Wondrous Oblivion (PG)

Sep 14, 2005
Cranbrook Film Society

‘No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish’ . So read the signs put up by landladies in their windows in the ’50s to avoid unnecessary ‘confusion’ on the part of possible tenants and it is to that harsh world that ‘Wondrous Oblivion’ takes us. Nonetheless, Wondrous Oblivion is, especially in our fearful times, a hopeful, optimistic film. And it says two really important things. One that we have much more in common than separates us as human beings. And that our differences, as the marriage guidance cliche goes, may be the very things that enable us to help each other and to grow.

The central characters all have in common that they are immigrants. They know this, and some kind of intimacy is always going to happen, but they are also specifically Jewish immigrants and West Indian immigrants and that heritage shapes or distorts their world.

The roots of the story for writer/director Paul Morrison were in his own personal experiences. It began with his memories of his own childhood; ‘my sweet and diminutive Jewish Grandmother (was) transformed into a yelling fiend on the day the first black family moved in next door to her home in Cricklewood – I sensed the fear that lay behind the anger; the anxiety about what her new neighbours’ presence would imply about her own status and security in the largely white British street’

In contrast Morrison watched in Hackney in the 80s a ‘Jamaican guy who had the basement flat next door (who) created for himself a typical Kingston back yard, a home from home, in the garden. He grew vegetables and ganja, kept chickens and for a while a goat, and bred rabbits for consumption, all on a tiny urban plot. It was a model of defiant cultural assertion.’

In contrast Morrison reflected on his own British Jewish inheritance and after considering a history of persection, expulsion, then cautious tolerance, wondered if Jewish people in Britain were willingly complicit with their own ‘invisibility’ ‘…were we still living here as though we were here on sufferance, keeping our heads down and our hands clean? Anglicising our names and religious services. Forbidding the use of Yiddish in the Jewish Free schools that served the new arrivals at the turn of the century. Learning our manners. Learning to fit in. An assimilation into Britishness that inhibited and froze our own positive sense of ourselves. A model, I think, of what multiculturalism isn’t. The old model’

Different from the experience of West Indians but a common experience for Irish immigrants. In Catholic schools in Liverpool in the 70s run by Christian Brothers, all the brothers were Irish, and the classes crammed with freckly O’Donnells, Murphys and O’Connells but nobody ever mentioned Ireland!

And whilst the shadow of the Holocaust cast its pall on the Jewish characters hopes, the specific history of post war immigration from the West Indies was very different with no chance of ‘passing’ for English. Encouraged to come and believing, to a greater or lesser extent in Britain as a welcoming Mother Country, the disillusionment was rapid and bitter. One of the black actors in the film refused to drive near the street where she lived as a child so powerful are her memories of rejection and racism. Some of the best scenes are the linking ones, just Delroy Lindo coming home, a scowl and surliness chipping away at his natural good humour. We don’t see the hundred petty and serious injuries and injustices that oppress him but he makes us feel them, and still in Britain today young black males are more likely to be in prison than in university.

Paul Morrison | UK/Germany | 2003 | 106 minutes | PG