Friday, September 14, 2012

Simone Weil as documentary film by moviemaker Julia Haslett

Julia Haslett's film on Simone Weil is a work of devotion, interest, and personal involvement by the moviemaker

 It is my hunger to know more of this woman, to get to view documentary footage about her, that brought me to watch and enjoy the film. I think, too, in the documentary’s travels with the filmmaker to Film Festivals and schools in the academy of various kinds and places, it is the hunger for the subject more than anything else that drives the burden of the documentary’s audience and film successes.

by Peter Menkin

New Hunter College teacher and filmmaker of Simone Weil documentary photographed 2012

For decades various people, many feminists, those men and women, too, of the religious kind, and political activists have shown keen interest in the work, book, and life of Simone Weil. Filmmaker Julia Haslett who directed the movie, “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” is one such person.
At 44 Julia Haslett made her first feature film taking six years making the documentary—as the filmmaker said of the creative activity

Simone Weil, mystic

of doing so, she was living with Simone Weil. The single engaging quote by Weil that kept Haslett’s focus so strongly centered on the woman, one that seemed to resonate in the memory and even mental need of the filmmaker: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” This is Haslett’s central premise for Haslett’s broader consideration of Weil’s notions about the nature of compassion and the human capacity for it.

This Religion Writer grants he too has been obsessed in a kind of way with Simone Weil, though not so intently, because the woman shines as a religious figure whose mystical experiences touched his mind and heart in a tragic way of loss and inspiritation too on the way God works in people’s lives. Weil is recognized as a religious figure, true, but she chose to eschew Baptism as a Christian. Somehow there is the hard to distinguish and find scent of a kind of humility and fear regarding the act, as if Weil did not merit such glory in her own sense of self. Granted the movie, “An Encounter with Simone Weil: a film by Julia Haslett,” focuses on Weil as political activist, even communist, and may interest feminists for her strength of independence and moral character as woman, it does not as a documentary do justice to the faith journey of Simone Weil as this member of the audience would like. In fact, the documentary is weak in this area, and in terms of cinematic movement a little lazy.
It is my hunger to know more of this woman, to get to view documentary footage about her, that brought me to watch and enjoy the film. I think, too, in the documentary’s travels with the filmmaker to Film Festivals and schools in the academy of various kinds and places, it is the hunger for the subject more than anything else that drives the burden of the documentary’s audience and film successes.

In a background conversation before the interview with film maker Julia Haslett, who now teachers at Hunter College, she told this Religion Writer over the phone from her vacation spot in Alaska: “My encounter with her was around faith and activism.” [It was Weil’s] faith to maintain a political conviction. Her faith and her religious community helped her… Anna Brown, [who is interviewed in the movie]… she’s the activist who is in the Guantanamo scene who wrote her PhD on Simone Weil. [Brown] is a member of the Catholic Worker Movement.” Regarding the philosopher and thinker’s …”Reason not to join the church, [that was] about denying herself a certain kind of solace and so did that.”
Julia Haslett explained more in that conversation by phone: “My interest in motivations for making the film is directly related to suffering in my family…I have been very struck by the screenings of the film where people were pursuing the subject suffering. Mental illness is one of many forms of suffering. I would like to connect or reference this suffering of mental illness as I deal with it in the film. Being present with someone who is suffering is a humane and fundamental thing to do. Weil, whom Albert Camus described as

Film still: An Encounter with Simone Weil

“the only great spirit of our time,” was guided by compassion in her personal and public life.”
The film maker can reached:

No one can say that “An Encounter with Simone Weil: a film by Julia Haslett,” was ignored by critics—not in the papers quoted like the ones below:

Struck by the observations about injustice, self-sacrifice, protest and empathy in Weil’s enormous body of work (most published after her 1942 demise), Haslett visits sites where the philosopher lived, and interviews scholars and a handful of surviving acquaintances. Weil was many things: a committed lifelong virgin; a teacher who quit to work at a factory in solidarity with workers; a daughter of middle-class agnostic Jews who rejected creature comforts and eventually looked up Christian mysticism; a communist called “counterrevolutionary” by family friend Trotsky; a volunteer antifascist fighter in the Spanish Civil War, despite her physical frailty; and a person whose death may have been the result of self-imposed starvation.
Chicago Tribune,0,4359672.story

 Here is a thoughtful commentary:

Simone Weil: Stephen Plant

This is another of the few video interviews with the film maker:
Interview with Julia Haslett

An Interview with Julia Haslett, director of An Encounter with Simone Weil from Sarasota Film Festival on Vimeo.

