Saturday, July 01, 2006

Let's Go To The Movies

People go to the movies for various reasons, most of the time for entertainment, for a weekend together with family and friends. But movies can educate and enlightened as well. So sometimes I try out movies that I feel can be informative and enlightening. So with that in mind, I finally manage to watch three different movies, with one similar message, that made so much news with their strong geo-political message, Syriana, Munich and Paradise Now.
The three political films figured prominently among the nominees at the recent 78th Academy Awards. In fact at the 2005 Oscar, it will be remembered as the year that Munich was nominated for Best Picture, Paradise Now for Best Foreign Language Film, and George Clooney went on to win the best supporting actor, for his performance in Syriana. All these three movies, between them, have something important to offer. You may want to ask, after all this while, why the need to dissects these movies still? For me, these are not just any movies. It does not pander to the success at the box office. It’s not being made to pursue popularity, following a trend or creating one for that matter. It is being made for something that has more permanence; for us to think about political messages that will be with us for a long time to come.
Munich, directed by Steven Spielberg, was inspired by the true story of Israel's Mossad agents tasked with tracking down and eliminating the Palestinian group called Black September who were responsible for the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany. It chronicles the five Israeli assassins comprising of team leader Avner (Eric Bana), getaway driver Steve (Daniel Craig), 'cleaning-up' expert Carl (Ciaran Hands), bomb-maker Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz) and forger Hans (Hanns Zischler).
Paradise Now, the official entry at the Oscar from the Palestinian territories, was directed and co-written by Palestinian film-maker Hany Abu-Assad. It tells of two Palestinian childhood friends who are recruited for a suicide bombing mission in Israel. Paradise Now lost to South Africa's Tsotsi at the Academy Awards, but Hany's highly-acclaimed film won Best Foreign Language Film at the 63rd Golden Globe Awards. It’s not difficult to see why it won the Best Picture at the Golden Globe. It’s a gritty look at the life of Palestinians under occupation of Israel and what drove them to become suicide bombers. In one of the most haunting scene in the movie, one of the lead characters said,

“It’s not worth living without dignity. Above all, if we remember, day after day, our humiliations, our weakness, while the world watches, cowardice and indifference. When a people find themselves alone before the oppressor, no other remedy remains but to stop the injustice. They must understand, if we don’t have security, they don’t either. Worse still, they’ve convinced the world, and themselves, that they’re the victims. Is it possible to be an oppressor and a victim at the same time? But if they have already awarded themselves the role of oppressor and victim, it leaves no other remedy than to be a victim and also a killer.”

Syriana on the other hand, is a sinister tale of US goals of "fighting terrorism", “promoting democracy” in the Middle East and securing its oil and military interests. George Clooney won Best Supporting Actor for Syriana, as a CIA agent, Bob Barnes who was disillusioned with US policies in the Middle-East. Besides Clooney, the other principal characters in Syriana are an energy analyst Bryan Woodman (Matt Damon) who backs an idealistic Arab prince (Alexander Siddig). Of the three movies, I think Syriana encapsulates what’s the problem in the Middle East is all about. It is about the fight, to the death, for oil.
In one scene, an Arab prince asked about what a bunch of American lawyers could possibly be thinking to which Bryan (Matt Damon) replied;

“What are they thinking? They are thinking its (oil) running out. 90 per cent of what’s left is in the Middle East. Look at the progression…Suez, 1973, Gulf War 1, Gulf War 2. This is a fight to the death. So what are they thinking? Great! Keep playing, keep buying yourself new toy, and keep spending US50, 000 a night on your hotel room but don’t invest in your infrastructure, don’t build a real economy. So that finally when you wake up they will suck you dry and you would have squandered the greatest natural resources in history.”

The film explores the intense competition for global oil and shady deals made by American companies. Syriana is a complex political thriller about the intrigues of US power brokers in ensuring that American oil companies continue to profit from the Middle-East oil industry. In its languid pace and convoluted plot, it reveals the machinations of Washington in dealing with oil and the politics of oil. Definitely, Syriana is the more complex movie compared to the other two. The interlocking stories combine politics, socioeconomics and strong emotions together. It’s a movie, which harshly depicts a world where there's no right or wrong. Corruption is depicted as nothing more than a tool to protect and safeguard the interests of its people.

All the three films however shares one thing in common, it tries to be fair to all parties. Hany Abu-Assad, who co-wrote Paradise Now with Bero Beyer, chooses to matter-of-factly tell the story of the two suicide bombers without taking a stand on whether what they do is right or wrong, but allows each viewer to make his own judgments. It also presents the Western view about suicide bombing through the character Suha, which some say makes this movie more palatable to the Western viewers. Spielberg's film on the other hand questions the morality of the tit-for-tat revenge by both the Israelis and Palestinians. In one scene, Avner (Eric Bana) has a heated argument with a Palestinian, Ali (Omar Metwally) who tells why they will fight for a Palestine homeland no matter how long it takes. In Munich, Spielberg shows the Palestinians and other Arabs as ordinary people, not criminals. There’s none of the simplistic division, bad is the Palestinians and good is the Jews, as Hollywood so fond of doing such as in Collateral Damage and True Lies. In Munich, both sides have their own motives and their own arguments about their place in the world. So what the viewers get is both side of the story.
Spielberg also shows how the hunters, the five Israeli assassins, also eventually become the hunted, as targets of a Palestinian hit squad, with Avner becoming paranoid over his and his family's safety. In a way Munich presents the Jewish viewpoint, Paradise Now presents the perspective of the Palestinians, exploring the inner mind of the two young mechanics Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman ) from the West Bank town of Nablus as they are carrying out a double suicide bombing in Tel Aviv.
The movies offer fresh perspectives on Muslims. Syriana, unlike most Hollywood productions in the past, stay clear from pushing the negative and stereotypical portrayal of Muslims. In depicting the result of the clash between the modern world and radicalism, the Arab, Pakistan and American characters are shown outside the common stereotypes. Instead the film focus on power, dishing out a warning for us to be careful with those in power, American or otherwise, especially with those who believes the end justify the means, even if the innocents died in the process. It’s not difficult to see what is the movie referring to, the war on Iraq. Oil is extremely important to the United States, which consumes more energy than any other country in the world and imports roughly half its oil. It is so important that oil corporation executives and American government will stop at nothing, corruption, murder, terrorism, as depicted in this movie; to secure their monopoly in the Middle-East oil sector.
Long after these movies are forgotten, the stakes involved will remain the same. The source of friction between global powers and multinational conglomerates will continue to be about power, influence, security, and wealth. The movies allow us a peek into what’s going on. There’s a lot of that is going on in the Middle East, but at least with these movies we can get to know a bit of it without feeling angry in the process, over a one-sided portrayal of Muslims which continue to push the stereotypical images of Muslims in general and of Arabs in particular.
Unfortunately we in Malaysia appear to be uninterested in the themes or messages in these movies. The movies barely make a whimper at the local box-office. It came and went almost unnoticed. Despite what’s going on in Palestine and our role to do what we can to help, in the name of justice and humanity, the truth is we just couldn’t care less. In the name of justice and humanity, an American actor, Clooney, raise these issues to the attention of the world. In the process he was vilified as a traitor because it questions the policy of the American government. Syriana is a movie which question justice and fair play in the world today. It questions the so called campaign against terrorism by the American government. It shows how an individual is driven to become a terrorist because of the way Western powers exerting its influence in the Middle East. How many of us can say that we stand up to speak for what is right when we don’t even bother to watch a movie made by people who is willing to do that on our behalf. Now, that’s a good enough reason to be at the movies. (ENDS)