“Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there?”
- Wings of Desire -
“Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there?” This phrase not only forms the core of the script in Wings of Desire (1987) by Wim Wenders, but also underpins the subtext of the main characters in three other films: Dirty Pretty Things (2002) by Stephen Frears, Lost in Translation (2003) by Sofia Coppola, and Persepolis (2007) by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. It is also a question that we often ask ourselves as we define who we are in the present and what we aspire to be in the future.
Wings of Desire (1987) follows Damiel, a guardian angel who decides to stay in town at a fortuitous moment to look after human inhabitants in Berlin. Fed up with his spiritual existence and curious about how humans feel, love and live, he begins his adventure in the human world and falls in love with a trapeze artist, Marion, along the way. During his adventure, Damiel discovers and experiences the human world like a child would. After the adventure, he chooses to adopt a new identity as a human so that he could experience human sensory pleasures and enjoy human love with Marion. At the same time, Marion gets to experience a more complete sense of self as Damiel becomes human. The film ends with the message "To be continued”. While Damiel and Marion look set to embark on a peaceful and joyful life together in fairytale fashion, Damiel may also experience various troubles in human life that he has not encountered before as an angel. Questions of “Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there?” may well crop up again in Damiel’s human life, just like they do with Bob and Charlotte in “Lost in Translation”.
In “Lost in Translation”, Bob, a famous American movie star who has been married for 25 years, meets Charlotte, a photographer’s wife who does not have to worry about daily expenses. Despite their relatively privileged lifestyles, both characters grapple with questions about their existence and identity: “Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there?”. Lost and confused about their respective marriages, Bob and Charlotte begin soul searching as they befriend each other in a Tokyo five-star hotel. In a phone conversation with a friend in America, Charlotte blurts out “I feel nothing, I don’t know who I married”. She does not actually know why she is in Tokyo at that moment, nor why she has become someone’s wife. Similarly, Bob is tired of doing commercials for the sake of earning money and also tired of his marriage. The calls from his wife – “Do I need to worry about you, Bob” - sound like they come from an answering machine, flat and detached, devoid of expectation and emotion. Bob himself seems to have no expectations and emotions about his marriage. Even though Charlotte and Bob appear to have privileged social identities, they feel lost in their lives, and long to be free of their soul and marriages
In Dirty Pretty Things (2002), as illegal immigrants in London, Okwe and Senay have no freedom in the society and community they live in. In their minds, however, they are free, free to imagine how wonderful their life will be. Having experienced a difficult life in their hometown, Okwe and Senay have a clear sense of who they are and why they are in London. As Senay puts it, “I came to London because I don’t want to live like my mom”. Similarly, Okwe wants to rewrite his “Africa story” and then return it to his young daughter. Both are eager to assume new identities they have already identified with for a new future. Plagued by questions of “why I am me” or “why I am here” in their hometown, Okwe and Senay choose to get rid of their past selves upon arriving in London, and reinvent their identities for the future.
Persepolis (2007) is an autobiographical animation by Iranian writer and director Marjane Sartapi. The film’s title is a reference to Marjane’s hometown, Iran. As she grows up, Marjane find herself gradually drifting from one place to another. She feels disappointed in herself as she tells others she is French rather than Iranian. She finds herself again as she listens to music by the Beatles. She has arguments with teachers as she tries to retain her original identity in Iran’s restricted environment. “Don’t forget who you are”, Marjane’s grandmother reminds her. As she tries to keep her promise to her grandmother, Marjane finds herself constantly discovering, identifying, losing and reconstructing new identities as she moves from one place to another. Finally, in real life, Marjane Sartapi eventually finds a congenial home in France (Ebert, 2008). Through experience, she becomes more confident about her identity and values.
“Why am I me, and why not you? Why am I here, and why not there?” These are questions that many of us ask ourselves at various points in life. We constantly construct our identity according to who we want to be, just like Senay who wants to be an Italian girl. In the process, we may sometimes get lost, just like Charlotte does in Tokyo or Marjane who becomes depressed after returning to her hometown. By looking into ourselves and reflecting on our relationship with the world, we may find and settle upon a new identity that is compatible with the world we live in, just like Damiel does. Finally, we may even be as lucky as Marjane who eventually finds herself in real life; we may discover our unique values and our place in society, and grow into well-adjusted citizens.