Probably a strong area of criticism of the film is how Julia Haslett dealt with her own need to grow, and to grow without emulating this unique woman of the mid-20th Century Simone Weil. It is readily apparent that she as an individual, that is Julia Haslett, is working on her own sense of person, of woman, and that this exercise in her life to better find herself and know herself was an object of the commentary in the documentary. This Religion Writer thought this a drawback in the documentary. At best, it was a distraction to what the film’s subject was to be about, Simone Weil, that profound human being. Rather than a deft hand touching this area of the film, it seemed laborious and intrusive. One important newspaper wrote in its review:
This is filmmaking as personal essay and personal quest. While investigating Weil and her implacable, even suicidal adherence to principle, Ms. Haslett also explores her own family history (her father killed himself), her outrage about American politics and wars, and her concern for her depressive brother.
New York Times

No doubt Simone Weil is a figure in history. One website I visited said of her:
died, at age 34, in 1943 in Kent, England.
During her short life, she gained acclaim as a philosopher and teacher, writer, mystic and social activist.
In ending this article and review on the film, let this Religion Writer add that the fame and even notoriety of Simone Weil seems somehow tied to the way she ended her life:

called suicide. There is a criticism of the woman as someone who starved herself to death, rather than as a religious woman who through sympathy and even religious discipline ate little in solidarity and mourning for those who had little or less to eat, to participate in the suffering of the world, too. This kind of action and faith is one characteristic of Simone Weil that is found intriguing and difficult to understand by many. This includes those who are people of faith. Nonetheless, it is clear to this Religion Writer that Simone Weil did as she did out of a faith mode, and in a kind of act that appears rather than one of suicide and despair, as way to reach out to the suffering of the world and join with that human condition in a dramatic and sacrificial way.


An Encounter with Simone Weil (Trailer) from Line Street Productions on Vimeo.


1. For some years I’ve been influenced by Simone Weil, and when I learned of your film, “An Encounter with Simone Weil,” this Religion Writer wanted to see it and review it. That’s sight unseen, as it were. Having read the

Filmmaker Julia Haslett of Brooklyn, New York. Interview done by phone from Mill Valley, California, Calling Julia’s office in an industrial area where there are a lot of artists, Brooklyn.

more than 500 page book by Simone Pétrement titled, “Simone Weil: A Life,” I wondered if you had read it, too. If so, how did it inspire your life and work on the film, both of which I understand were intertwined in many ways. Knowing you are not one to see Simone Weil simply as an activist and feminist, please tell readers how you are inspired in your life and work on the film by this mystic who is its subject. Please tell us how the film…and even the book, now out of print but available on…has had meaning for you in your life as a woman and someone who is a seeker. It is the seeker part that interests this Religion Writer most.

Simone Pétrement was Simone’s best friend. When I was looking for a resource for this project, I turned to her book which is a very comprehensive look at Simone Weil. The book gave me granular details. Each time Weil had an important meeting…or an important moment…it would chronicle it. Instead of placing a narrative arc over the life of Simone Weil, it provided a very dispassionate, objective account. Simone Weil: A Life (1973) helped provide me with details I could then do with what I pleased. It is not however easy reading. It gives tons of information and exhaustive detail. An easier read was a biography on Weil by Francine du Plessix Gray that was part of a series where authors are asked to have an editorial point of view. As a research tool it was harder to get a sense of objectivity. It was part of Penguin Lives. It’s short and very well written.

I think that part of what Simone Weil came to represent for me was someone who was very much on a search for truth, looking for answers to large, spiritual and existential questions. One of her primary question was how do we respond and address human suffering. My brother’s mental illness and the suffering that was attendant upon that drove my initial interest in Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

What Weil’s philosophy of attention asks us to do is pay attention. She writes, “Those who are unhappy have need for anything in this world than people capable of giving them their attention.” She asks us as moral, ethical, compassionate people to give of ourselves in that way, to help those who are suffering.

Sometimes I feel like I failed my brother and that story you see in the film. I tried to be present to him as much as I could. But what often happens when you are present with someone who is suffering is that you want to intervene on their behalf in some tangible way, while sometimes the best response, instead of offering advice, is to offer attention and recognition to the person who is suffering.

Simone Weil was raised as a secular Jewish girl in France. From a very young age she had a deep concern for the working class, the unemployed, the oppressed. It could be argued that this concern for the suffering of others had a spiritual or religious orientation. When she had her first mystical experience in her 20s she was prepared for that. Some people will say it wasn’t a coincidence that right around the time she lost faith in revolutionary political change, she had this encounter with God. I personally think it made her more open, because she wasn’t going to stop searching for answers to the big metaphysical questions. This visitation or mystical experience did not have to do with her crisis. She continued to search for the truth. So when one avenue was closed, she was more open to the new avenue.

