and the physical sort. This is what validates an idea such as ‘all people are the same’. Yes, you can quantifiable disprove this, and, no, we don’t really want everyone to be perfectly equal. However, there is an acceptable plane we wish we could all exist in, through a reflex appeal to freedom, where everyone is just ok – all so we can shed the weight of another’s pain – all for our own freedom.
This is what adds weight to the idea that ‘freedom is a word that the human dream feeds on’. It’s not just that people want freedom selfishly or want freedom in others as a means of virtue signalling or projecting a false empathy or a fabricated humanity, instead, people want a universal freedom so they themselves can be free. It thus seems that we are all connected in a vast collective clockwork – all because we, by perceiving someone, immediately introduce them into a perceptual understanding of that clockwork called humanity. And because we are all connected in this clockwork system, we need there to be a universal emotional and physical freedom so that we too may truly be free.
In such, we see a pragmatic reason for solving world issues; it seems to be in-built into our nature as a society. Nonetheless, we cannot forget that control, the fantasy; control the fantasy. Because definitive control over reality is the ultimate human fantasy, one that would afford you complete freedom at a whim, one that is also impossible to attain, people may only appeal to imagination, an internal fantasy, to seek control in their life (for the most part). This means that we can blind ourselves to reality as to feel a personal sense of freedom in spite of any and all actuality. You see this realised when you turn away from depressing TV ads asking for you charity to save starving children. When you turn away, you stop feeling bad – you forget the starving children and do not let them impeach your fantasy. A paradox then arises when you consider this film as tantamount to one of those ads and a piece of projected imagination and fantasy (from both the audience’s perspective and the filmmaker’s). This film as a projection of fantasy perfectly explains why it is so easy to turn away from and forget about the children eating garbage – after all, control, the fantasy; control the fantasy. Because of this reality, we find ourselves an escape to a pragmatic reason for helping everyone on Earth be completely equal. It thus becomes apparent that there is a perpetual argument to be had between someone not wanting to help starving people and someone saying that they should help. More poignantly, there is a perpetual debate held in many people’s heads as they contemplate their position in life. Do they help the world? Do they make it better? Should they? Do they really care to?
It’s around about now that you should be feeling that futility again. My point in jumping between optimism and pessimism though has not really been to discuss poverty and world issues – I’m not here to solve any problems of that magnitude. Instead, what has hopefully been conveyed to you is the malleability of the human perception. We can so easily escape taking responsibility and doing anything once we have a taste of freedom and levity. This isn’t a critique of you and I don’t mean to speak down on this reflex, merely make it obvious for the sake of truly demonstrating what freedom is.
Freedom is a feeling. Feelings can be conjured in many ways, and we inherently know how to cheat the bodily system to get those good feelings from time to time. (That said, we aren’t always so good at it). Nonetheless, cheating the system is all about receding into a dream space, an intangible spatial fantasy whereby our minds may interact with reality in a capacity that allows us to feel free. In such, we can either tell ourselves that everything is ok and go on with our day, or, tweak reality to give us that feeling. The reason why this reflex seems to exist is that we can also tweak reality and so tell ourselves to see problems or to feel bad. This brings us to the core of what it means to be human. Within the dream spaces we construct that allow us to seek freedom, exists positive and negative existential forces that have us fight for balance – to have freedom and to let ourselves feel free, to tweak our reality and then be happy with it. This leads us towards resolution…
We do not want to be free. If we were built to unconditionally feel free, then we wouldn’t have emotions. We would be numb to the world and be perfectly happy not knowing we’re alive or apart of reality. However, the catch 22 of consciously existing in reality seems to be this existential yin and yang. Just as the universe has physical laws of equal and opposite forces that facilitate a contained exchange of events that is known as our physical reality, it seems that so do we. Humans seem to contain an internalised friction that perpetually keeps them a conscious part of reality; a cog spinning in the works with a mind of its own. This is why we fight for freedom, but will never really attain it. Like perfection, freedom thus seems to be a concept designed to never be grasped or fully achieved. This is why, when I remind you that this is an essay on a film about poverty, you get that sinking feeling of futility and guilt in your chest.
We are machines driven by the fantasy of freedom. Such seems to be the irrevocable nature of us and our reality. Perpetual and momentous futility thus seems to be the essence of our existence – a loop we can’t escape. But, don’t worry too much, despite my saying this, you’ll soon feel fine. Soon after that you’ll feel bad though. And on will go your reflexive search for friction – which around about leaves everything outside of a fantastical conjuring of purpose pointless.
So, whilst I go tell myself there was a point to writing this essay, I’ll leave you to get on with your day (or keep reading my more of my pointless words). Either way, good luck…
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