Anti-imperialism in 3-D
- Nagesh Rao
(Excerpted from a review that appeared in the Socialist Worker, January 7, 2010)
Avatar is a visually stunning marvel of film technology, as many reviewers will tell you, but what really stands out in James Cameron's newest film is its unabashed critique of corporate greed and its inspiring tale of solidarity and resistance against occupation.
Set on a distant planet called Pandora, Avatar re-enacts the genocide of indigenous populations by colonial capitalism, and links this history to the rapacious resource wars of our own times.
For all the gushing praise that Cameron has received from critics for the film's technological accomplishments, reviewers have been less enthusiastic about Avatar's political message. Some of them seem to be so dazzled by the spectacle that they don't even notice its ideological significance.
In the New York Times, Ross Douthat dismisses it as a "long apologia for pantheism--a faith that equates God with Nature." Similarly, while New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis acknowledges the film's "anti-corporate message," she seems unmoved by its uncompromising anti-imperialist message.
On the other hand, left-wing critics have panned the film's politics for its director's "banal and conformist outlook" (David Walsh's review at wsws.org) and as "a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people" (Annalee Newitz's much-circulated post for the sci-fi Web site io9.com).
Let's concede a couple of points at the outset. James Cameron isn't Gillo Pontecorvo, and Avatar is no Battle of Algiers. It's a popular science fiction thriller, and a damn good one at that. It thus conforms to some of the conventions of the genre, employing stock characters like the mercenary Col. Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and predictable plotlines such as the romance that ensures a happy ending.
No doubt the dialogue is, at times, contrived and clichéd, and the film could have used a better script. Nevertheless, its narrative arc is compelling, and the transformation of its central character, disabled marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is convincing.
Jake is your archetypal warrior hero, except for his disability (he is paralyzed from the waist down), which draws sneers from the other marines (one refers to him as "meals on wheels"). When we first encounter him, he is awakened from a state of hibernation in the gravity-free environment of a spaceship. Here, as the characters hover and float around, we fail to notice Jake's paralysis.
When we see him in his wheelchair for the first time, his comrades taunt him, and we see, through his eyes and from his perspective, the mammoth scale of the war machines and armaments being deployed by the mercenary forces on Pandora.
His disability, in other words, isn't incidental. It's central to his character, because his disability marks him out as an underdog among the top dogs, so to speak. Early in the film, we learn that Jake cannot afford the medical care he needs to be able to walk again, and that although he isn't looking forward to the mission on Pandora, he can do little else, given the state of the economy.
White man though he is, Jake Sully is nevertheless himself a victim of oppression. And crucially, Jake's liberation is contingent upon his identification with the natives of Pandora, the Na'vi, a tribe of 12-feet tall, blue-skinned humanoids with prehensile tails.
In this sense, Avatar can't simply be dismissed as a "white man's guilt" narrative, as Annalee Newitz does. Newitz rightly points out that the trope of the white man who "goes native" is an old one, which has its origins in European colonial ideology.
Sure enough, as Newitz points out, in contemporary Western culture in general and Hollywood in particular, the fantasy of "going native" often ends with the white man not only assimilating into the "native" culture, but emerging as their leader in their quest for salvation or liberation from some oppressive force or circumstance. Think here of films as diverse as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Last Samurai and City of God.
Certainly, Jake feels conflicted and guilty about what his comrades are about to do to the Na'vi and to Pandora. And certainly, this is at least partially a result of his falling in love with Nyteri (Zoe Saldana), the female Na'vi warrior. And yes, Jake's avatar emerges as the leader of the Na'vi in their struggle against the human plunderers. But surely this in itself is insufficient grounds to condemn the film as just so much unreconstructed Orientalism.
By plugging into the avatar, Jake's consciousness is quite literally embodied in the "other"; in this sense, he comes closer to genuine empathy with the Na'vi than can be realistically conceived (hence the term "science fiction"). If we grant this central premise of the film, then it seems to me somewhat churlish to suggest that Jake Sully is nothing but a 21st century T.E. Lawrence or Indiana Jones.
