“Nine Days”, the first feature film from Japanese-Brazilian Director Edson Oda asks audiences to consider what it means to live a full life.
As we emerge from the pandemic, the question of our fitness for life in society is front and center. Friends say, only half-jokingly, “I don’t know how to be with people anymore.” We are figuring out how to live all over again. One bit of life I’ve just gotten back to is going to the movies. In a theatre. “Nine Days” was my first movie back and it couldn’t have been more perfect.
The film is the story of a lonely soul, named Will (played by the arresting Winston Duke), whose job it is to select the unborn for real life (minor spoilers alert). When he is not interviewing or testing the selectees (over the nine-day period of the film’s action), he watches livestreams of all his past selectees on a wall of stacked televisions. If Will was livestreaming me right now, you would be watching these words appear on the right side of my computer monitor, while a Zoom gallery of other writers’ attending the London Writer’s Hour streamed on the left side. You might also catch the reflection of my silver rings as my fingers move around the keyboard.
“Nine Days” Seems to Ask: Is the Future Female?
In one of the steps in the selection process, the candidates watch the livestreams and are then asked to describe the most beautiful moment they witnessed. Will is assessing their sensitivity. He holds the view that there are only two outcomes in society—to kill or kill yourself. The candidates’ susceptibility to beauty is a weakness.
Life is for the tough and that is Will’s central selection criteria, a benchmark with a strong flavor of traditional, rational male. This gender skew is, at first, supported by the story. In one livestreamed life, a woman commits suicide. In another, a boy who endures repeated bullying finally strikes back, with extreme violence. Will sees no middle ground until one of the selectees, Emma (played by the riveting Zazie Beetz), proposes a third alternative. Embrace the pathos of life. Understand that the sweetness and sadness are inextricable. Beauty is ugliness, too. There is no joy without suffering. We maintain our humanity by noticing and celebrating the good and examining the bad for ways to shift the dynamic through understanding and empathy.
For Emma, the bullied boy needs neither take the abuse, nor lash out. He has the option of talking and if that doesn’t work the first time, trying again, and again. Emma refuses the ease of binary thinking (a scourge as costly as the pandemic in our society today). Emma steps outside her assigned role of emotional, and therefore weak, woman. Instead, she proposes that we protect the tender parts of ourselves with our very vulnerability. Our sensitivity, that oh-so-female part of ourselves (as traditionally conceived) is a portal to the riches of a full life. Is the filmmaker proposing that the future is female?
Timely Questions Offer Room for Contemplation
“Nine Days” is Japanese-Brazilian director Edson Oda’s first feature film, and it has won well-deserved awards for screenwriting and acting. Like Emma, the film itself refuses to offer answers. We never know where the unborn souls come from—previous lives they have now forgotten? Nor where the unselected go when they fail to advance in the process—are they consigned to lives as other species? Might one of them be my cat? Or do they go to jobs elsewhere in the unborn world? We do know that each one of the unselected is awarded the privilege of living the beautiful moment they chose—a bike ride through the countryside, a day at the beach. These are stunning moments created by Will on rudimentary sets (a nod to the power of artistic imagination in our time of CGI’d-reality). Other than his carpentry and set-building skills, we never know how Will got the job of selector. Though we learn that in the past he lived in the real world he now watches and that Will would not have chosen himself for real life; raising yet another question—who is fit to judge our fitness for life?
Although the film engages with big themes and is heavily stylized, it achieves the hat trick of sidestepping pretentiousness. Where other filmmakers would have reached for grandiosity, Edson Oda is generous. He trusts his audience, allowing us to experience the intimate grandeur of simply being.
The film is its own onomatopoeic experience—in the same way a word can sound like it’s meaning (hiss, bang, pow); to watch the gorgeous cinematography, the outstanding performances, and to feel the emotional swell break on the shores of our heart during the final soaring minutes (which, I will not give away here), is to live one of the beautiful moments evoked in the narrative, whether or not we are fit to receive it.
The Shared Cinema Experience Amplifies the Film’s Message
Of course, the intensity of my pleasure was shaped by the long period of privation. Feeling others’ presence at the movie enriched the experience. Hearing that my tears were shared by someone a few rows behind me. And those precious moments of inaudible, yet physically tangible, collective waves of emotion that remind us we are not alone. We belong. The feeling echoes Emma’s message, and emphasizes the complexity of our existence.
Even in the before-times, I would have been wowed by this film. Now I’m more conscious of the poignancy of the film’s question—who is fit to live? Which is, after all, another way of asking the question that has confronted us since the dawn of our consciousness—how should we live?
The best we can ask of art is that it inspires and provokes us, that it helps us feel alive. As we emerge from our pandemic hibernation, how can we reignite our vitality with empathy?