Terence Malick is one of my favourite film-makers – an accomplished director and story-teller with a deep understanding of philosophy. Underneath the narrative current of his movies are explorations of profound questions about human life and living.
In 2005 he released The New World, which centres on the founding of the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia in the early 1600s.
As you might be able to tell from the title, it’s a film about worlds.
Not world simply as in ‘place’, but world as in the whole style of relating to everything that we’re each in from moment to moment, but which we often can’t see. World as in the invisible way our language and practices shape what we can see, what we can imagine, and what we can do. World meant as when we say ‘the art world’, or ‘the world of science’, or ‘Anna’s world’.
Early on in the film, the European settlers, newly arrived in America, run into terrible difficulty. They’re unable to understand that the world with which they’re familiar and the new world in which they’re living are not the same. They can see and act only in the habitual ways handed to them by their European heritage. And they’re blind to their own blindness.
When winter comes, they freeze, starve and get sick behind the high wooden walls of their compound, unable to work the land to produce what they need. They have neither the experience, nor the appetite, to genuinely open their eyes or shift their practices to account for what’s around them. They don’t have the distinctions in language allow them to discern what’s needed. And they treat the local Algonquian people – the very people who could teach them how to survive by inviting them into a new world of understanding – with disdain, violence and suspicion. The Algonquian become resources to be utilised rather than people who could show them how to see.
The film’s heart explores the relationship between John Smith, a settler, and Pocahontas, a princess of the Algonquian people. Both are, uniquely to their people, travellers between worlds. They alone appreciate the mystery and beauty of the otherness of the other, the possibilities that the other’s world and language and way of seeing can bring. And both are chastised, judged, and cast out for stepping outside the horizons of their own communities.
The whole film is a reminder of the choices we make whenever we find ourselves in a situation, or with people, that we cannot at first understand. The decision to colonise, forcing our world and understanding onto theirs, or to be a traveller between worlds, opening in curiosity and wonder to the other, lead to very different places.
And the choice is not just for grand historical situations such as settlers arriving in a new land. It’s there for us in the most ordinary and everyday of situations as we navigate the simultaneously familiar but always strange and unknowable worlds of our co-workers, our families, and our communities.