An Encounter With Simone Weil (Haslett, 2011)

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”So wrote Simone Weil, one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic and engaging philosophers, theologians, and social thinkers. The difficulty in pinning down Weil, of putting her and her thought neatly into an ideological box, makes her an ideal subject for documentary. Director Julia Haslett was most interested in Weil’s political thought and engagement, but hopes that Christians will identify with and be inspired by the way she allowed her faith to inform her political beliefs in a compassionate and humanitarian way.

“I hope that [viewers] would see Weil as an inspiration because of her faith but also because of her politics, specifically her concerns with suffering and social justice,” Haslett said.

Social Justice is an ideologically loaded term these days, too often equated only with late twentieth-century liberation theology. Although Weil, like all intellectuals in the middle of the century, grappled with Marxist thought, she ultimately felt solidarity with the working class through the recognition of affliction and her attempts to share in the conditions that oppress the weakest members of society.

Weil’s emphasis on suffering may have catalyzed the interest of Haslett (whose father committed suicide and whose brother suffered from anxiety), but the documentary also tracks her increasing, almost obsessive attempts to dig deeper into her subject’s life and connect with her on a more visceral level. That quest led her to scan archival footage hoping to capture a glimpse of Weil, track down friends and relatives and, in the film’s most commented upon sequence, hire an actress to emulate Weil in an attempt to “conjure” up the dead writer.

Haslett acknowledged that emulated interview has raised eyebrows in some quarters, and I asked her given Weil’s history of voluntarily sharing of the conditions of her own subjects why she did not attempt to do the factory sequences herself. Had her own project been a book, Haslett stated, she might have tried such an experiment (mentioning Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed as a successful example of such a project). Her own style of direction, however, would have made filming her own experiences too performance oriented and self-conscious.

One of the best aspects of the film is how generous it is in quoting from Weil’s own words. Less an introductory primer for those who don’t know the woman at all, the film succeeds as a penetrating, provocative mediation on a lamentably little known activist and mystic. It is a real treat for anyone who has had his or her own encounters with Simone Weil.

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