Friday, 9 November 2007

Victims, voices and celluloid dissent

In a recent speech on media and cultural propaganda, John Pilger commented that The Deerhunter is the only movie that ever caused him to shout out in protest inside a cinema.

Pilger was objecting to its selective indulgence of American suffering, a theme all the harder to challenge given that the film was so "brilliantly made". Likewise, notes Pilger, Oliver Stone's Platoon may have offered graphic images of the ugly war in Vietnam, but - like the rest of his Vietnam trilogy (Heaven and Earth, and Born on the Fourth of July) - it's primarily concerned with the angst of American soldiers, offering no meaningful Vietnamese voice or experience. In short, it's about seeing America as the principal victim.

Stone made 'amends' for his 'radical output' with the more recent World Trade Center and is now embarking on the fourth of his Vietnam films, Pinkville , examining the cover-up of the My Lai massacre. It stars the arch-conservative Bruce Willis.

But, if Hollywood is still to make a convincing Vietnamese-sided film, do other current cinematic and theatrical war dramas, including the 'war on terror', give appropriate voice and experience to the main victims?

Hollywood would have us believe it's 're-found' it's own 'critical' voice. But, even for the more independent film companies, anti-war doesn't mean giving a 'lead role' to the Iraqi, or any other conquered, people.

Producers like Robert Redford, 'speaking for' liberal America at large, may be getting a little more room these days to shout-down Bush's lies about Iraq and challenge the neo-cons' 'extra-judicial 'practices. Yet, this is still a safe distance from allowing a voice to those in Fallujah, Kabul and Gaza who actually experience the crushing impact of the Pentagon's and its associates' corporate-driven warfare.

Ah well, at least there's even more parts available for Arabs to play terrorists these days.

The current crop of 'leftfield' US films, such as Rendition and Lions for Lambs, are a kind of zeitgeist expression of the discomfort America is feeling over its warmongering foreign policy and use of authorised torture around the globe. Similar liberal-minded output from George Clooney (Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck) overhangs this mood. Yet, on closer inspection, much of this is really a cry for the 'lost American ideal', illustrating the safe boundaries of liberal America's celluloid dissent. Redford et al may be a welcome alternative to the Bruce Willis-type gush of US heroes in hostile foreign places (Willis is still, apparently, planning an Iraq-based action thriller championing the US combat unit Deuce Four). But, as with Pilger's 'reviews' of The Deerhunter and Platoon, US cinema, 'big box' or 'indie', still offers little true experience of the victimised other.

Brit-side voices

A more promising contender, this side of the Atlantic, is the recent TV drama, Britz (Channel 4, 31 October, 1 November 2007). Despite a little artistic licence here and there, Peter Kosminsky's absorbing film carries a number of thought-provoking devices serving to outline the fuller context of the 'war on terrorism'. We have, for example, one of the lead characters, Sohail, Riz Ahmed (of The Road to Guantanamo), surveying the complex landscape for British Muslims while being drawn-into the service of MI5. In one scene, we see how the police's racist treatment of Sohail's friends conflicts with his decision to spy on them and his community. In another chilling sequence, the other main character, Nasima, Sohail's sister, offers a very profound statement on our collective "responsibility" for allowing Blair to act in this criminal way, thus provoking and raising the potential for violent Islamic responses.

Britz was, at least, a welcome respite from the facile Spooks, with its risible take on the 'dark underbelly' of British intelligence. In it's attempt to play the 'sophisticated' plot line of dark-but-still-decent MI5 good guys, the US is currently being portrayed as a malignant agent provocateur seeking to implicate Iran and up the war on terror ante, while our all-action heroes rush around trying to stop fanatical Algerians blowing-up London. Another recent episode had the intrepid MI5ers cutting through a garden fence-like wire to enter a supposedly top-security installation hiding America's most secret nuclear weapon. Yet, behind all the racy plot lines, 'self-examination' and 'admitting' of dirty deeds, the predominant voice remains that of our vigilant spymasters protecting us from renegade insiders and demonic outsiders.

Staged voices

As Edward Said shows in Culture and Imperialism, populist narrative has always played a vital role in helping to demonise, omit or remove the non-Western other. It's as though the colonised and occupied have no valid part in their own historical drama.