Furthermore, Jake's Na'vi self initially rebels against the human incursion into Pandora as an act of self-preservation. He attacks the giant bulldozers that arrive on the scene while he is asleep (and back in his human incarnation) with a desperation that the audience can identify with, as they seem intent on mowing down everything in their path, including Jake and Nyteri.
It's not too much of a stretch to suggest that the bulldozers destroying the Na'vi forests are like the Israeli bulldozers in occupied Palestine, and that Jake's defiance of them is like the courageous stance of activists like Rachel Corrie.
By slow degrees, Jake comes to identify with the "other" and their way of life. Once he becomes fully aware of the mercenary calculations of the corporation that will stop at nothing in its bid to extract the precious "unobtanium," Jake switches sides, as do the team of scientists led by the strong-willed Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). To suggest that this act is little more than a demonstration of "white man's guilt" is, I think, to render meaningless the idea of solidarity.
Jake's speech rallying the Na'vi, and calling on them to reach out to the other tribes reminded me of Tecumseh and of later anti-colonial revolutionaries who rallied diverse colonized peoples against their common oppressors. The conclusion of the film, which shows the chastened humans being escorted back to their waiting spaceship, just as surely harkens back to the images of the withdrawal of the defeated American forces from Vietnam.
In the context of the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is cultural dynamite. And in the context of Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize lecture on "just war," Jake Sully's wry admission is timely: "I was a soldier who tried to bring peace, but sooner or later everyone has to wake up."
The film's insistence that the aims of social science can't be reconciled with those of imperialism stands in stark contrast to the complicity of academics currently involved in the Human Terrain System – a U.S. Army project whose stated purpose is to "improve the military's ability to understand the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed."
Like most sci-fi films, Avatar offers a withering critique of the world that we live in. But unlike most recent sci-fi films, it is filled with a utopianism that we haven't seen in a while. Is this a nostalgic longing for lost innocence? By presenting the Na'vi and their way of life as akin to indigenous cultures destroyed by colonialism, does the film run the risk of grasping at an irrecoverable past?
Such utopianism in our time might seem unjustified, if not incongruous, but it is certainly a breath of fresh air. There's no denying that millions of moviegoers around the world are flocking to a film that unflinchingly indicts imperialism and corporate greed, defends the right of the oppressed to fight back, and holds open the potential for solidarity between people on opposite sides of a conflict not of their choosing.
It’s the Market, Idiot!
3 Idiots has been hailed as a film that asks uncomfortable questions about the nature of learning and academics in our ‘premier’ institutes of education. The filmmakers have apparently offered a private screening of the film for HRD Minister Kapil Sibal.
The movie’s success certainly lies in the fact that it addresses the manner in which our education system encourages mindless and mechanical rote learning over creativity, curiosity, passion and genuine understanding. For students struggling to cope with high levels of pressure and competition, for young professionals stuck in jobs which make tremendous demands on their time and energies but which seem increasingly joyless, mind-numbing and meaningless, 3 Idiots understandably strikes an emotive chord. It helps that its message is delivered with wit and humour.
As an alumnus of an engineering college myself, I watched the film with interest. Having watched it, I was forcefully struck by the sheer absence of women in the world of engineering college as imagined by the film. In a film about the burden of pressures and expectations faced by students in science, why is there no attempt to acknowledge the particular pressures faced by women in science and engineering? In fact, while women appear in the background in the classrooms, the three main characters are not shown to utter a single word to any of any women in their college! And women are of course never portrayed as faculty. The trio’s friendship is symbolised by the masculine ritual of pulling down one’s pants, drawn from the ragging experience. In this matter, the film appears to uncritically mirror, rather than critique, the world of actual engineering colleges and science classrooms, in which women continue to be under-represented and marginalised. [Many recent Hindi films (such as Dil Chahta Hai) are in the “buddy movie” genre, celebrating male bonding; it is intriguing that there are none that celebrate female friendships and solidarities.]
