Monday, 24 May 2010


“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” – George Orwell

For Movie Monday today I’ll first talk about politics. Totalitarian democracy is a term made famous by Israeli historian J.L. Talmon to refer to a system of government where lawfully elected representatives maintain the integrity of a nation whose citizens, while granted the right to vote, have little or no participation in the decision-making process of the government. For example, the type of government that USA, or Australia or the UK have. This is in opposition to a direct democracy where the people participate directly in the decision making on a regular basis. Examples of this include Switzerland, where five million voters decide on national referenda and initiatives two to four times a year; with direct democratic instruments are also well established at the cantonal and communal level.

The “democracy” that most nations operate under is a representative democracy that if carefully administered attempts to take into consideration the will of the people as much as possible and reach decisions that please most (a consensus democracy), such as we have in Sweden, for example. Or if powerful factions begin to take control of government, the system becomes more of a totalitarian democracy, as happens in some countries where capitalism is rampant and a rich and powerful aristocracy move the strings and the puppet government moves. The people are placated by lip-service elections and much rhetoric about liberty and equality, while a small minority control government and its decisions so that the aristocratic minority benefits most.

Why all of this on Movie Monday? Because a couple of weekends ago we watched a highly political film. It was James Cameron’s 2009 “Avatar”. This director’s left wing sympathies are well known, so it was difficult not to view the film as a political statement. Or to not equate the Na’vi with the American Indians or the American blacks, or to not equate Pandora with Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or the other multitude of locations where capitalist interests have despoiled countries and people in order to make money.

The film is an allegory and as such can be interpreted on many levels. The more innocent amongst us may see it simply as a sci fi fantasy, boys’ own adventure with lots of action and even fighting robots and lots of explosions, yeah! Those with a guilty conscience, will no doubt say it is a cheap, sensationalist, left-wing piece of propaganda that bags white, middle-aged capitalists, who only want the best for everyone (and this of course can’t be done with some small sacrifices). Others may call it racist, especially when one sees the way the Na’vi are depicted - uncivilised savages who have to wait for a liberator in the face of Will, the “superior” and more civilised half-human, half-Na’vi Avatar. Whatever one’s point of view the film is worth seeing.

One thing we immediately realised when viewing the film is why it didn’t win the Best Film Oscar. Such a controversial political hot potato couldn’t possibly be selected for an Academy Award. Instead of a film where the army are very much the bad guys (Avatar), the Oscar went to the Iraq war heroes, the army depicted as good guys (The Hurt Locker). It is the choice of a totalitarian democratic state defending itself. It is a natural choice, especially in these times of insecurity, lost national pride, global financial crisis and an overwhelming sense of needing to reassert what people hold dear to their hearts – good old-fashioned values that built nations and created empires.

Avatar is too much of an inflammatory thorn in the side of imperialist great powers. Belgium in Africa springs to mind, Holland in Indonesia, France in the Pacific, Britain in India and Australia and the US everywhere else. It is a criticism of our financial systems and capitalism where (until recently, at least) greed was good. It is a lament for the harm we are doing to our environment. Cameron has been quite open about his motives in making the movie: “Greed and imperialism tend to destroy the environment,” he said in a recent interview. “It’s a way of looking back on ourselves from this other world.”

Dryden’s and Rousseau’s concept of the “Noble Savage” very much underlies the film and the Na’vi are depicted as in touch with their environment, in a holistic, universal, harmonious way that we humans have lost. Humans are painted with garishly evil colours, especially the “civilised savages” of the army and the heartless capitalists whom they protect. Scientists are given better press, as it is they who attempt to understand the Na’vi and approach them so that they may come closer to them.

What has been described as a flaw in the film, and even labeled as “racist” is that Will, the white man in a Na’vi body is the “hero” who liberates the Na’vi. Will’s Na’vi body infact is a mixture of human and Na’vi DNA. As a hybrid he identifies more with his Na’vi genes and is recognised and accepted as part of the Na’vi ecosystem. It is a case of dominant and recessive genes and the Na’vi wins out in more way than one. When we see Will’s Na’vi Avatar we do not see a human we see a Na’vi.

I could discuss the film more, but I shall stop here as it is more of a discussion that lends itself to debate rather than monologue. It is a good film and contains much to think about.

1 comment:

  1. This is a perfectly valid and logical take on this. I can see how some people would take offence, although when I saw the film I saw it very superficially and concentrated on the environmental message.