Avatar: Blockbuster film as socio-political and green allegory?


“Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”

Those words by American film producer and studio founder Sam Goldwyn (1879-1974) sum up Hollywood’s attitude to movie-making for the past many decades.

As I watched James Cameron’s latest blockbuster movie Avatar, I kept wondering how the master film maker managed to subvert this so completely. Beneath the 3D, special effects and riot of other worldly colours, the movie is one long (2 hrs 40 mins) and powerful commentary on why might is not right when it comes to exploiting resources — belonging to other countries, people, or as in this case, other worlds.

This is not just another worthy indie movie made by an idealistic movie maker defiant of Hollywood traditions and big money. James Cameron is one of the most commercially successful directors in the mainstream film industry – and perhaps one of the very few who can get away with this kind of stunt. At a budget of over US$ 300 million , Avatar is one of the most expensive films ever made, and the costliest ever for 20th Century Fox.

The big gamble is certainly paying off. On 26 January 2010 came the news that Avatar has surpassed Titanic as the highest-grossing movie worldwide. According to the studio, worldwide box office total for Avatar at that point stood at US$1.859 billion, beating the US$1.843 billion racked up by Cameron’s romantic drama in 1997-98. Avatar broke that record in a little over six weeks.

Part of the reason for such appeal is the extraordinary special effects: it’s an action-packed thriller where good and evil battle it out on another planet. The strange landscapes give it a video game like feel, but no small screen can match the theatrical experience, especially if you watch it in IMAX 3D (I didn’t). And for a change, this time the aliens inhabiting planet Pandora are benign, while it’s the humans who are ruthless invaders and brutal killers. Well, at least most of the time…

Here’s the official blurb: “Avatar takes us to a spectacular world beyond imagination, where a reluctant hero embarks on an epic adventure, ultimately fighting to save the alien world he has learned to call home. James Cameron, the Oscar-winning director of Titanic, first conceived the film 15 years ago, when the means to realize his vision did not exist yet. Now, after four years of production, AVATAR, a live action film with a new generation of special effects, delivers a fully immersive cinematic experience of a new kind, where the revolutionary technology invented to make the film disappears into the emotion of the characters and the sweep of the story.”

And here’s AVATAR – Official International Launch Trailer (HD)

Film critics and social commentators around the world have noticed the many layers of allegory in the film. Interestingly, depending on where you come from, the movie’s underlying ‘message’ can be different: anti-war, pro-environment, anti-Big Oil, anti-mining, pro-indigenous people, and finally, anti-colonial or anti-American. Or All of the Above…

It looks as if Cameron has made the ultimate DIY allegory movie: he gives us the template into which any one of us can add our favourite injustice or underdog tale — and stir well. Then sit back and enjoy while good triumphs over evil, and the military-industrial complex is beaten by ten-foot-tall, blue-skinned natives brandishing little more than bows and arrows (and with a little help from Ma Nature). If only it works that way in real life…

But the multi-purpose allegory is apparently working well. Take these two from opposite sides of the planet:

Thomas Eddlem wrote in The New American: “Avatar, is a visually stunning epic that is a perfect allegory for any of a dozen or more Indian wars in American history. From King Philip’s War in New England to Tippecanoe in Indiana to Horseshoe Bend in Alabama — and all the way across the American continent, for that matter — the story was the same. Colonists simply take land from the natives, as the Sully explains: ‘This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on something that you want, you make them your enemy so that you can drive them out.’

Mayank Shekhar wrote in The Hindustan Times newspaper: “Between a green worldview and the globe’s war over a natural resource, James Cameron’s twin analogies of present-day politics are fairly complete. They lend his science fiction ‘event picture’ a certain soul, even if not much of a story line.”

So did Cameron set out trying to send a message? Or was it all an incidental byproduct? Listen to the director himself in these two online video stories:

James Cameron’s Vision Featurette

CBS Interview with James Cameron: From Titanic to Avatar

The most compelling social commentary on Avatar I have so far read comes from Naomi Wolf, the American political activist, author and social critic. In an op ed essay written for Project Syndicate, she sees two revealing themes in Avatar: “the raw, guilty template of the American unconscious in the context of the ‘war on terror’ and late-stage corporate imperialism, and a critical portrayal of America – for the first time ever in a Hollywood blockbuster – from the point of view of the rest of the world.”

