Res-o-lu-tion. It rhymes with Rev-o-lu-tion. Rhymes with, but not jives with. And that’s just it. As poet-activist Audre Lorde once put it, “You can’t dismantle the Master’s house with the Master’s tools.”
Paolo Freire knew this. At a cocktail reception for him at UCLA after he addressed over a thousand students, he stood with his head tilted back to munch off the bottom of a cluster of grapes and remarked to me, “You can’t tell someone who owns three cars that he doesn’t need one.”
The wiry, pint-sized Brazilian revolutionary of pedagogy whose books were theories-turned-field manuals for professors and farm workers, organizers and literacy brigades alike, taught us that conscienticizao (the process of critical consciousness) could only be generated via “dialogical thinking.” That might sound like debate — the subject of Greg Whiteley’s engaging and important new documentary named, with sadly wry irony, Resolved.
Despite the appetite of Sam Iola and Matt Andrews, star varsity debaters of Highland Park, Texas, for Foucault and questions of ontology, the film delivers live-action performances and behind-the-scenes banter of what Freire called the “Banking Method” of education. The two champs therefore emerge as passive depositories of information when they should be actively practicing authentic dialogue about their everyday lives in their social context.
Resolved pesters Americans with the inadequacy of the Bush-Kerry presidential “debates” (so-called as they were) just as the country is entering a new round on the same dodged topics with new candidates. Among other vital topics, the film spotlights the race and class issues that are so insidiously squeezed out of the American cultural and political framework for addressing and deciding the major national and global issues in the United States today. And for the longest time, Resolved achieves this haunting not so much by overt critique as by omission and invitation, implied as these may be.
The critique is couched in an information implosion appearing on the screen as plastic “tubs” of data compiled from relatively exclusive and pricey search engines surrounding issues such as the detention of presumed enemies of the state at Guantanamo and the failure of the U.S. to work with U.N. peace-keeping accords. And that critique is as inarticulate and incomprehensible as the garbled, panting, drooling, 400-words-per-minute “spread” style of contemporary debate teams in national high school competitions today. This is info-babble with all the rhetorical sway and oratorical persuasion of a livestock auctioneer or a stock market bidder. Forget the old-fashioned, logical line of fire and the emotional appeal that soothsayers and griots delivered to their audiences long before Socrates and Cicero. Debate as we see it on this screen is no longer an oral or verbal art, nor is it a provocation to thought, let alone a vehicle of social agency.
“The medium is the message,” preached Marshall McLuhan. And this film shows us that paradoxically, our direly needed messages are pulverized and finely milled only to be spit out as drivel in public policy debate, a medium that evacuates content as it conquers form. Call it language, if you can — a brittle, brutal cacophony of barely recognizable utterances — colonizing ideas.
It would seem, and for quite some time the film lets us believe, that two African American teens from Jordan High School in Long Beach, California are the challengers of such a regime. Their three-point strategy of “Identity-Purpose-Method” that they enact as their agenda for the debates, which they claim is derived from Paolo Freire’s first international blockbuster-turned-classic, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, appears not only to break the rules of the debate structure but also to set new terms, or “re-name the game,” as Louis Blackwell and Richard Funches put it, once they commit to their mission to re-make their own lives through debate.
They debate in order to lay out their “differences” — that they bus, not jet, from tournament to tournament, in between the 20-hours-per-week jobs they hold down after school while they research and drill as devotedly as the middle-class debaters such as Sam Iola and Matt Andrews at private schools where teams are funded by endowments. Louis and Richard use unconventional sources and means for debating — their own lives. Where this goes, and how far it gets with the debate judges and final-round juries at the Tournament of Champions, speaks more than a thousand tub-loads of data about American culture today and its real issues, debated or not.
Contradictions abound in the form-and-function relation of the received concepts of debate, much as it has changed as a national academic competition, an extra-curricular sport, an educational tool, and a social forum. The film, using live-action, on-location footage of competitions as well as interviews with debaters, teachers, coaches, and parents and even inventive animation techniques, addresses all these aspects of debate and more — such as who gets heard and why.
With thematic irony, visual humor, and storytelling verve, Whiteley succeeds even when his subjects falter. And in the spirit of true debate, it is the questions, not the answers, that beg our immediate and utmost attention, because this film’s “resolution” revs them up all over again.
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