I go into it her spirituality partly because I am curious about her evolution as a human being. But I am aware it is a limited aspect of the film. There’s a film from 1990 called “Utopian Pessimist” produced by David McLellan–a leading Weil scholar in England–that more fully explores Weil’s spirituality. My focus is on her evolution and how religion can provide guidance on fundamental questions concerning morality and compassion. Her life was short; she died at 34—an ambiguous death where she died of self-starvation. On the subject of the film and Weil’s spirituality people might be interested in listening to this recently posted podcast on a Film Geek Radio’s series devoted to films on religious and spiritual topics (

As for me, I very much identify with and admire Weil’s commitment to understanding what it is to be human and what it takes to live a life of compassion. Her commitment to that is inspiring to me. I think another big element for me is her intellectual questioning and her refusal to accept the status quo or orthodoxies of any kind. She put such a high value on interrogating the norm. I share these values.

  1. 2. It is difficult to find your film but I understand can be purchased in DVD through your website. Tell us how to get to your website, and where else the film is available on the internet. Further, in our initial conversation by phone while you were vacationing in Alaska and taking a break from seeking an academic position in film, you said you were going on a special kind of film tour through the South of the United States with this work of liberalism, biography, and documentary formula that even talks about her life as a religious figure. She of modern history, the 20th Century, how do you characterize her in your talks before educational groups? And the film, how do you characterize it just before or after you show it?

At the moment, “An Encounter with Simone Weil” is only available for purchase by educational institutions. We’ve got a lot of great feedback from the academic community and the mainstream and niche press, as well as a remarkable endorsement by Michael Moore who gave the film an award at the 2011 Traverse City Film Festival in Michigan. This is how he described it:

“Julia Haslett has made a profound and moving film on a woman who continues to speak to all of us. Few Americans know of Simone Weil, but this deeply affecting documentary will make you want to know more. “An Encounter with Simone Weil” challenges all of us not to look the other way when we see the suffering of others. Julia’s personal journey through the film is both heartbreaking and inspiring.”

More information about purchasing the educational license can be found here ( ). Otherwise, we are selling home video DVDs after screenings, but general home video release won’t happen until 2013.

The film continues to screen publicly to a diverse range of audiences. This summer it had its UK premiere at the London International Documentary Film Festival. That was followed by another London screening at Looking In, Looking Out, a new festival devoted to film and philosophy. The Irish Feminist Network programmed it in Dublin in July.

In September, it shows at the New York Society for Ethical Culture (9/19), the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle (9/24–27), La Maison Française at NYU (9/20), and in early October at DCTV (10/4) in downtown Manhattan. Riverside Church will also host a screening this Fall. Please check our website for updates:

From October 7th through the 21st, I will be touring with the film through the southeastern US as part of the 2012-2013 Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers sponsored by South Arts, an Atlanta-based arts organization. They select a certain number of filmmakers each year. Details on times and locations can be found here ( I don’t know exactly who will be there for the Southern Circuit Tour. The venues are in fairly rural locations where not a lot of artists come through. During this period, I will visit with like the film’s composer, Daniel Thomas Davis ( He lives in Durham, North Carolina where he is a Fellow at Duke University. North Carolina and Florida will be the states where I’ve shown the film in the most venues. “An Encounter with Simone Weil” had its US premiere at the Sarasota Film Festival and then showed early on at Full Frame––the premiere film festival for documentaries in the US, which is based in Durham, North Carolina.

The Southern Circuit tour visits mostly art centers and universities. I say very little by way of introduction when attending these screenings, for I want the audience to come to the film without preconceived ideas—I want the film to speak for itself. Afterwards, I speak at length about the film and the issues it raises. Among other things, it is a lesson in European history: 20s, 30s, and 40s and to a small degree French Colonial history. Recently, when the film screened to a packed crowd in Anchorage Alaska, one person in the audience said, Thank you for bringing alive this moment of history.

  1. 3. Sometimes a first time film, and remember I had the privilege of seeing the “Director’s Cut,” is special to any filmmaker. This is especially true when a project is even in some ways an expression and exercise in seeking by the director, as you are seeker of Simone Weil. Talk to us some about the experience of making a first documentary. What would you have done differently? What flaws do you find in the work, now that you’ve some time to review the film of yours, “An Encounter with Simone Weil.”

This isn’t my first film; this is my first feature film. For over 15 years I’ve been working in the film and television world. I’ve made a number of shorts and one documentary for PBS, which was part of a series I made in collaboration with Maren Grainger-Monsen, MD, while a Filmmaker-in-Residence at the Stanford University Center for Biomedical Ethics. This series on cross-cultural medicine included four short targeted documentaries called “World Apart” and an hour long documentary, “Hold Your Breath,” about an Afghan patient in the Bay Area.” It was making these films and talking to countless patients that contributed to my interest in Simone Weil and specifically her philosophy of attention. When asked what they wanted most from their doctors, the majority of these patients said they simply wanted their doctor to listen to them. This underscored for me our human need to be heard and seen.

