I recently completed my second year of teaching in an Israeli school and asked my 6th graders what their plans were for the summer. Many told me they were going to summer camp to study Torah and to play sports. Earlier that same morning, I read an article about Hamas summer camps. What do the kids do there? They learn how to handle weapons, use live ammunition in military exercises, and the best way to kidnap an Israeli soldier. What a contrast! Some spend a summer learning how to love; others spend a summer learning how to hate.
I thought of Hamas summer camp as I watched Blood Diamond, a gripping, violent thriller about commercial traffic in diamonds that is used to finance conflict in budding African nations, often using children as executioners who are taught at a young age how to hate.
The setting is the Sierra Leone Civil War in 1999, where rebel and government forces are killing each other daily and committing unspeakable atrocities. Caught in the crossfire are the townspeople, one of whom is Solomon Vandy, a fisherman from the village of Shenge. In one sudden raid, he is separated from his wife and children and is forced to work in a diamond field under a brutal overlord. His son, Dia, is conscripted into the rebel forces and is brainwashed to shed his previous identity and become a hardened killer, under the banner of doing what is best for his country.
While working in the diamond fields, Solomon discovers a huge diamond worth a fortune, but his efforts to hide it are seen by his commander, who wants the diamond for himself. In the midst of trying to take it from Solomon, government troops launch an attack, at the end of which Solomon is incarcerated. In prison he meets Danny Archer, who is also aware that Solomon had hidden a valuable diamond. Danny offers to find Solomon’s family in return for the diamond, and so begins their alliance and ultimate friendship, punctuated by many tense moments of mistrust along the way.
Dia, Solomon’s son, has been trained to kill. His captors blindfold him and give him a machine gun to execute a man. He pulls the trigger, and when he removes his blindfold he knows that he has a new identity as executioner. The next time he kills, it will be easier because, as a child, he has no conception of the great pain he is inflicting. He thinks that taking another man’s life makes him an adult in the loyal service of his country.
This attitude comes to a head when, after many months, he sees his father, who he presumes is an enemy. He holds him at gunpoint, but then something amazing occurs. Solomon reminds his beloved son of conversations he had a long time ago about getting up early in the morning to go to school to study towards becoming a doctor. This childhood memory connects them in the present and Dia puts the gun down, tearfully embracing his father.
There is a concept in Jewish tradition that subjects learned in one’s youth stay with a person throughout his life. In fact, one of the Sages of the Talmud remarks that his most important teacher was not the one who taught him the sophisticated logic of Talmudic debate but rather the one who taught him the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet.
A parent does not always know what will stick in a child’s mind, what childhood memory will be the one that that will inspire him in later years to lead a life of commitment to parental values. Blood Diamond reminds us how important it is to create of reservoir of positive memories in our children that will enable them to remain faithful to our core beliefs and values when they are older. Planting a garden of love can overcome a harvest of hate.
Disturbing in its depictions, but ultimately still compelling and somewhat entertaining, if all because of DiCaprio’s great performance. Good review.
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