Seat 20D Movie Review: Suse Lowenstein Shines a Light with Her Sculpture 'Dark Elegy'

A documentary how art can give tangible context to our grief and how it can help those left behind.
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Do you remember where you were when you learned that your life had just changed forever?

Perhaps it was when you were offered that job you had been hoping for. Or when the love of your life walked into the room. Those are good moments we never want to forget. But what do you remember about the moment when your life changed forever due to tragedy? ​Were you at home? Were you at work? Did someone else tell you? Did you see it on the news? 

As you think about those moments, can you remember how your body felt? Did you drop to the ground? Did you cry out in agony? Did you fall silent and numb? 

These are the questions that artist Suse Lowenstein considered when she began to create her massive sculpture "Dark Elegy." This sculpture consists of 75 large nude female figures all captured in the moment that tragedy and terrorism changed their lives forever after losing loved ones in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 on December 21, 1988. But Suse Lowenstein was not just creating this project as an artist. She was creating it as a mother who had to find a way to deal with her grief, since her son Alex Lowenstein was one of the 259 people aboard who was murdered by an act of terror. In the new documentary, Seat 20D, filmmaker Jill Campbell explores how art can give tangible context to our grief and how it can help those left behind.

Within the 259 people in the air (and 11 people on the ground in Lokerbie, Scotland) that were murdered on that December day, 35 of them were students from Syracuse University returning from a study abroad trip. Alex Lowenstein was one of those 35. But Seat 20D is not just the story of the Lowenstein family and their loss, the film also tells the stories of the Tsairis family who lost their daughter Alexis, and the Monetti family who lost their son Rick, also students returning home for the holiday break. 

And while many other families are not interviewed throughout the film, Suse Lowenstein still tells their stories through her sculptures. These 75 women are each a mother who lost someone on flight 103. They are posed as they were in the moment they found out their lives had changed forever. Each sculpted figure also contains a personal item of the mother's loved one inside the statue. Lowenstein also asked each mother for a photo of their loved one so that she could put a face to the loss that she was sculpting into a tangible form. Those photos hang on a board inside her studio. 

In addition to Lowenstein’s art, Seat 20D also highlights the Remembrance Scholars of Syracuse University. These 35 students are chosen each year to represent and honor the students who were taken too soon. During the fall, the university also holds a remembrance week with presentations, displays and artifacts related to the bombing, performances, and a vigil. The week opens with the “Empty Chairs,” 35 chairs placed on the lawn in the formation of the seats of Pan Am flight 103. The current Remembrance Scholars then sit in the seat of the student they represent for 38 minutes. This is the amount of time flight 103 was in the air before the bombing took place. 

This film is a moving and powerful piece that captures the tragedy and fight keep the memory of these terrorist attack victims alive. However, Seat 20D also gives us a glimpse into how we view grief and the grieving in our culture.

Currently "Dark Elegy" is on display in the sculpture garden of the Lowenstein home in Montauk, NY that is open to visitors from 10am-12pm year-round. So each day for over 30 years Suse Lowenstein has come out of her home and out of her studio, to confront her grief time and time again. She confronts not only her own grief, but the grief of the other women she sculpted and the grief of those who are absent. When you realize that, this film becomes a visual representation of what those who have experienced great loss confront every single day. Even if they are not talking about their loss, or thinking about their loss, it is there waiting for them. A new part of their everyday lives that never becomes normal or absent.

But as we learn about the healing and remembrance that comes from "Dark Elegy," we also learn that Lowenstein has tried numerous times to have the sculpture placed, but to no avail. The National Park Service objected to its nudity. Other Washington D.C. officials made ludicrous claims about the nudity causing people to want to perform lewd sex acts on the pieces. Even Syracuse University, who lost 35 of its own students, has stated that they just don't have the space. And this fight for "Dark Elegy" to find a home is an analogy for the grief avoidance found in American culture. While people acknowledge a person's grief, they either don't know what to do with it, don't have space for it, or even at times find it objectionable. People don't know what to do with "Dark Elegy" because they don't know what to do with all of the grief it captures and represents. And that only compounds the tragedy at the heart of this film.

In her own words Suse Lowenstein says that "Dark Elegy is a universal appeal for peace and dignity for all victims of senseless hate and vengeance called terrorism and will be a beacon for all peace loving people. 'Dark Elegy' stands as a reminder of that hatred." Hopefully this documentary will open doors for this incredible sculpture collection to find permanent home where it can appreciated for the it’s true message.

Seat 20D is produced and directed by Jill Campbell. The film has a run time of 70 minutes and is available through VOD now. To learn more about "Dark Elegy" and how you might be able to help, please visit www.darkelegy103.com/

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