“Hold Your Breath” went on to win the Wilbur Award, an annual award given by the Religion Communicators Council. The film was about a Muslim man who refused medical treatment because of his religious belief. More information on both films can be found here:

  1. 4. You’ve done some short works, and one in particular you said has a religious cast to it. This spiritual short film is the story about your father and it is about the scattering of his ashes. Thank you for letting us show that short as part of this interview. How this short does evidence some of your own religious sensibilities, and is those sensibilities of yours or even your father’s evidenced in the film? Is there anything special we need to know about so to better understand the short documentary, “Eclipsed,” prior to viewing it on these web pages?

“Eclipsed” is a record of a visit I made to a cemetery in the South of England with my mother, my younger brother, and my uncle. The cemetery was connected to St. Andrew’s Church in Hamble, Southampton, which has been part of the Church of England since 1109. When I was a small child, my family stayed in the priory there during summer holidays.

Fourteen years earlier, my uncle and my older brother had scattered my father’s ashes in this cemetery. Part of what interested me is that we lacked a memorial site for my father. In most religious traditions there is a burial site where family members can go. I had always felt a lack of a site or memorial place (he died in the USA where I lived). Missing that affected my ability to grieve his death. It was the lack of a memorial that was difficult. Even if the person is cremated, their ashes can be buried. But some part of me doesn’t like the ashes being scattered in multiple places like my father’s were. Because of having experienced the death of my father at age 17, I had to confront loss and how human beings confront loss at an early age. The lack of a spiritual belief or community made it harder for me. Certainly not having a place to go. I still remain outside a Church or spiritual practice. Although I feel that there is a certain solace or comfort that a faith could afford me. I see faith as a practice of community that can help people navigate the shoals of pain and suffering. I feel a sense of its absence, but I suppose I’d have to have a mystical experience like Simone Weil in order to cross over.

The very day we chose to visit the cemetery happened to be the on the day of the most complete solar eclipse in that part of the world in a 100 years. We were actually there. The film records the relationship of the darkness of the eclipse and being literally there at the cemetery while the light was diminishing. As a filmmaker, I was trying to work out my own feelings about the absence of my father. This is the least well screened of all my films. I finished it just before my older brother’s death in 2008 and consequently did very little to promote it. It has been seen, but it is the least widely seen.

  1. 5. Allow readers the privilege of an unusual question of a filmmaker. Speak to us of your own vision of Simone Weil, both as filmmaker in developing the work, but more significantly, tell us about this woman and her character and life. This opportunity allows you a broad reach, for was she not only mystic, religious figure to Catholics and others in a saintly way, but also radical and independent woman of scholarship and brilliance who lived a life of moral discipline and even activism? She is considered a woman of God, as you know.

In some ways this question mirrors the first question, my perspective on Weil’s religious faith. Obviously she is a woman who has deeply inspired thousands of people, both public figures and private people: Camus, T.S. Elliott, Susan Santog, and even a number of Popes. There was even a move to canonize her, but because she never officially joined the Church it did not happen. She is a person who stands as a woman of moral discipline, a woman with an unwavering commitment to living a compassionate life. She is a brilliant theorist and philosopher. She tried to reconcile universal principles with the very practical demands of daily life. She sought to integrate the theoretical with the practical, the mind with the body. It was an admirable pursuit to connect these metaphysical ideas with how we are in the real world.

There is no question she did believe in God. In her writings in the last two years of her life she tried to understand and reconcile how to live her [faith] in relationship to God. Her death grew out of her deeply held compassion towards her fellow human beings. At the time during World War II she was in London working for the Free French government, while France was occupied by the Nazis. She passionately wanted to help them, but she couldn’t get back to France. Unable to help, she decided to share in the suffering of her fellow countryman by eating only the rations they were afforded. But because she had recently been diagnosed with tuberculosis she needed to eat more to overcome it. She didn’t. Her death certificate reads, “The deceased did kill and slay herself by refusing to eat while the balance of her mind was disturbed.”

  1. Thank you for this interview. I am glad to make your acquaintance in this way, and I hope to hear from you again to learn of your next film. As we come to the end of this interview, talk to readers about anything you think this Religion Writer has missed, or you want to add.

As a general note or comment, what I continue to hope in showing “An Encounter with Simone Weil” around the world is to introduce Simone Weil to contemporary audiences, to encourage them to read her work and learn more about her. It is my firm belief that she speaks to us now. I think that is borne out by the profundity of the conversations, without exception, we have after every screening. There is a hunger to talk about the big thoughts, about how do we act compassionately. Whether it’s a Catholic University in Pennsylvania, or a film festival in Amsterdam. I hope readers will be able to link to our website and like our Facebook page: and I want to encourage interested readers to contact us to share their comments or to set up a screening of the film in their community. So far, the farthest flung was South Korea and we know Simone Weil has fans all over the world. People should contact the film’s Outreach and Distribution Director, Alex Engels:

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