3. 9. 2020

English Version | Wings to fly

by Mathilde Misciagna


Throughout history, there have been several figures who never gave up hope, even when the circumstances around them were totally adverse. It is these solid examples of perseverance and survival that accompany us to this day.

Hope is not part of us naturally. Having hope is a choice, regardless of the challenges we encounter along the way. We often say "I hope", in the expectation that something we consider difficult to happen, will actually become reality. It is part of human spirit to be bigger than ourselves, to overcome ourselves and achieve something that we thought we were not able to achieve. But hope is an abstract idea, even a philosophical one, and philosophy deals with really difficult issues, and therefore important in the spectrum of human existence. Philosophically speaking, hope is a virtue that helps us to face the temptation of despair. It is like an aptitude, a skill to be worked on throughout life; requires training. Courage is a virtue because fear is a universal human experience. Many of the challenges we have to face act as a form of temptation to do what is not right. Despair works as a temptation, as does fear. Everyone gives in. But in those moments, we are faced with a psychological challenge that we must fight against. That's where hope comes in. 

Philosophies aside, there is in fact one thing that can really restore hope in the world: cinema. The narrative and stories portrayed in a film take us in like no other art. They open our minds, provide us with a whole new perspective on life. Whether they are based on true stories or they are making ground for something new, there is one thing that everyone has in common: the ability to make us feel something. Connecting to a character in a feature film can help us see life through someone else's eyes or it can even make us reflect on our own life. During the Great American Depression (1929 crisis), actress Shirley Temple put a smile on everyone's face who had a penny to go to the matinee. Also, in the Italian film La Vita È Bella (1997), by Roberto Benigni, probably his most acclaimed internationally, the character Guido Orefice, even in the face of the terror of the Nazi concentration camp, where he is removed from his wife, uses his imagination to make the son Giosué believe they are participating in a game with a final reward. The carefree tone of the beginning disappears as the action develops, but Guido does not lose his smile and does not give up even for a moment, fighting for his survival, and that of his family, and avoiding the child's suffering as much as possible. His willingness to survive is stronger than any uncertainty about the future. Another of the most inspiring films of which there is memory within the genre is the biographical drama The Blind Side (2009), with Sandra Bullock, about Michael Jerome Oher, the football star, and his traumatized and abandoned journey as a teenager. Based on a true story, the protagonist is an example of enormous resilience and proof that our past does not necessarily determine our future.

But the truth is that real life surpasses any film. Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón, or just Frida Khalo, is a widely known example of popular culture. In addition to being an exceptional artist, one of the greatest of the 20th century, she was a warrior, a fighter in her private life as well as in her professional and social life. Her entire work reflects this reality; in addition to painting, she also left a diary in which she recorded her joys and frustrations, namely her troubled marriage, her fragile health and the impossibility of having children. At the age of six, she contracted polio, which left her with a foot injury, and at the age of 18 she suffered a serious bus accident that left her in the hospital for a long time. She also suffered three miscarriages and had three toes on her right foot and then her leg amputated due to gangrene. Despite being depressed and unable to walk, Frida started to make self-portraits with the help of a mirror and an easel adapted so she could paint lying down. Khalo never allowed her physical condition to hinder her political activism until the time of her death in 1954. She broke several taboos, being not only an openly bisexual feminist, something totally ahead of her time, but also a communist and Mexican nationalist - a woman firm in her convictions and committed to her ideals. Frida was able to plastically express a rebellion against traditional femininity imposed on women - anticipating current gender issues. Sometimes she appeared androgynous, sometimes she painted scenes of childbirth, abortions, murders of women, and a series of themes that had not been exposed until then. The greatest legacy of her work was the idea that matters considered private in the lives of women should be treated as politics. 

In a way, that was the same motto that guided John Robert Lewis, who passed away last July. Known as the “freedom knight”, he was an unavoidable and pioneering figure in the fight for racial justice in the United States - and a huge example of hope and courage. In 1961, he became one of the original 13 Freedom Riders [activists who traveled by bus through the south of the country, challenging the status quo], and two years later he was one of the organizers of the great march in Washington, which would become known as "The Great March on Washington. " As a member of the Democratic Party, he was elected to Congress for the first time in 1986, and remained there for 30 years. His path was marked by challenging segregation, discrimination and injustice - the fuel of the Black Lives Matter movement that now invades American streets. Until the end of his days, he participated in numerous demonstrations, where he was arrested and physically attacked by state troops. In 2011, Lewis received, from Barack Obama, the highest award in the USA, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Like John Lewis, Rosa Parks was also one of the most important activists in the black civil rights movement in the United States. On December 1, 1955, when she was “just a 42-year-old black dressmaker”, she entered history by refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, capital of Alabama. She was arrested and taken to prison for violating the segregation law, suffered death threats, humiliation and had great difficulty finding a job. Her simple gesture, but of great significance, was the starting point for the pastor and activist Martin Luther King Jr. to organize a mass boycott of 381 days against local transportation companies starting a major upheaval in the history of the United States - and the world.