When I was a schoolgirl, my physics teacher in high school would constantly advice girls (in front of the whole class) not to prepare for the IIT entrance exam because they are not capable of ‘lateral thinking’. A vice principal would tell women students not to ‘rob’ men of scarce seats, since women, in any case, would later give up their careers in order to care for families. Male classmates would remind us that women ‘can’t understand science’. For women students like me, such sexist remarks by classmates and teachers added an enormous and demoralising burden to the already intense stress of preparing for entrance exams to IITs and NITs.
3 Idiots even celebrates the sexist brand of ‘rape jokes’ that was common in the male-dominated campus of NIT Calicut where I had been a student of electrical engineering in the 1990s. The film’s repeated jokes about ‘balaatkar’ brought home an unpleasant memory of a painful quarrel that followed when a male classmate had participated in a skit that portrayed a rape scene as a source of humour. Nothing I could say would convince him that there was nothing remotely funny in rape.
In a film about the cruelty of the education rat-race, it is ironic that the cruelty of social expectations and the marriage market towards women, far from being critiqued, is celebrated as a source of humour. We are supposed to laugh at Farhan’s discomfiture at the prospect of marrying Raju’s ‘unattractive’ sister Kammo. While her brother becomes an engineer, Kammo’s fate is to cook, care for her paralyzed father, and wait for her brother to earn a dowry. The film has no qualms about making Kammo a butt of masculine jokes: an ugly burden to be palmed off on anyone willing to ‘accept’ her for ‘free’.
Though the film talks about how poverty can be a major barrier for a student to get a decent education, it is silent about the systematic manner in which institutions of higher learning are being turned through state policy into enclaves of the rich and the privileged. Skyrocketing fee structures today are slowly closing the doors of these institutions not just to the working class ‘Millimeters’, but also to the lower middle class Rajus, and even to the middle class Farhans.
3 Idiots also fails to talk about how academic research, particularly in science and technology, is today strongly influenced by considerations of industry funding and commercial viability. Good research is inhibited by deadlines and bureaucratic technicalities (which leads to Jay Lobo’s tragic death in the film) or a lack of creativity. The fact that entire centres and departments in IITs and other premier engineering colleges are funded by millionaire businessmen (for example, the Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology in IIT Mumbai) and corporate houses (the Bharti School of Telecommunication, Technology and Management in IIT Delhi for instance) drives research in directions that are dictated by business interests rather than by science.
Most dangerous, however, is the fact that the film never questions the mainstream notions of ‘success’ – measured by publications, patents and financial viability. It is not enough for Rancho to be a school teacher, helping youngsters to really understand and enjoy science. He is ultimately vindicated because he is Phunsukh Wangdoo of the 400 patents fame, aggressively pursued by corporations all over the world. The film celebrates the patents and intellectual property rights regime; while intellectuals like Nobel laureates, economist Joseph Stiglitz and scientist John Sulston, have held that this regime impedes the pace of science and innovation by promoting the privatisation of science.
3 Idiots has borrowed heavily from Chetan Bhagat’s 5-point Someone. However, the film deviates in significant ways from the book. The most important difference is that Ryan Oberoi (on whom Rancho is loosely based) is not on a mission to constantly advice everyone or to change the education system. He is just a bright engineer, passionately fond of machines, who cannot stand the constrictive academic atmosphere in IIT Delhi. Ryan therefore reacts by refusing to study hard or by mugging his lessons. He adjusts to the system partly by cheating and partly by just studying what genuinely interests him.
3 Idiots sets out to convert the story of the three boys in 5-point Someone into an overt comment and critique of the education system. However, 3 Idiots only skims the surface and touches upon some of the symptoms – but ultimately the “solutions” offered by the film remain trapped in the same market paradigm that is at root of the problems that beset the education system in India, and engineering education in particular.