I Was Benno

Yesterday, I had a truly moving experience. I watched a movie. Not just any movie, but an experimental film created by a friend. A movie with a message (unlike much of the shlock that comes out of Hollywood). The message is universal, and I think everyone who watched the movie could see it.

It was particularly important because the movie was about my friend. A journey beyond his regular life, to find if there was more to himself than what he had here in Calgary.

I’ve known Masanori Benno almost since the day I started at Critical Mass some seven and a half years ago. Benno, as most people call him, was the creative lead on my first project. He’s one of the most senior people at Critical Mass, having tenure of over a decade. And those long years take their toll.

The movie, titled I Was Benno, opens with Benno tell you about himself, his job, his home, the people he knows, the city he lives in. How all of these things, and the things he’s done, define himself. As he put it, his glass is full of experiences. He quotes a Japanese proverb:

A frog in a well cannot comprehend the ocean.

Benno saw much, but could not comprehend the ocean. So he did something that only a brave few would consider: empty his glass of experience, and thrust himself into the unknown. On the other side of the world, in a place he didn’t know, a language he couldn’t speak. And refill his glass with new and different experiences.

The movie switched to a busy street in Karachi, Pakistan. Benno, wearing traditional garb, selling newspapers out of hand to passing motorists. Surreal, almost a version of the squeegee kids we’re more familiar with here in North America. The character of Benno in the movie says nothing the entire time. He moves through the actions. He smiles. He strides in a nervous confidence as he goes about earning enough money so that he can eat. The narrator Benno tells us what’s going on in the character’s head.

This is a Benno we barely recognise. The narrator confirms this.

Benno is now driving a motorised rickshaw. He doesn’t know the city at all. He takes directions in the form of pointing from passengers. He is but a passenger himself, as he translates the pointing into direction for the rickshaw. He doesn’t understand the language, but he is able to communicate.

In Lahore, he becomes a tea maker. He works hard to understand the mixture, to delivery tea quickly to the patrons. One person actually speaks Japanese and tries to engage Benno in conversation, but he is too busy with the others, and cannot spare the time. At the end, the owner of the shop makes tea for Benno. It is the best he’s ever tasted.

In Islamabad, he sells vegetables in the marketplace. He cannot understand what is being said to him, but he understands the needs.

Finally, we find Benno on the shores of the Indian Ocean, carrying a bundle of balloons. The sun is setting after another day being a stranger in a strange land. The Benno we see is not the Benno I know. He has changed. He is wiser. He has grown.

He was Benno. Perhaps now, I will have to call him Masanori. Or perhaps even Benno-san.

I have a great deal of respect for Benno. I travelled around the world, but I did not engage in the activities that would fill my glass with experience. I did not engage. I did not involve. I observed. I have always observed. Passive, even removed. To dive into a culture, an uncomfortable place, to learn more about oneself is to live without the fear of failure. It’s to know that survival is always possible. It’s strength and power.

I would not say that my glass is in anyway empty, however. While I might not approach experiences in the same way as Benno, I still feel that I’ve had opportunity to define my experiences through opportunity. Yet, I do envy Benno to an extent. Because he’s been somewhere I haven’t been:

Back at the beginning, to see a clearer future.