It was through hope that the above personalities suffered and it was also through it that they changed the world. Let it be said by Viktor Frankl, Austrian neuropsychiatrist and survivor of the concentration camps of Theresienstadt, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, who used his experience of the Holocaust as the basis for his psychoanalytical investigation and for the development of his work. In the book Man’s Searching For Meaning, he concludes that the “prisoners” who comforted others and gave their last piece of bread survived longer - proof that they can take everything away from us except the ability to choose our attitude under any circumstances. Viktor spent three years under terrible, unimaginable conditions, which would eventually become messages of hope for millions of readers around the world. His work offers us a way to transcend suffering and find meaning in the art of living.

In this world of constant change, in imminent collapse, we need something more radical in order to have hope. We need to cultivate a type of hope that will survive in a (new) reality that we do not yet understand. A radical hope, that is, a commitment to live a just and meaningful life according to standards of meaning and kindness that we may not have created yet. Although examples like Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa of Calcutta - both awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and 1979, respectively - show us that these standards may have already been created. Mandela, leader of the movement against the apartheid racial segregation regime in South Africa, fought for 67 years for a democratic and free society where people lived together in harmony and with equal opportunities. “It is an ideal that I hope to see conquered. But, if necessary, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die,” he said at the famous Rivonia trial in 1964. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, an Albanian Catholic missionary, has dedicated her entire life to helping disadvantaged populations. “Sometimes we feel that what we do is nothing but a drop of water in the sea. But the sea would be smaller if it lacked a drop,” she said. The skin wrinkled, the hair became white, the days passed and became years, but the most important thing has never changed in these two notable figures in world history: their inner strength.

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel or Oprah Winfrey, were also two female personalities from different areas, with surprising stories of hope, strength and non-conformism. The first became one of the most iconic designers ever and Oprah the most powerful woman on American television. The latter, in addition to having to face poverty and prejudice, survived a childhood marked by sexual violence by an uncle and cousins. The trauma turned her into a troubled teenager and ended up getting pregnant at 14, only to be expelled from her home by her mother. When she lost the baby, she decided to look at life differently. She devoted herself to her studies, won a scholarship in ​​communication and started her television career with the morning talk show AM Chicago. Later, the iconic Oprah Winfrey Show was born, which aired for 25 years and hit all audience records. When revealing the tragic episodes that marked her childhood, in a 1988 interview, she couldn’t have imagined that this act of courage would inspire so many people to break their silence as well. As for Chanel, try typing “Coco Chanel biography” into the search engine to immerse yourself in a universe full of twists and turns where overcoming plays the main role. One of the most brilliant women in the history of fashion, with an equally impressive trajectory: motherless, she was abandoned by her father and placed in an orphanage at the age of 12. She started her professional life as a salesperson and later was a cabaret singer for French cavalry officers. Her contribution to the society, especially for the female universe, cannot be measured only in pieces of clothing, but mainly in avant-garde and liberation. Stubborn with the idea of ​​breaking the traditional feminine silhouette, Coco Chanel refused the Fashion of the opulent corset dresses, preferring a more androgynous appearance, made of straight dresses and pants – destined, at the time, only to men. In 1926, she created the famous little black dress (LBD), an unprecedented color for the time, reserved for mourning. Revolutionary, it shocked conservatives and won over innovators. 

These examples of hope are not only made of international history. Aristides de Sousa Mendes, born in Cabanas de Viriato in 1885, was a true hero without a cape. He broke all possible rules and saved lives in one of the worst scenarios the world has ever seen. While Consul of Portugal in Bordeaux in the year of the invasion of France by Nazi Germany in 1940, he disobeyed the express orders of the President of the Council of Ministers, António de Oliveira Salazar, who accumulated the function of Minister of Foreign Affairs, and granted entry visas in Portugal to thousands of refugees, including many Jews, who fled Germany, Austria, France itself and countries already occupied by German armies. It is not known exactly how many visas were issued by, or at the behest of, Aristides de Sousa Mendes - the numbers range from a few thousand to three tens of thousands. His selfless act has obviously resulted in severe punishments. He lost the right to practice law and spent the last years of his life poor and without a family. Punished for his rebellion, the first recognition came late, 12 years after his death. In 2020, the world faces a global pandemic, the effects of the climate crisis, fires, floods, an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, the fight against extremism, racial violence and against women, among many other obstacles that seem impossible to overcome. To suggest that this is a challenging year is an understatement. It is said that in certain tragic situations, only a crazy man can keep his hope alive. But it's that little spark that eventually takes you out of the depths of despair. Such hope has the power to transform the impossible into possible, say these and many other names in history.

Translated from Vogue Portugal's Hope issue, out September 2020. All credits in the original articles.
Texto em português na edição em print