The thing about the film Raging Life, I told J, is it must be viewed in an actual theater, since it had been banned and was nonexistent in other formats. He raised his eyebrows, tilted his head. I have a friend who can get us the film reel, I said, still intact, hidden in his secret vault beneath an old church. There’s a theater in the district we can use; I can jimmy the lock, there’s a working projector inside and even an old popcorn machine though the smell would be risky.
J had been watching Griffin’s films, saying he’d seen numbers 1, 6, 10, and 20. All good films, though all accessible safe-list works, a list designed for our purity, our safety, our mental well-being. Raging Life, number 2, hardly fit such things. The protagonist, M, his world resembling our current one, is dissatisfied, disenchanted, disillusioned. Ultimately, he’s diseased, dying. He takes action, fights back. Cinematography of lush skies, open fields. He commits acts of rebellion. There are, as the ruling party would describe, acts of danger, acts of contamination.
J drank black coffee at my kitchen table. The morning sun broke through gray, warmed the unheated kitchen. He’s about 20 years younger, his face youthful, unwrinkled. Like me, he’d resisted joining the underground. Instead, he followed my creed of it being better to rebel through films and literature, learning about banned works few have experienced. Not sitting in dank, dripping basements with others dressed in matching uniforms, reciting stale chants, dreaming of open street warfare.
There were others like us, I’d told him, sneaking into old libraries and catacombs to find artistic gold. The everyday whisperers, the nondescript noncomformists. We don’t use phones, computers or the mail; they’ve been compromised.
Let’s do it, he said, sipping his coffee. I nodded, stood, looked to the street through my window. Military in black sporting face-shielded helmets—walking casually, rifles slung over shoulders. I remember a time, I began speaking, but trailed off, as I often did.
As we walked, the day becoming brighter, the air stiff with cold, I told J, 2 is a good place to start. I recommended 5, 11, and 23, definitely listed, though I don’t know if copies exist. As for those I hadn’t watched, I’d heard about 25, his last, purportedly shot entirely by surveillance cameras, and 4, but neither’s listed either way. Remember, talk in numbers, I said, because you don’t know who’s listening. We walked, silent, heads down approaching face-shielded soldiers, clouds and buildings reflecting in their mirrored shields, their heads swiveling as we passed. Don’t look at them, I’d told J before, don’t be entranced by the reflections in their faces.
What more do you know about Griffin, he asked. Resisting the urge to grab his shoulders, shake him silly, I said, let’s not speak names, there are ears. We walked past a high-rise apartment building. I could feel eyes peeking through blinds, those who exist as nothing, the fearful who give tyranny its power.
He had one son who died young at age 23, I said. His wife died fairly young also, not even 50 (much like my own life—my wife died young, and I lived many years alone after, though I never had children). He gained notoriety when film 11 inspired a terrorist group that, mimicking film events, attacked annually on October 14. After that, he went into seclusion, shunning festivals, screenings, interviews.
There were more details, but I didn’t want to reveal everything too soon. There were other stories I wanted to tell. The rumors of mass killings. My three-week imprisonment. Why I don’t look into the mirror. The way the world once was.
We reached my contact’s place. We walked inside the entryway door. Inside were four mailboxes and buzzers, the area smelling of cat urine. The concrete, chipped and cracked, had black paint covering graffiti, the marks of the disorganized discontent. A tempting form of violence, easy release. There were days I wanted to throw stones, hurl fire until they killed me. I rang the buzzer four times, the agreed-upon secret code. He descended the steps, blanket covering his shoulders, said, we meet in the church’s back alley doorway at four, and turned around, climbed the stairs, a faint creak then door shutting.
Walking back, J said, so, what happens after I see film 2? How does it change my world, this air I breathe? What does it all add up to?
I’m not sure what you’re asking, I said, even as I felt dread, that now my friend was not who I wanted him to be. That he was soon to break off, go his own way, pursue his reality as he saw fit. A militant in a basement. The afraid who only peek through drawn curtains.
Okay, where is freedom in our world? What chance is there of changing things?
I had no answers. I said, I remember when, but trailed off. At the end of Raging Life, M is captured, thrown into a dark prison where he eventually dies from his ailments. Disheartening, sure, but, in a montage of silent acts of sedition, his tale is spread person to person. By folded note, by whisper, by cryptic texts in invisible ink. What these efforts become, though, is never revealed.
I didn’t tell J the world was a lonely place where most light had been extinguished. I hoped he’d stay for another six hours so we could sit in that movie theater, palace of bygone years, and watch the film, even if it’s our last. The wide screen before us, as we sat in darkness, moving images revealing a world reborn in color. When I was imprisoned, I sat in pitch black, stared at the wall, waited for movies that never came. During that time, I realized that the world now was more prison than art. With J’s company, I could pretend the world was again full of light, colorful vistas of life.