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“Men’s Group”: A Very Important Film

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Superbowl Sunday. Watching beefcake men running around in tights, slapping each other on the tuchas, and prancing to and fro in hot pursuit of a ball is not high on my list.  To each his own. Instead, I opted to go see a movie where men cry!

There is a “Subject of the Queen” Film Festival going on in town, (or the British Film Festival with a few Australian and Kiwi films thrown in for good measure.)  I was especially intrigued by an Aussie film called “Men’s Group.” The film ran on a non-existent to micro-budget with virtually everything borrowed, actors working for free and very little distribution.  It has gone to DVD in Australia but nowhere else.  It has been shopped around to film festival to critical acclaim and has won several awards.  Awards or not, the impact of the film is tremendous. 

It’s not a documentary, per se, but has the feel of  a documentary and takes a very organic and unique approach to the plotline.  The story is about six Australian men from all walks of life who convene once a week to talk.  When Paul, Freddy, Cecil, Lucas, Moses and Alex begin meeting, they are complete strangers and emotionally locked up tighter than drums.  Trust develops between them and they begin opening up at a glacial speed.  The reason the movie is so powerful is because it explores the tragedy and pain of the Masculine Pretense. ( “If Men Could Talk” is a great book exploring this by Dr. Alon Gratch.)

Getting six men into a room to talk about their pain, struggles and secrets or any feelings about the aforementioned can be like getting apple cider out of a radish.  The tragedy of men is that often they don’t have a safe place to go to release the storms passing through.  Women are allowed and expected to explore their emotional terrain, but often society dictates stoicism from men.  Men don’t cry, men solve problems on their own without help, men mustn’t show weakness, or “men’s exploration of their pain or stresses will hinder their ability to function in the world”.  The reasons and pressures for internalizing and shutting off are enormous.  Some of this pressure is societal, and some biological; but the fact remains that we are all human beings: to be human means to feel things and experience emotion.  To have to stifle that to project a certain invincible image to the world, to other men, or even to women, is not only tragic but a great stumbling block of society.  Why? Anything repressed always comes out in perverted form.  That perverted form might manifest as aggression, self-destruction or physical disease leading to premature death, but make no mistake, energy with nowhere to go will eventually turn back on itself.

Gender wars are started on all types of fronts.  Women have long-worn the unfair stereotype of being “irrational” or “crazy” for living so strongly in their world of emotions, even as it allows them to process things quickly, then be done with it and move on.  It is a widely accepted way for women to be, even if disparaged by men jokingly and uncomfortably: “Must be that time of the month”, is one barb used to dismiss, or the favourite, “You’re overreacting.”  In my estimation, men show repulsion against such displays of emotion because they are afraid of their own.  Keep it in, don’t let anyone see you break, and keep perpetrating the strong silent myth.  Men are taught by society to suck it up and not betray any emotion whatsoever; to do so would show weakness which would bring unwanted vulnerability. Women are all over the place with their emotions, perhaps, but I see it less as a weakness and more of a strength.  It’s expressed and then it’s done.  Is it an accident that men will hold things in their gut like a pressure cooker only to die of heart attacks ten years earlier than women?  Is this an accident?  Isn’t to hold it in your gut and blow out the fuse (either through a raging temper, or to die early) more crazy?  The point being not to assign or lay blame, but to evolve as a society where such aberrations are no longer permitted and supported.  The point of films like this is to open dialogue to progress to a place where we have fewer restrictions on gender, when those restrictions block our very humanity.  Michael Joy and John L. Simpson have done impeccable jobs with this.

As many women know,  firsthand, behind closed doors, the pain and vulnerabilities men feel is no less intense than their own, it is just that you often have to go through 4 doors of concrete to get to that place.  Depending on the cultural dictates of a particular country, you might have to actually go through 40 doors before you reach him.  But that humanity and pain is still there and needs to be allowed for, supported and expressed.  The myth of the stoic male is an old idea that does not necessarily work anymore in the grand scheme of things.

