Man Facing Southeast

Man Facing Southeast is one of my favorite movies. It is an Argentinian film with English subtitles so has not been seen by many in North America. There was a terrible American version of this film called K-PAX that tried in vain to capture the genius of the original. While the original is haunting, mysterious and sacramental the American version is self-righteous, predictable and stiff. To buy into the premise of the film one must assume this character who claims to be from another planet really believes what he is saying, that his narrative is authentic and messianic. The K-PAX version features a lead actor, played by Kevin Spacey, who is preachy and humourless, a cardboard cutout version of something alive and fragile.

I work with many person who present themselves to me as living with some form of mental illness. Within this diagnosis comes the realization that they see themselves as different, seeing the world through a unique lens. I never want to downplay the challenge this lens presents, it is not easy to be this way and the trauma associated with this condition can never be overstated. And yet for all the pain and hurt that can go with this diagnosis there is also an insight too often overlooked. Failing to hear their voices makes all of us the lesser for it.

In the film Man Facing Southeast the central character tells all that he is from another planet. This assertion lands him in a mental health hospital, an institution familiar to older persons today who can recall that institutionalization was a death sentence of concrete walls, heavy drugs and strict supervision. This is where the lead character ends up and he immediately begins to talk to and befriend the others in the hospital, bringing life and passion to a community where none existed. This “alien” sees the human inside each person, there is smiling, tears, laughter, physical embrace, dancing and music. The authorities are troubled by this change, the inmates are transforming in front of their eyes and there is a sense of bewilderment.

The lead character is taken to the head psychiatrist for treatment. Something must be done to arrest all these changes in the residents. In the sessions the psychiatrist puzzles over the man who says he is from another planet trying to uncover the trauma that has caused this mental “breakdown”. At a crucial point in their dialogue the patient turns to the doctor and says, “How is it that I see pain and hurting and have compassion and you human see the same and turn away, who is really the alien here, who are the ones who need to be healed?” I shall always remember that scene.

The other scene that remains with me is an unbelievable escape that the lead character engineers bringing all of the residents out from the institution to an outdoor classical music concert. The lead character walks calmly to the conductor and asks for his baton. At first the orchestra is unwilling to play for him but after repeated attempts the music begins, building to a crescendo as the residents begin to dance wildly with the audience. This scene is too alarming and unsettling to the authorities who herd the residents back to the institution, drug them, and take our lead character and pump so many chemicals into his body he eventually dies. I hesitate to share that part of the film because I do not want to characterize medication as harmful. It is about the motive. It is one thing for a person with a chemical imbalance to take medication to feel better and quite another to use drugs to silence persons whom our communities find unsettling. This film is about the latter, not the former.

As a Christian I tend to identify the treatment of this character, his liberating effect on everyone around him and his death caused by those in authority who wanted to silence him and his liberation of love, with Jesus the Christ. It’s a powerful reminder of what makes us human and what the Christ-like power of liberation can bring to those at the margins. It is also a reminder to listen to voices that come from those we might label “alien”. Of course the irony is that those voices are often far more human than the voices of fear and anger that come from our own lens of power and privilege. “Let those with ears to hear listen…”