An Encounter with Simone Weil

An Encounter with Simone Weil tells the story of French philosopher, activist, and mystic, Simone Weil — a woman Albert Camus described as “the only great spirit of our time.” On her quest to understand Simone Weil, filmmaker Julia Haslett confronts profound questions of moral responsibility both within her own family and the larger world. From the battlefields of the Spanish Civil War to anti-war protests in Washington DC, from intimate exchanges between the filmmaker and her older brother, who struggles with mental illness, to captivating interviews with people who knew Simone Weil, the film takes us on an unforgettable journey into the heart of what it means to be a compassionate human being.


7 thoughts on “An Encounter with Simone Weil

  1. Thanks for the film.
    A brave attempt of director Julia Haslett (JH) to connect her life and political thought with that of Simone Weil’s (SW). The film never quite fulfils SW’s words it leads with – attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity: a concept linking political action and empathy with those who suffer and are oppressed. SW developed, and attempted to integrate states of attention and empathy as she witnesses the oncoming nightmare of the mid-Twentieth Century devouring the world. It is an empathy rooted in Marxism, radical medieval Catholicism and Buddhism – paying attention becomes akin to politicised mysticism.
    The film is a mixture of documentary and fiction, activism and the inability of activism to deliver. The players are JH, her brother, a number of talking heads, some of them shadows from SW’s life. The thread moves through parts of SW’s life, and parts of JH’s life; the intellectual and emotional tools are attention and empathy.
    It is an interesting journey through the life of SW and JH; bound up in JH’s life is that of her brother and in the distance, her father. JH’s brother Tim in some sense lives the political philosophy of SW; a kind of emotive activism that embodies empathy; as in the case of SW it leads to death. Her brother’s intellectual and emotional connection with African Americans is a major leap for a white bourgeoisie; he is acutely aware that life is a cul de sac of mayhem and oppression for many blacks. The brother’s empathy is heading into a spiritual psychological echo-chamber and his emotional intelligence primed by his father’s suicide leads to his suicide. JH’s description of paying attention reflects SW’s political and philosophical journey into an emotional domain that for SW developed into a spiritual domain – political philosophy cannot save; it can only bear witness.
    I was engaged in the film’s journey, into JH, through SW. I suppose when attempting to direct a film documenting the life of an idiosyncratic, and non-mechanistic thinker like SW, a person will make, or be forced to make their own connections; to formulate particular answers that support outcomes which are subjective; the actress (Soroya Broukhim) playing SW during a fictionalised interview points in an indirect way to this fact in JH’s rationale.
    I think for SW politics became another commodity – whoever has the best slogans and enough power will win. This is where the concepts of paying attention and empathy take upon themselves the power to change, maybe revolutionise, the mental landscape. The mental energy of concentrating; maybe akin to what Catholic mystics of yesteryear called grace – a process of transforming the mind. It does seem that we are not paying attention, judging by the world we live, neither revolution or grace have happened, except for the odd mystic (maybe)…, but then again I am a Catholic who does not believe in God.

  2. Really disappointed with this. the filmmaker is just trying to fit Weil into her own ideology about 'witnessing' oppression etc – she ignores so much about who Weil was. The essential aspects – her existentialism, her philosophy, her schizoid personality. She misinterprets and then endlessly refers to the quote 'Attention etc' It does not refer to playing witness to suffering – to give attention to those who suffer is a spiritual and life-enhancing exchange between individuals, its not a political statement at all. I'm amazed that no one stopped this doc from happening, its so poorly done, the filmmaker insists on seeing everything through her own ideological lens and totally misrepresents Weil and her values. The one saving grace is the development of the actress playing Weil who quite clearly by the end is frustrated at how blind the filmmaker is being when trying to dismiss Weil Christianity as 'finding solace.' The woman was a Christian mystic for gods sake. Filmmaker just trying to push her own liberal agenda, turning Weil into a tool to make a point. Appalling, really sad about this. Trite, contrived, insincere.

  3. I appreciate the film and the film maker. I discovered Simone Weil by accident. And I have been "studying" her work (casual reading of her in impossible). When we are inspired by a person of Simone's caliber, we want to get as close to them as possible. I feel that the film maker and I are going on a pilgrimage together hoping to get a glimpse of Simone.

  4. Just a little unfair there chaps! I thought it quite engaging myself. At the very least, it introduces a great thinker to people. No small thing, given Weil's relatively low profile. Of course, it is no substitute for reading Weil. And it is hardly like the documentary pretends to be a work of rigorous scholarship. Neither is the basic question, from what I saw, about belief in God. But I do agree: the BBC Radio 4 "In Our Time" programme on Weil is good.

  5. Honestly, the filmmaker's personal journey to "encounter" a person whose character and work she enjoyed and her struggle to reconcile with the fact that someone whom she respected might actually believe in God is not great fodder for a documentary, at least not one of substance. Google search anything by BBC radio on Weil and you'll be much better served, I think. A "quest to understand" one of the most educated people of our time should ostensibly have more rigorous scholarship than this film displayed.

    The whole film feels self-serving, made more irritating by two things: how the filmmaker gained access to priceless eyewitnesses to Weil's life and promptly asked them subjective softball questions, and how the actress hired by the filmmaker to role-play Weil seemed to grasp aspects of Weil's personality which escaped the filmmaker.

    Perhaps if it were re-edited and re-titled to be a documentary on the life of the filmmaker's brother seen through the lens of her study of Weil it would fare better. As it is, not recommended.

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