The film 1917 tells the story of two British soldiers in the trenches of France who are ordered by their superiors to travel on foot to a distant part of British-held territory with written instructions from the General in charge of operations to not attack the Germans the following morning. The Germans have set a trap. If the British attack, it will be a slaughter and a defeat for the allies.
The two soldiers leave immediately and travel overland, through an encampment the Germans only hours previously abandoned, through disputed territory where lone German soldiers hide and skirmishes between bands of Germans and British are a constant threat.
The audience watches as the two men negotiate many dangers, from rats to explosions to enemy bullets. We see them stumble, run, fall, creep and claw their way through varied terrain, all of it scourged by the horrors of war. As day becomes night becomes morning, the men continue on, their primary objective to keep going, in the right direction.
This ever-changing panorama of challenges and dangers was filmed in one continuous camera shot. The camera never stops rolling through the two hour drama, the lens never breaks from its singular focus on the two soldiers moving, always moving. It is a breath-taking feat of cinematography and film production. This no-stop approach to filming gives the story an essential and potent immediacy. Along with the camera itself, neither the audience nor the two young soldiers ever shift focus from the moment they are in. There is no time for such indulgences, there is only NOW…NOW…NOW…and NOW. There are no flashbacks to the childhoods of the characters, or to the families that wait for them, no cutting forward to old men as they remember their long-past heroics. No secondary story takes place in some other part of the war-torn landscape. The ever-changing scenery through which the two men travel in their quest to complete the given task the only truth.
The effect of the film on this student of Zen was to highlight and honor that which can be easy to overlook as we walk through the varied terrain of our lives: Each moment of time and space we inhabit is a dynamic creation in which everything is arising and falling away. The continuity of time and space are an illusion and 1917 shows us this in stark relief. When we keep attention
focused on this universal principle, as does the film, we can see more clearly that nothing stays the same, nothing lasts, every moment is new, brand new. Everything the two soldiers experience dissolves to make way for the next experience. They can only remain present, keep moving in the right direction and keep their wits about them.
Our minds, not nailed to the present by life-threatening dangers, can grow complacent, causing us to grasp at experiences to opine about them, yearn for more of them, get angry at them, evaluate our performance of them, grieve for the losses within them—and in doing so, we lose the moment that has newly arisen before us. We, like the soldiers and like all sentient beings, exist solely in the present, but our internal camera lens looks backward and forward, at this and that, here and there, always veering off, stealing our attention and veiling this truth. Over and over again, we find we are no longer here.
1917 shows us life being fully inhabited in the now. Through its continuously trained camera lens, it offers a view of life as a journey in which the imperative is to see the threats and opportunities arising in this moment with a singular focus so that one can navigate them with wisdom. To indulge in reactions to that which has come before or that which lies ahead are delusions and as such they lead us toward dangerous distractions. The young Brits know their lives and their mission depend on this such clear concentration.
Zen students too are on a quest to complete a given task; we too are running for our lives. We too must remain aware of the dangers lurking everywhere as we encounter life, for we also have enemies that threaten our task’s fulfillment. Our enemies are not sentient beings but conditioned beliefs and feelings, old habits of body, speech and mind that can catch us in their cross-fire, that hide in dark corners to kill and maim. We too must keep going in the right direction, toward the possibility of freedom and safety, paying full attention to the moments when these internal enemies show their shadowy faces. They lie in wait for our attention to flag. Inattention creates the perfect conditions for the traps they set.
Emotions and thoughts, all conditioned behavior thrives on our mind’s undisciplined flights of fancy into yesterday and tomorrow, likes and dislikes, distant lands and dramas. It is so easy to forget! It is so easy to relax into self-satisfaction that feels like peace. Before we know it, some deep discord within us is exploding forth and we are again at war. Our inner world and the outer
world it reflects are both battlefields where the delusions of winning and losing, love and hate play out their dark story of opportunity lost and truth mired and muddied, buried in the trenches of suffering and ignorance.
Like the two young Brits in 1917, our task is to keep going, pay full attention and remain vigilant, knowing that our lives depend on it.
Lao Huo Shakya
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