By A Rahim Khan –
What a film like ZDT has done is make every last one of us appear the bogey man, that villainous wretch who will steal your sleep
This award season is a good time to be a Communist, black, Chinese, North Korean (uh Red Dawn?), German, Vietnamese, Japanese, heck even a Mexican immigrant, anything that isn’t, wasn’t or ever has been a Muslim.
This is because our erstwhile leader, our Amir, our Sheikh, the lone man to whom all a billion of us had entrusted our lunch money, too (and expected returns), happened to have a film made about him getting shot and because he was from us and for us, we are all culpable.
That is why the upstanding men and women above, Joe Public America are so justified in their varying degrees of wrath, promising violence, hatred and suspicion, not to forget that Muslim kryptonite, water boarding.
Of course, this venom was not in the wake of September 11 itself, but a whole decade and then some later, as these just individuals tweeted shortly after watching the get-OBL-film, Zero Dark Thirty, with critics questionably hailing it as one of the best of the year.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) and writer partner, Mark Boal,Zero Dark Thirty is the exhaustive account of a lone C.I.A. agent (Jessica Chastain) who almost single handedly smoked the most wanted man in US history and along the way, manages to make every last one of us, a despicable, sub-human villain, otherwise known as a Muslim.
Fomenting such a reaction from any audience is the purest ad hominem play there is – propaganda. If this sounds too contrived or simplistic, watch (you can still find them on YouTube) any Nazi film from the Third Reich like Jud Süß or Die Rothschilds.
As the war was raging on, the onus of keeping the Aryan race in line and vengeful fell to propaganda films like the above, keeping them going on a diet of contumely, paranoia and hatred.
To these beautifully blond haired and blue eyed dolts, the Jews were presented as existing only in twos, evil or complicit, with the rest somewhere in some ghetto and ‘Seig heil!’ went the audiences as they bayed for blood.
Similarly in Zero Dark Thirty (ZDT), there are only two kinds of Muslims in this cinematic world, the quick and the very dead or paring this logic down for the simpletons of America, those we’ve killed and those we’re going to.
Akin to Full Metal Jacket, the natives are shown as either terrorists or detainees or when not conspiring against the greatness of America or its citizens, as nameless, shifty, bearded extras who populate Flea Bottom where everyone carries a gun and yells, even the Muezzin who with his jarring call to prayer rouses the heroine from her sleep of the innocent.
Of course, not having the decency to film here (cause “all Americans are targets”) shooting was done in India, as our neighbour doubles for Pakistan for most of the movie except for random location inserts. Even the supposed allies, the “Paks”, the ISI, the Pakistani government etc are portrayed as back stabbing, two timing incompetents with their own agenda and when in one scene Leon Panetta (James Gandolfini) quizzically wonders how the OBL compound happens to be down the road from the PMA in Abbot-abad, audiences everywhere are meant to surmise “ah ha! These guys are in on it.”
There are no gray areas in this Oscar nominated film.
While Ms Bigelow may hide behind ‘artistic licence’ and “depiction is not endorsement” she very artfully lionizes the CIA and its selfless soldiers but then, as all great stories require, she does an equally gifted job at demonizing Muslims, making them the fitting foils to these American yeoman.
Can we throw in the race card about now? What the War on Terror and a film likeZDT has done is make every last one of us appear the bogey man, that villainous wretch who will steal your sleep and your nights.
As a true terror, we are nameless and faceless, without rights but with all the wrongs in the world and if you’re called a brown man, or a rag head or a Paki, it’s all OK because we’re the enemy and everything goes.
A film like ZDT tells you it’s ok to be racist, it’s ok to want to murder your enemies, it’s ok to be a little bad, it’s all ok, that is of course, until the next administration comes in.
A great deal of the criticism being levelled at Bigelow and Boal is with the depiction of torture and how the U.S. isn’t the type. While the usual bleeding hearts are up in arms over this, some from Capitol Hill were miffed not about who was on the receiving end but who was dishing it out, worried about America’s image abroad, and how it would never get its hands dirty.
There is torture in this film, quite a bit of it, as Bigelow, in explicit detail, fetishizes it, making it, at first uncomfortable but then, and this applies to the film itself, quite boring.
At two-and-a half hours, the film is a drag, and it’s a surprise why critics, who can’t stop lauding it, haven’t noticed this. The attention to detail is rather painful, like being administered a suppository that is having a terrible time of getting through.
For her efforts, Bigelow will certainly be taking some awards away on Oscar night but she also goes home with the dubious title of successor to Leni Riefenstahl. The German director was noted for making propaganda films during the Third Reich, brilliantly so one must add, and after the war she had the contempt of the ages piled upon her.
But the comparison, while convenient is not apt. Bigelow is half the director Riefenstahl was and in all honesty, far more blatant in her avowal of the party line. While The Hurt Locker was an honest to goodness film taking no sides, ZDT is the culmination of a decade of war with only one side doing all the talking.
Of course had this been ZDT’s fault alone, one would have said their peace and moved on, only momentarily discommoded but mollified by the fact that no monetary harm was committed as one had downloaded the film and not spent a dime but alack for the accursed rule of three, as this award season nominates before us the escape caper Argo and Manchurian Candidate lookalike Homeland.
Respectively, the film and the TV show are just as insipid as ZDT using us as the patsies and not being charming about it at all. Argo deals with the Iranian revolution and here, too, the locals are wailing madmen with the Revolutionary Guard being the real nasties, the film already bagging a Golden Globe.
Homeland is another piece of work, with perhaps more teeth, as Muslim psychosis is turned up a dial and heads towards numerous awards and its third season.
Decade by decade, America has fought wars and decade by decade their arts have come to reflect this. As they follow the arc of the conflict they go from virulent animus to smouldering resentment to sullen chary to brokered peace to cautious agreement to piecemeal acceptance.
On this slide rule we’re still somewhere between stages one to three, with four, five and six a long while off. See you when you get there.
The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad