Three Imaginary Girls

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{The Seattle premiere of An Encounter with Simone Weil is at The Northwest Film Forum Monday, 9/24, and it screens through Thursday, 9/27. The Thursday showing includes a special introduciton by The Stranger editor Chrisopher Frizelle.} 

Totally intense philosopher, political agent, and spiritual worker Simone Weil was sort of the Ian MacKaye, Henry Rollins, and Dave Bazan of the 20th century revolutionary world. Born in 1909 and raised in a standard French bourgeois home, she was obsessed with the plight of the suffering, and the mechanics of oppression. All over the world, on every level of human existence. The way that a lot of artists and musicians are, or want to be seen as if they are. But when it comes to revolution, her drive was actualized in her own habitual writing, union organizing, mystical visions, and eventual death in 1943.

Some might think of it all as a neuotic waste, but a lot of others (including cultural maven Susan Sontag) found deep inspiration from even its most pathological extremes. 

Weil's tornado of doubt-infused living is solemnly and seriously documented by historical and activist filmmaker Julia Haslett in An Encounter with Simone Weil, who approaches the material with the ferocious focus required. She came from a family of Jewish-raised science-loving athiests, but ended up having divine revelations. Yet she only flirted with Catholicism, after burrowing through the deepest essences of Marxian humanism.

Albert Camus claimed Weil was "the only great spirit of our time," and if her ghost can compell him to meditate in her room before accepting the Nobel Prize, he probably meant it. Haslett, whose own father committed suicide and whose urban artist/music journalist brother is interviewed throughout, summons a trembling intimacy into the bones of her quest to biograph her enigmatic, soul-scorched subject. Of which there are few photos, and no moving footage. But there are relatives of Weil and other very interested parties left to help describe the stalwart spirit — Sylvie Weil, her niece, and peace activist and political science professor Anna Brown, who seem very fond of her memory.

Weil's raging activist enthusiasm is not left uncriticized by some people who actually knew her, and that would probably please her, as she seemed to welcome criticism the way mot of us crave praise. She expressed that she believed that truth was always experimental, and if that meant working in a factory to see how industry transforms the human, she did it. If it means taking note of people being out of work for so long, as post-war Germans were, that they may have no energy to wage egalitarian revolution and fall for the long con of a dictator-clown. She was that aware, and got the hell out of there before WW ll. (Moving back to France before Germany turned so very, very dark.)

She hated the academic ego, though she studied on her own and read and wrote incessantly, but did not hesitate to try to live what she observed and criticized. Like with many of the best thinkers of the past few decades, it all had to do with understanding the agonies of other people not as blessed as she was by life. Her little El Greco-like drawings of tiny people sputtering like flames on her notebooks are in reverse proportion to how she saw her fellow human beings — as multitudes, encompassing universes of need, helplessness, infirmity.

It is just this love of humankind that took her out of the realms of theory and into this world directly helping others; but it also led to an anti-authoritarian perspective which made her reject any organizations, as they always tended to maim the individual for a not-so-greater-good. So revolution itself could be another drug of self-righeousness one shouldn't blindly submit to. (Take note, Zizek fans.) Also, no matter how much she was into theology, she could never warm a pew. There are aspects to this anarchism which should never be taken for granted, as this thirst for spiritual liberation may be what keeps her from being embraced by both American politicos and preachers alike, but also makes her eternally provocative and trustable. This film is a superb way to taste the flavors of that mind-spinning truthfulness.