July 24, 2008
Docu-dramas, documentary films and feature films are perhaps some of the most influential media by which we develop our political perceptions and prejudices. This has been recognised long ago and put to use on a mass scale during the Second World War, when films were used to rally the masses in the Allied countries against Hitlerite fascism. It was a time when the US made films celebrating Soviet guerrilla martyr attacks against the Nazi occupation, such as in the film North Star. The US has ever since pumped massive amounts of resources into this medium through the cinema, TV and more recently the internet.
With the emergence of the internet, online video file sharing and peer-to-peer download services in the last decade, the grip of the big production houses have decreased, and people now have relatively more access than before to a more complex and critical understanding of politics and culture. Documentary films have also played a major role in shaping public opinion, and perceptions of the 'Other’. The Other being non-white people generally, but today specifically focused on Muslims and Islamists which, we are told, do not share or are against 'our’ values.
Perhaps the most well-known example of a documentary film that has shaped public opinion is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Many other films have had an impact on political discourses which are defining our time: Islamophobia, Western initiated war and occupation, or in the words of the world’s self-proclaimed standard bearers of democracy: "full spectrum dominance" and "shock and awe".
While it is often US-made films that receive most attention, there have perhaps been more interesting and nuanced films made in Britain. Such films include White Girl, Mark of Cain, Britz and several documentaries, especially on the issue of Palestine.
Michael Moore and Nick Broomfield’s films have been commercial successes. However one is not so sure that they have been successful in assisting their mass audiences in understanding Muslims and their struggles for independence such as in Iraq or Palestine or throughout the Muslim world generally.
Fahrenheit 9/11 is seen by many as an insightful critique of US government reaction to 9/11, but it fails to give any insight into US foreign policy in the Middle East, policies that have led many in the region to view the 9/11 attacks as a reaction against the oppression of Arabs and Muslims over generations. Unsurprisingly criticism of the film has come from the Right, however it is important that people who oppose Western arrogance do not let Moore off the hook as Muslims are given no time whatsoever in representing themselves. Robert Jensen’s review of the film has been one the few critiques from a progressive point of view. He states: "The sad truth is that Fahrenheit 9/11 is a bad movie, but not for the reasons it is being attacked in the dominant culture. It’s at times a racist movie. And the analysis that underlies the film’s main political points is either dangerously incomplete or virtually incoherent."
Jensen argues that there is no fair representation of Muslims in the film, and the representation of countries like Morocco are far from respectful, let alone inline with challenging racism and prejudice. While the film contributed to the climate of mass opposition in the West to the Iraq war, it failed to give any understanding of what Muslims are thinking and doing about their oppression; rather the only portrayal in the film of Muslims was the rich Gulf Arabs (the Bin Laden family who are one of the main construction industrialists in the region) who are in cahoots with Bush and Co. Jensen spoke about his criticisms of the film, saying that at the time of writing his review he was too soft on the movie and explains: "Since the end of WWII, there has been bipartisan support for US attempts to dominate the politics of the Middle East. Republican and Democratic administrations alike have pursued illegal and immoral policies, using overt and covert violence. This didn’t start with George W Bush and won’t end when he’s out of office. Moore’s movie failed to offer any coherent analysis of the historical and political context for Bush’s failed wars, and hence did little to help viewers deepen their understanding."
Broomfield’s recently released Battle for Haditha on the other hand does feature Iraqi protagonists in the community where the massacre took place as well as persons involved in the Iraqi resistance. This film was expected to be a critical film of the now notorious massacre of 24 men, women and children by US marines in November 2005. While the film does show the gung-ho nature of the Marines, it fails to depict the Iraqis accurately. Iraqis are a proud people with a long history and tradition of multi-confessional Iraqi, Arab and Islamic culture which includes a deep sense of patriotism which they have defended against colonialism of the past and today against neo-colonialism.
Battle of Haditha treats the Iraqi resistance in an even more problematic manner than that of the Iraqi non-combatants. One of the main resistance fighters is a drunk and joins the struggle due to financial reasons, while the Islamist resistance leader, a cleric, is a very shady and manipulative character who cares nothing about the Iraqi people. In contrast, despite the animal-like behaviour of the Marines, they are shown as victims of their political and military leaders. There is no doubt that the viewer is supposed to sympathise with the Marines culminating in one of them leading an Iraqi girl by the hand into the light, while a few moments ago he just massacred her entire family. The Western viewer would rightly never accept such a depiction of a soldier of the Third Reich in relation to the French or Dutch, and would never accept the anti-fascist resistance as a fundamentally suspect movement, so why should the viewer accept such a portrayal in this instance?