Alas, I had that uneasy feeling of the 'absent other' watching the finely-produced and performed (TV screening of) Black Watch. This play is assuredly not war propaganda. It's, in a certain 'unstated' and, thus, nuanced sense, an anti-war production. But it's also acutely lacking in any Iraqi voice or experience. And I don't just mean the inserted testimony of a victimised Iraqi.

It's almost impossible to fault John Tiffany's brilliant direction. Writer Gregory Burke has also allowed the play to have 'its own voice' through the gathered accounts of serving soldiers. It's more a 'pain of war' statement, rather than agitprop theatre, resulting in a poignant human story of brutalised young fighting men in an alienating land far from home.

But it's also a disappointingly one-sided representation of that pain and alienation.

Burke is, essentially, against the war, but unwilling to castigate the men or regiments who participate in it. This couples with his opposition to the MoD-imposed break-up of the Black Watch and reformation of it and other units into a single Scottish regiment.

In this spirit, Burke argues that Black Watch is first-and-foremost about the Black Watch and the psychology of soldiers being sent to, and returning from, war. And, yes, the piece can stand as a singular perspective on the war - the soldiers' story.

But does that story have moral validity without reference to those who are on the principal end of the Black Watch's actions? Indeed, to what extent should we 'elevate' those soldiers' stories in this form while their regiments help perpetuate the occupation and mass suffering in Iraq?

The related problem of Black Watch is its underlying endorsement of militarism, a theme which, while artistically displayed in the unfolding history of the regiment, too-readily 'celebrates' its esprit de corps. Black Watch may help us reflect on the horrors of war. But it also reinforces populist sentiments of 'benign militarism'.

At a time when the BBC and other elite-upholding media are serving to convey the idea of the 'mistaken war' - rather than the illegal and genocidal one that's actually happening - such output, arguably, serves to distract attention from the part UK forces have played in the invasion and killing.

There is a standard legal principle in such matters, still relevant from Nuremberg: the higher up the chain of command, the more culpable one is of war crimes. Blair, Brown and the generals should, thus, be standing at a dock in the Hague. But this doesn't entirely absolve those on the ground. Soldiers, though obeying orders and doing their job, are also responsible, legally and morally, for their actions.

Black Watch is not the jingoistic 'our boys at war' which an obedient media rallied-around from day one of the invasion. But it's still a troubling version of it. These soldiers are, of course, 'our boys'. But so also, to my way of thinking, are young Iraqis. They're all 'our boys' in a more inclusive, humanitarian sense. The principle, quite obviously, should extend to all suffering beings, male and female, young and old, caught-up in this wicked war and other conflicts.

In the week that saw the resilient Rose Gentle finally get judicial recognition for the loss of her Fusilier son Gordon in Iraq, Black Watch is a ready-reminder of the ways in which the state has, effectively, 'press-ganged' economically-fragile young people and sacrificed them in the supposed name of 'benign intervention'. But the play and the ruling might also cause us to reflect again on how we extend our understanding of human empathy with the forgotten of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and other oppressed lands.

Penn is mightier than the sword

With good timing, this week also saw the actor Sean Penn give an impressive BBC interview in which he talked of his travels to Iran (to report the 2005 elections), his opposition to Bush, and how he sees the need for such a common politics of humanity. Alongside his warnings of how Bush will continue to "lie" on Iran, Penn's admirable words help illustrate the kind of mutual regard we must feel for the presently suffering and imminently threatened other.

Interviewer: "You're known also for your politics, you're known for your strong views [on the Iraq war and US policy towards Iran...] Why have you not chosen to use your films in a more overtly political way?"

Sean Penn: "Well, I don't know that there's anything more overtly political than to be proactively human... I'm not interested in the word politics as an academic notion. I think that it's got to be [about]quality of life for people...for one individual...for everybody. And that's what politics ought to be about. It's really a one issue world. It's quality of life."

Penn added, in relation to Iran:

“My project is to cut through to some of the meaningless kind of spin that has numbed people from understanding that people are people everywhere, and to be able to go there and to report back some of the kind of very shared humanity that we all have, no matter where we are coming from.”

Penn shows that there are also other ways of acting. And the key motivation of his assumed role is a rejection of mainstream politics for a true politics of compassion. In his efforts to expose the "spin of fear" and how the powerful seek to "make life so much cheaper", Penn reminds us that, on-screen and off, we have a duty to consider and reflect the voice and experience of the victimised other.


No comments: