“You can’t want hell for other people without being in hell yourself.” If there were an Academy Award for one-liner delivery, John Viscount’s award-winning 2011 short film Admissions should have clinched it. With 21 minutes, four actors and a single set, Viscount lays out a modern-day parable where the stakes are high to find the wisdom required to learn true forgiveness in a world where “the ones who find it hardest to love need love the most.”
Set in the admissions room of the afterlife, the story at the center of this short film revolves around the Israeli couple Daphna and Eli (Anna Khaja, Anthony Batarse), a Palestinian man Ahmad (Oren Dayan) and the clerk (Oscar-nominated James Cromwell) to whom the three must plead their case for admittance into heaven. As they do, Daphna, Eli and Ahmad begin to realize that their lives are more intertwined that they initially thought, and as they grapple to find meaning and salvation in their deaths in the wake of Middle East conflict, histories compete, alliances are drawn then dissolved, and in realizing that they are part of a greater narrative far too complex to attribute blame to a singular person or deprive yourself of feeling compassion towards who might otherwise be your externalized enemy.
It’s been estimated that over the course of the 20th century, approximately 187 million people have died as a result of war, not including the countless violent deaths as a result of “lesser conflicts” — criminal activity, domestic disputes, even school shootings. Of the twelve deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history, six took place since 2007, while two occurred last year alone. “Forgiveness often evades the living,” and nowhere has this been demonstrated more clearly in recent times than in our embracing of assault rifles and concealed weapons, and the confusion gun enthusiasts create in replacing respect for the Second Amendment with paranoia in the second coming of an American civil war. Weapons don’t make a civil society: compassion does. “Murder is a contradiction, whether it’s done by governments or individuals,” Cromwell states in one of Admissions’ most memorable lines, “because it goes against what you truly are. Love neither attacks nor condemns. And when you can forgive those who attack and condemn you, that’s when you know it’s really love.”
In its simplicity, Admissions is a film that will haunt you, replaying itself each time to show that when it comes to the cosmic morality of violent conflict, nothing is as it seems: there is always another story, always another’s pain. And it’s a reminder of the duty we owe to ourselves and each other to never fall for a simplified narrative that forces you to take a singular side. There are no good guys versus bad guys: there are people — flawed, unpredictable, fractured but good-natured, responsive and willing to heal. While it may make a better story to seek out the extremists, its this greater majority of humanity and dignity that will push us forward, realizing that forgiveness and empathy are not just paths to an envisioned afterlife — they are how we save ourselves in the this harsh world.
Aslan Media Arts, Culture and Music Editor Safa Samiezade’-Yazd recently had a chance to correspond with Admissions Writer and Producer John Viscount on what inspired him to write the film, the balance he created in the context of Middle East conflict and the healing conversation he hopes this film will ignite.
Aslan Media: How did the project come about? What inspired you to write it?
John Viscount: I originally wrote Admissions as a response to 9/11. After that tragedy, I felt an overwhelming compassion for the family of humanity because I knew we were entering into another destructive cycle of attack and counterattack. This made me want to communicate a more forgiving interpretation of life’s events so people could more easily find a pathway to forgiveness, no matter what the world served up.
To do this, I decided to create a modern parable that not only included a heartbreaking terrorist attack, but also a teaching moment where those involved would have to face each other in the afterlife. Through the use of classic teachings on forgiveness, I hoped to demonstrate that by simply changing our thinking, we could create peace in any situation.
When I first wrote the script, I sent it to the producer of the film, Gavin Behrman, and he thought it was powerful. But we were busy with other projects at the time and didn’t do anything with it. Ten years later, I came across the script again and realized it was just as relevant as when I first wrote it. The subject matter seemed timeless so at that point we decided to get the film made.
AM: What is forgiveness to you? What is peace?
JV: To me, if you want to live a joyful life, forgiveness must be automatic and unconditional. Forgiveness takes on these qualities from the realization that there is only one of two things that is ever really happening in this world. People are either expressing love, or they are crying out for love. So the perfect response, every time, in every circumstance, is to be loving.
When life is viewed from this perspective, forgiveness and compassion become the natural response to everything you witness. The joy that you then get to experience by removing all grievances from your heart makes you a healing asset to the world. Continuing in this same line of thinking, peace is just the knowledge that on the deepest level, all is love, all is forgiven, and all is one.
AM: What distinguishes Admissions from other films written about forgiveness and peace?
JV: I think what makes Admissions a memorable experience is its high intensity. I wanted to create a setting — the Admissions Room for the afterlife - that was clean and simple, putting the spotlight on the characters and their words. The drama in the piece comes from the dialogue, so I didn’t want anything to compete with that. This is why a super clean shade of white was chosen for the color of the room, so the actors would really stand out in stark relief.
I also felt the room should be small because the close proximity in which the character’s intertwined fates are revealed increases the emotional stakes. They are forced to confront head on, in a very tight space, the way their thinking has lead them to where they are. In this simple, stripped-down setting, there is nothing for them to hide behind.
Another unique aspect of Admissions is that most films would never have a scene in one room that lasted 18 minutes. But because of the setting, and the profound things that are being talked about — things that take the audience on a journey to truth on a whole other level — the film actually seems action packed. This is accomplished with no punches thrown, guns drawn, or even a single change of scenery. Ultimately it’s just a healing conversation, which is what I hope the audience can partake in after seeing the film.
AM: Why the decision to create this as a short film? What place do you think shorts have in the broader medium of film?
JV: The subject matter in Admissions is pretty heavy, so I wanted to get in and get out without beating the audience over the head too much. I think as content creators, it is our duty to use the audience’s time wisely, presenting them with something concise and to the point. This is why I believe short film is a perfect vehicle for modern parables. You can put forth transformational teachings in a format that audiences are comfortable with, reaching those who otherwise may never pick up a spiritual book. Plus, you can do it in a short amount of time so there is a better chance of keeping the audience’s attention. In the future, I hope to see lots of writers using shorts for this purpose. It’s a great medium for content that elevates while it entertains.
AM: How long did it take you to perfect the actor’s lines?
JV: I believe dialogue should be dramatic and have an action all its own. It is entertainment that we are trying to provide, so I think the character’s lines should be rich, multi-layered, and smart. If it sounds like stuff you hear every day, then it’s really not earning its keep on the screen. Boring conversations just aren’t that interesting - in life, or the movies.
When writing the dialogue for this film, I started with more than I needed. Then, I sculpted it down to the bare minimum that was required to get the point across. Once the script was put into the very talented hands of our director, Harry Kakatsakis, and the extremely gifted actors in our film, this sculpting continued with the entire team. The actual time spent writing and then editing the script was probably about six months.
Admissions was a unique challenge because there were so many important teachings that needed to be included, but I had to make them sound conversational and natural. I definitely had a message I wanted to send, but I couldn’t let it be too obvious or the audience would be pulled out of the story. It is unique demands like these that make the creation of transformational content so difficult to execute but also so rewarding.
AM: What was the most challenging character to write, develop and cast?
JV: The Clerk was the most challenging, by far. With that character I was basically creating a spiritual master from scratch. I needed the Clerk to say some very high concept things, but he couldn’t come across preachy. He also had to be likable and even have a sense of humor, while staying above the battleground in the room. Getting James Cromwell for that role was a huge gift because he has the gravitas and authority to actually pull off the lines in the film. In the hands of the wrong actor, those same lines could have come off as trite.
It was also extremely helpful that James is so well versed spiritually because he has the intellectual bandwidth to completely understand what I was trying to communicate. He always had brilliant suggestions, and his delivery took the film to a level it would not have achieved without him. In real life, he is a peace activist so he also understood the importance of the film. But even with all that he has done over his long and distinguished career as an actor and activist, he remains incredibly accessible and down to earth. It was easy to see why he is so well-liked.
Anna Khaja, Oren Dayan and Anthony Batarse, besides being great actors, are also very beautiful people with wonderful, loving hearts. Their considerable talent is obvious to see in the film, and they pulled off their roles to perfection. We were also very fortunate that they believed in the message of the film and wanted to help us get it out to the world. Because of this, they were extremely generous with their time and talent, as was James Cromwell. I’d say the most interesting background note is that Oren Dayan has Israeli parents, so it was very rewarding to see him embrace the role of the Palestinian with such passion and empathy.
