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Levinas Assignment One

On the Grandfather in “Five in the Afternoon”


            If one were to claim that “Five in the Afternoon” was a film about war they would be correct. Although they could not mean this in the conventional sense, as the war going on concurrently with the story is barely touched upon. In fact “war” itself is only mentioned briefly in regard to the tumultuous history of Afghanistan and in an encounter with a French soldier. The war being fought in the movie is a war of faith between Norqeh’s father and his ties with his family. At the center point of the conflict is his piety in regard to his brand of Islam and the attention that he shows his daughters.

            Most of this conflict is internal. The Talibani strain of Islam was notoriously a twisted form of fundamentalist that regarded the female as being intrinsically sinful. The man’s involvement with his daughters puts his existence into a perilous situation with his belief in his own soul, and in that he ignores the obvious solution to the more perilous situation involving his granddaughter: that she is starving to death. Can we consider his life, a life lived or is it merely existed? Since the notion of “sin” is a personal one, and one that he is utmost concerned with, could we even claim that he is being moral in his decision to move his family from Kabul with the ultimate goal of Kandahar?

            In answering the first question we must consider how it is this man lived his life. Since all we have is the man as an elderly individual we cannot understand how it is that he arrived at this point in his life. What we do know is that he is deeply adherent to his teachings so much so that upon viewing Norqeh unveiled in the opening scene he asks for forgiveness. Adding to this is that Norqeh is constantly fearing his anger as she hides her white shoes and asks her male friend to not talk to her as he normally would. His life seems to be one of pure existence living in fear of the constant sin that he perceives to be all around him in each stage of their journey.

            This existence is one of fear. The fear of sin, that while important to the majority of the world, causes him to neglect the real for an ideal that cannot help those around him that are in actual need for the very basic needs of life. He is waiting for the experience of joy, or salvation, a deliverance from the pain of his life. He is ignoring that it is not only in pain and joy that one lives but through it.[1] In this regard his avoiding the actual for the eternal is denying life and causing the continued suffering of his family, himself, and his horse.

            While he seems to care for his family he is infected with the social aggression that he has been taught through his religion. This social aggression, “shuts people away in a class, deprives them of expression and condemns them to being ‘signifiers without a signified’ and from there to violence and fighting.[2]” This, we can see, at the palace outside of Kabul and in the desert, where he communicates only to his horse using the women only as mere tools for the finding of water. The only dialogues he seems to have are the one way conversations with his horse. This is taken to the extreme when he will not even communicate to his daughter that her baby, his granddaughter, has died.

            We may suspend our judgment to consider that while the man seems to be unduly harsh in his treatment of his daughters we could perhaps view him as performing an action that while jeopardizing their lives was saving their souls. His perception of sin being all around them in Kabul would necessitate, in his point of view, leaving the city. We must then consider what his ultimate goal must have been: to find some sort of paradise that was free from sin. The trouble for him, then, would be there is no place (a literal translation of the word “utopia”). For someone that is so devout, who views that sharing a place in Kabul with his daughters and unrelated males in the same room (separated by a clothesline and sheet) to be too sinful to tolerate is not going to find an earthly paradise that would suffice. All this person is, is desire, seeking that “another day should dawn within his day, and with it another waking that would rid him of his suffocating nightmares.[3]

            Can we claim that he is moral? No, we can claim that he is faithful and pious, but we cannot claim that his actions and behavior were in the interests of the other person. He was fleeing Kabul from the opening to avoid the stain on his soul. In order to make sure he was as ethically concerned for his daughters as he was himself, remaining in Kabul would have been the best choice. There they had access to at least the bare necessities, instead he sacrificed them for a dream that we never know if he found.

[1] Pg. 111, Levinas, Emmanuel; “Totality and Infinity”

[2] Pg. 153, Levinas, Emmanuel; “The Name of a Dog, or Natural Rights.” from “Difficult Freedom.”

[3] Pg. 101, Levinas, Emmanuel; “Place and Utopia” from Difficult Freedom

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