Radical Arab Nationalist Ibrahim Alloush explains in a critique of the film, "when the humanitarian perspective becomes a cover for humanizing the invader in Iraq or Palestine independently of politics, it changes into an arrogant, orientalist mechanism of reducing the Arab cause to a form of shallow humanitarian advocacy at best, and political misguidance based on conflation of henchman and victim at worst… Undeniably, the movie’s message is tricky: it is in an effort to exonerate the Marines in Iraq and the non-ideological resistance; present the residents as aimless barn animals ready for slaughter; and to indict major politicians in the West and ideologists in the East. Ultimately, it is a liberal message and stems from lack of comprehension of the ongoing battle between the occupation and the resistance on Iraq’s
The puzzling thing about Broomfield’s 'docu-drama’ is the way in which he depicted the relationship between the Iraqi civilians and resistance; it seems this was at odds with reality. The residents of Haditha have said that the resistance are a part of the community who defend the people against the occupation forces. For some reason Broomfield has decided to completely distort the relationship between the resistance and the people of Haditha.
In contrast to Moore and Broomfield there are a number of British-made film productions which positively challenge the mainstream Islamophobic discourse. In discussion with The Guardian journalist and film-maker Clancy Chassay on the subject of his video reports from Gaza, he said of his short films: "It encourages the viewer to engage with our shared humanity; a humanity too often denied to these victims."
Indeed it is not a complicated principle to understand, but the ability to engage in a process to share a common humanity is beyond many people as a result of the sheer mass of mainstream media which turns reality on its head. Chassay’s reports cuts through the warped message in much of the mainstream media that Fatah equals a shared democratic value with Western democracy, and that Hamas equals terrorism and repression. Chassay shows that in Gaza Fatah’s armed wing are actively engaged in sending rockets into Israel, whereas we are led to believe that it is Hamas’ responsibility that any homemade Palestinian rockets are targeted at Israel. The second round of films from Chassay shows the impact on Palestinians in Gaza of the blockade on Gaza by Israel and with which the West is complicit. These latter films challenges a Western audience as much as the first set of Chassay’s films as they force the viewer to see beyond the 'terrorists’ label, and see Palestinians as people, albeit a brutally oppressed people.
One of the bravest films to be made is the British film Britz, a film that raised some uncomfortable home truths about the ramifications of British foreign and domestic policies towards Muslims. The film’s director Peter Kosminsky has said that the film was not aimed at Muslim audiences but at white Western audiences, particularly those in Britain. Moazzam Begg in his review of the film following a special preview screening states: "He [Kosminsky] replied that it was to make people ask more questions about internal and foreign policy; about spooks as well as suicide bombers. Indeed, it was to boldly ask the question whether the effects of personal trauma—in this case Nasima’s best friend who is detained without trial and then subjected to a control order—coupled with societal hostility and a sense of political impotence can lead someone to the path of violent extremism. And if it can, are we able to understand?"
Britz addressed political taboos head on. In this day and age it takes confidence and political daring to take up political themes that should be some of the main political issues that urgently need addressing. The onus is on intellectuals, writers, film-makers and those engaged in progressive political change to radically adjust the parameters of the debate (or the lack of debate), otherwise it is left to those in weaker positions to try and raise these issues but are either ignored or vilified in an atmosphere reminiscent of McCarthyite totalitarianism.
Another off-limits subject seems to be the Iraqi resistance. There is only one documentary film that has reported on the resistance, and that is Steve Connors’ and Molly Bingham’s Meeting Resistance. This film was shot during the small window of time immediately after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 when Western filmmakers could still meet and interview those involved in the resistance. The film shows people from all walks of life, young men, professionals, religious clerics, a house wife and political activists, all part of the resistance who have nearly an hour and a half on film to discuss their motivations and the nature of their involvement in the struggle to free their country.
In conversation with Connors at the British Museum’s screening of Meeting Resistance during the London Documentary Film Festival, Connors explained how the film challenges many assumptions and misrepresentations of the resistance to occupation in Iraq: "Firstly, it pushes back on the "insurgency" title. To use one word to describe all the different reasons for violence in Iraq is ridiculous and - far from simplifying the issues - just creates more confusion."
When asked in what ways the film challenges Western preconceptions of the conflict in Iraq, Connors replied "I think the film allows the audience to rethink and re-humanise the resistance faction of the Iraqi political scene and shows them to be people whose aspirations are not so dissimilar from our own. Denying a view of Iraqis as actors in their own history then perpetuates the notion that we Westerners are the only ones civilized and sophisticated enough to provide a solution instead of facing the reality that we are actually the major problem in Iraq. Unfortunately most Western filmmakers (or journalists) who have tackled Iraq simply haven’t been sufficiently self aware to look at themselves and the subject in this way".
Connors is right when he highlights the dearth of filmmakers that approach the Muslim and Islamic Other in a human way rather than in way that adopts every Eurocentric stereotype of Muslims. Nevertheless, despite the flawed depictions of Muslims and their liberation struggles, and in the face of the lack of films like Britz and Meeting Resistance, these and other ground-breaking films are outstanding examples for others to build upon and positively influence wider audiences.