AM: Can you talk a little about the balance you found in showing the responsibility both sides play in the conflict?
JV: The balance I really wanted to show is that both sides have suffered tremendously in the Middle East conflict, and both sides need love and understanding. I also wanted to demonstrate that the attainment of lasting peace requires the establishment of shared interests.
When the characters first enter the room, they seem to have nothing in common. But through the telling of the story, they discover the other side’s suffering. It eventually takes the feminine energy of the Israeli wife to begin the healing process, but in the end, the sense of loss they share over their loved ones creates a bridge that they cross to reach common ground.
The common ground that all humans share is that we are “love beings.” This is demonstrated by the fact that unconditional love is what’s most healing and sustaining to us. When people are attacking and condemning others, they have simply strayed from their essence, and just need to be gently redirected back to what they truly are.
It is also important to realize that the oppressed are not the only ones who are suffering in this world. The oppressors are suffering as well because they have strayed far from love. This means if you want to heal the world, then everyone must be forgiven, without exception. If you want to freeze the world in a state of separation, then simply hold on to grievances, and the world’s continued suffering will be assured.
Contrary to popular opinion, the real evolution of life on earth is not from single cell organisms to the complex creatures roaming the world today. Our real evolution is the journey from separate interests to shared interests. Thankfully, forgiveness provides a direct route to that healing common ground and the everlasting peace that is our birthright.
AM: In writing the script, did you try to put forth the agenda of forgiveness that is stripped of political and religious influences or did this just happen organically?
JV: Anything that creates separation makes forgiveness impossible to attain. Unfortunately, religion and politics can sometimes be some of the greatest creators of conflict known to humankind. Therefore, true forgiveness has to steer clear of these limiting factors so it can rise above them and truly bring people together. It requires a spiritual point of view in which one sees past the material world of bodies to the underlying spirit that unifies us all.
In Admissions, Hell is represented by separation and Heaven is represented by unity. By shedding all grievances, the Israelis and the Palestinian get to enter the oneness of heaven and rejoin their natural state. Back on planet earth, we create Heaven and Hell with every thought we think. If we choose to judge and condemn others and leave them out of our circle of love, we have created Hell for ourselves. If we choose to forgive, our circle of love expands and we get to live in a Heavenly state of mind.
AM: What lessons in this film do you personally implement?
JV: Admissions takes place in the afterlife, but the ideas in it are meant to be applicable to the here and now. Essentially they are designed to create a psychological structure for attaining inner peace, so I try to implement all of them in my daily life. One of the reasons I wrote Admissions was to share some of the helpful teachings that I have been exposed to through various belief systems. Sometimes, when I read a passage that just sets everything right, the gratitude I feel inspires me to share the wisdom with others so they can feel the joy that I just experienced. Admissions is full of the helpful nuggets that I have been lucky to discover. It is not always easy, but whenever possible, I try to let them guide me through the vicissitudes of this life.
AM: What impact do you want Admissions to have? What will you consider a success?
JV: My biggest hope for Admissions is that it removes some suffering from the world. If the film can do that for even one single person, I would consider it a success.
AM: Where do you want to take the film from here?
JV: The next step is a college tour for the film that we are currently setting up for 2013. A few colleges have already reached out to us, so we figured we should put together a full tour. The idea is to screen the film at college venues, and then I will lead a Q & A with the goal of facilitating a healing conversation. We are also working on an educational package for schools that will include a discussion guide and class exercises. In my humble opinion, it is never too early to teach college students, teenagers and children the critical importance of forgiveness. In this regard, I was delighted to see that Admissions recently won Best Children’s Film at the Uppsala International Film Festival in Sweden. The fact that folks in that country are entering into dialogue with their children about the difficult subjects that Admissions addresses seems like a very hopeful development for the future.
Admissions is written by John Viscount. Directed by Harry Kakatsakis. Produced by John Viscount and Gavin Behrman. Starring James Cromwell, Anna Khaja, Oren Dayan and Anthony Batarse.
To learn more about Admissions, visit their Facebook page or check out their website at www.admissionsfilm.com. The film is also available for purchase by download at iTunes or by DVD through Amazon.
By Safa Samiezade’-Yazd, Aslan Media Arts, Culture and Music Editor