In search of a much needed break from thesis writing, my roommate Kate and I went to the Somerville Theater in Davis Square this evening to see the movie Where the Wild Things Are. The movie met my expectations by being whimsical, heartwarming, and reminiscent of the best parts of the book I loved as a child. What I was not expecting was the underlying message relating to international development.
Granted, I may be a nerd who spends all my time thinking about development policy, but Kate agreed with me that the message was clear. The film tells the story of a boy named Max who stumbles upon a strange island and convinces the inhabitants that he can be their king. He promises to make everyone happy, and convinces them all to build a fort together (read: participatory development.) For a while, everyone seems happy to have a new project. However, Max quickly learns that the existing relationships are too complicated for him to navigate as an outsider – and this community is comprised of only six members. He finally decides that it is best to return home and to work on his own problems with his family.
The real issue in this community is that all of its inhabitants all suffer from desperate loneliness, a problem present in all societies that can’t be solved through any number of projects or infrastructure improvements. Of course, the story is not black and white. The boy’s departure is heartbreaking because of his bond with the community, despite the failure of his reign as king. As he boards his ship, his friends in the community ask just one favor: When you return home, will you tell them good things about us?
The story depicts the risks of making promises you can’t keep and of trying to solve the problems of people you don’t understand. Relationships and human emotions are complex and messy. We need to remain flexible, never stop listening, and always question our assumptions. As we move from Fletcher to work internationally, we should all keep Max’s story close to our hearts.