What made this movie so important and powerful is that we forget how similar we are, and that men can be even more fragile and brittle, particularly because they have no place to direct that emotion in a safe environment.  Everything is the opposite.  What seems strong is usually weak and vice versa.  So the whole term “the weaker sex” (which has been the female gender’s moniker dating back hundreds of years) was likely a term coined by women in order to make men think they were the stronger sex.  Men are the weaker sex.  This is not a comparison or value judgment, they are only weaker in their emotional terrain because they have 60 pounds of emotional pressure bottled up like volcanoes with very few safe places to direct the spigot.  Women often make the mistake of forcing the issue, coaxing or becoming more emotional to elicit emotion out of their men.  This rarely works.  If you were to ask someone to explore foreign terrain, and any other time through his life he got implied messages from every direction that his very masculinity would be called into question if he set foot on this foreign land, would you go bursting out of the gates just because someone told you it was ok?  No.  Trust.  And trust has to be earned by beginning with a re-imagining of what is healthy and accepted in societal relations.

The six men gradually grew in trust as their demons came seeping and flying out as small and large things were healed over time.  Once the emotional storms and wounds were expressed, they seemed to exit their consciousness and bodies, or at least greatly dissipated their power in some cases.  A very dire warning as to why such blockages in society need to be healed is this:  As men become more in touch with their own emotions and wounds, they became more empathetic.  If they are shut down, they can’t possibly begin to understand or put themselves in the shoes of another human being.  This is where the work is so vitally important.  In each of these men I saw my grandfather, my father, my brother.  I thought of how each generation had their own cage of isolated and trapped emotions and how each generation was expected to project a certain image (not unlike, say, concrete or wood).  Although with each successive generation, the tourniquet on emotions has been allowed to loosen, it is difficult not to recognize in our men and acknowledge the pain of sitting in that muck and stoicism must bring.

After the film, the director/producer John L. Simpson gave a Q & A session about the initial idea of the film and process for making it.  On the way out the door, he had a video camera set up asking for video testimonials and reactions of viewers.  Remember, this is a film that has gotten almost zero distribution, accolades or not.  It is sitting with a still, strong and powerful voice  in a vast sea of multi-million dollar, movie-studio-sponsored Crap.  If you happen to be a man, or know one, I highly recommend buying it  and watching it (scroll down, mid-screen to Men’s Group DVD). 

As I walked past, the producer, John L. Simpson, asked me “Would you be uncomfortable being on camera? It would be nice to have a woman’s reaction to the film.”  “Oh, no, no, not me.” I said.  “Would I be uncomfortable on film? Is the Pope Catholic??” is what I was really thinking.  Getting pictures taken is punishment enough. Giving an impromptu reaction to immortalize myself on film – I daresay – deserves a Purple Heart.  Yet something in me was urged to speak and as I relented, it just came pouring out – as the truth is often wont to do.  When I left I was shaken and surprised by how passionately I felt about the film and how strongly I feel about how the sexes have covertly agreed to operate behind their enemy lines of misunderstanding.  When I finished, he replied, “Wow, that was profound.”; Not at all.  It was the message of his movie that was profound. What was profound was how strongly it has resonated with men and women alike. 

For all the energy women have spent dwelling on their oppression (the corsets, the dowries, the infidelities we are conditioned to accept and forgive due to “male biology”, the fight for the right to vote, the disaster of the bright idea of the birth control pill and the reaping of those consequences, the physical and emotional abuse from aggressive men, the unequal pay, etc. etc….) For all of the oppression women cling to in efforts to remain victims of patriarchal society, this movie is a glaring reminder of how we as a society, knowingly or unknowingly, are oppressing men: through a denial of their humanity, through a denial of permission for them to be human, we are collectively oppressing them in a very painful way.  Who is to blame?  Society in general? Women? The traditions passed down by men’s fathers?  Who is to blame is not the point. What matters is that the latent emotional life of men must be supported, not punished or denied.  Seeing this film and beginning a dialogue is a great first step to increasing awareness of the beloved men in our lives so we can better honor their humanity. 

If movies like this had an easier time being distributed for mass consumption, rather than the Deuce Bigalows and pictures of little uplift, excessive violence and gore, I believe that our human evolution would accelerate at Mach speed as we moved forward into greater awareness, rather than dumbing down and stagnating into a cesspool of fluff.  Thank you to everyone on this crew who believed in this film and had the perseverance to stand behind it, even in the midst of challenges and doubts.   It will continue to make a meteoric crater of an impact and perhaps heal many relationships -many sight unseen – by promoting greater understanding.  And a word to the masses:  Let’s stop the gender wars.  The sexes are much more alike than we all choose to admit or believe.  When our gender identification begins to eclipse our humanity, we’re headed for trouble.

Men’s Group Wins Best Film Best Actor Best Script IF awards 2008

Producer John L. Simpson has won the Digispaa Spartan Award for the feature film men’s group.

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