Director Lorenzo Benitez turns what could have been a masturbatory exercise of faux-liberal self discovery into an occasionally profound, consistently engrossing study of the effects of colonialism on post-globalised morality.
Following several young Australian men over six months as they teach English in Thailand, Six Months to Salvation begins as most people on their way abroad do: with idealism. These men believe they can make a positive impact in the world, and any concerns regarding cultural deterioration are easily assuaged by theoretical ethics discussions, allowed by a certain distance created by their lack of practical experience. However, as their work continues, they begin to lose faith – in the system, in themselves, in their moral stance. Is the teaching of English a necessary part of the globalisation process, or is it just another symptom of Western Imperialism, still overpowering these cultures decades later?
It’s extremely telling that it is not an appreciation for Thai culture that sets off these doubts. It is a feeling of failure on the parts of the teachers. Each of the Australians see their work materialising into nothing, a futile exercise in yelling nonsense to toddlers. And from their self-doubt comes a doubt of the enterprise. If they, as a mostly white, west-sourced group, cannot change the world, is it worth changing? This implicative question (subconscious, self reflective, and perhaps reaching as it may be) ties directly into one Benitez’s central theses; ‘voluntourism’ is potentially more self serving than it is altruistic.
Now, while Six Months to Salvation is a consistently interesting and thought-provoking film, it is occasionally not an especially watchable one. There is a certain exhaustion that sets in while listening to the same talking heads discuss the same things throughout the film, and, though two native Thai people are interviewed, it would have been interesting to get more perspective on the subject. While these two subjects are enlightening, they do feel incidentally close to the school. Finally, though the film has a definitive end point set from the start, it struggles to find a suitable ending, instead chugging along in the last ten minutes past a series of potential resolutions (including a great, long, still shot of the countryside dubbed over with a climactic conversation – a shot that is immediately undercut by being followed by another 5 minutes of footage).
Despite its flaws, Six Months to Salvation is an impressive, unusually intelligent debut, and I can’t wait to see what filmmaking collective u16 does next.