Krzysztof Kieślowski (1993)
DO YOU FEEL ABLE TO TALK? is the first full line in Three Colors: Blue, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s masterpiece of a meditation on grief and liberation. “Were you conscious during the….” is the next. The doctor is unable to finish the question he poses to a woman who has just lost her husband and daughter in a car accident. In the silence of the ellipses lies our inability to find words for what it means when someone’s life is destroyed. Trauma doesn’t work in words. Instead, it works through fragments of sensation and memory, action and inaction. It works through the main character—Julie—breaking a window in the hospital to create a diversion in a suicide attempt she cannot bring herself to fulfill. It works through the blackness of the void when it is all too much to name, to see, to feel. How do we tell and understand stories that do not lend themselves to words, whose very intelligibility belies the truth of their horror? Blue shows us a way.
I have lived my entire life with people recovering from trauma, and I have my own pain to heal from as well. Having grown up in a home where foster children and refugees sought shelter from storms of violence, and later working as an anthropologist in post-conflict contexts, I’ve seen my share of grief. Years of work in a small Colombian community where people are rebuilding after decades of war have exposed me to the many ways in which grief manifests in the bodies, minds, and souls of those who survive traumatic experiences. Grief becomes part of the very landscapes of people’s lives, changing how they relate to their environments, communities, and selves.
Blue helps me understand that no words can express our greatest pain. Trauma is, in fact, preverbal. The music and color (or lack thereof, for instance in the black screen that represents Julie shutting down when faced with explicit memories of the accident) that drive Blue are sensory experiences of trauma. Trauma activates the right brain (the creative and intuitive side) while shutting down the left half, where logical reasoning occurs. “While the left half of the brain does all the talking,” writes psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, “the right half of the brain carries the music of experience.” Through Blue, we enter into the music of one woman’s experience of grief, liberation, and love.
Whether pain sits and seeps or seethes and heaves, it cuts a unique design in everyone. In an installation titled Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning, Brooklyn-based visual artist Spencer Finch illustrates the specificity of pain and memory for every person who experiences a traumatic event. The installation, commissioned for the opening of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, features 2,983 squares, one for every victim in the attack on the Twin Towers. Each square is painted a distinct shade of blue. This individuality of emotion is what make us human. Blue invites us into the beauty of witness—to the pain of others and ourselves—in all its unique shades.
At its heart, Blue is about love. The liberation Julie finds is not from grief. Her grief remains—few deep wounds heal without a scar. Instead, it is a liberation into love, into the arms of new friends and old. Nothing hurts us more than love. Nothing is messier than love destroyed. Grief is how we manage the shards, fragments, and loose threads of a love that used to form a coherent pattern, that used to be whole, that used to be connected to us. After Julie loses those she loves most, her reaction is to flee all connections to her past life. She wants no one—no friends, no loves, no possessions. And yet life is nothing if not a series of entanglements, whether desired or merely unavoidable. Julie’s liberation is her ability to once more make connections to people, places, and herself.
Blue helps me live better because it helps me love better. It shows me how, in the words of Susan Sontag, to regard the pain of others—and how to hold this gaze with no expectation of comprehension, but instead with faithful presence that is, at its heart, love in action. It reminds me that the shades of my pain are not the shades of yours. The eyes through which I see my own grief are not those through which you understand yours. Blue offers us a format for radical love of others and of self. To be radical is to get to the root of something, the marrow of the matter. The root of love is our capacity to connect. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need this reminder that even after world-destroying events—which every loss is, for someone—the capacity for connection will re-emerge, at its own pace, on its own terms, in its own hue.
Erin Parish is a teacher, organizer, and writer living in North Carolina. Her professional and personal life centers around connecting people and resources to build stronger, healthier, and more engaged communities.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.