She adds: “In the Hollywood tradition, of course, the American hero fighting an indigenous enemy is innocent and moral, a reluctant warrior bringing democracy, or at least justice, to feral savages. In Avatar , the core themes highlight everything that has gone wrong with Americans’ view of themselves in relation to their country’s foreign policy.”

Does the box office triumph of Avatar make James Cameron one of the most effective campaigners for social justice on the planet (comparable, in some ways, to Michael Jackson having been one of the biggest environmental communicators of his time)?

And is Avatar the most expensive piece of info-tainment or edu-tainment ever made, just like the Lord of the Rings trilogy was one long (even if unintended) commercial for the breathtaking sights and sounds of New Zealand?

Certainly, mixing messages with entertainment is such a difficult and delicate art that most people who dabble in it fall between the two stools. The entertainment value of Cameron’s latest flick is not in question. Granted, it’s not as heart-breaking as Titanic, and the storyline is oh-so-predictable. But 3D and SFX magic alone can’t hold today’s audiences gripped for 160 long minutes. And if the underlying story starts movie-goers thinking and talking about many parallels between the fictional world of Pandora and our own Earth, he’s certainly getting somewhere.

As Naomi Wolf says: “Ironically, Avatar will probably do more to exhume Americans’ suppressed knowledge about the shallowness of their national mythology in the face of their oppressive presence in the rest of the world than any amount of editorializing, college courses, or even protest from outside America’s borders. But I am not complaining about this. Hollywood is that powerful. But, in the case of Avatar , the power of American filmmaking has for once been directed toward American self-knowledge rather than American escapism.”

Perhaps this wasn’t part of the script, but would the executives at 20th Century Fox care as they laugh all the way to their bank?

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Scientists caution: Watching TV may shortern your life?

Was there life before Television?

Television has been called many names in the few decades it’s been around – among them the Great Wasteland and Idiot Box. Television used to be the favourite whipping boy of those who love to criticise communication technologies and consumer gadgets — until the Internet and mobile phones came along.

Couch potatoes of the world have ignored all snide remarks, and just carried on their sedentary practice.

Now they might have to think again: Television may be hazardous to your health in more ways than previously imagined. In fact, it might shorten your life.

A couple of weeks ago, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Science reported some worrying news. It said Australian scientists have published research showing a link which suggests that the more TV a person watches, the sooner they die.

The report, which appears in the journal Circulation,says every extra hour spent watching television increases people’s risk of premature death.

Professor David Dunstan of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne, followed more than 8000 Australian adults for six years.

The team discovered that the people who watched the most TV died younger.

“What this study provides is the first compelling evidence linking television viewing to an increased risk of early death,” says Dunstan. “People who watch four or more hours of television a day have a 46% higher risk of death from all causes and 80% increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.”

Read full report on ABC Science: TV shortens your life span, study finds

New Scientist, January 2008: Couch potato lifestyle may speed up ageing

Trivia: Robert Armstrong, an artist from California, developed the term couch potato in 1976. Several years later, he listed the term as a trademark with the United States government. Armstrong also helped illustrate a funny book about life as a full-time television watcher. It is called the “Official Couch Potato Handbook.”

Sri Lanka Presidential Election 2010: Choices made, now we move on…

Heads you lose, tails we win...?

With over 10 million others, I voted in Sri Lanka’s sixth Presidential Election yesterday. Today, after the votes were counted and tallied, we were informed that the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been re-elected for another six year term. He has won 57.9% of the valid votes.

Nearly 11,000 polling stations had been set up for this purpose, mostly at temples or schools. A quarter of a million public servants were mobilised to handle this massive operation, while close to 100,000 policemen and soldiers were tasked to maintain law and order. And the whole business of choosing the next leader is costing the war-impoverished nation several billion rupees.

So do the results — basically, more of the same — justify all this cost and effort? Was there real choice for us the hopeful little men (and women) who walked into little booths with little pencils in hand to make a little cross on a (not so) little bit of paper?

Opinion is highly polarised on that last question. The two main candidates not only tried to outpromise each other without coherence or focus, but also made a mockery out of the whole campaign process.

In fact, as I noted in my essay last week titled Open Moment, Closed Minds: “Party politics has always polarised Lankans, but no other election in recent memory has been as divisive…The two main contenders both claim to hold a mutually exclusive key to a better future for our land and people. Their dizzy campaigns bombard us with lofty claims and counter-claims 24/7 delivered through broadcast, broadband, mobile and other media.”

With pre-election violence escalating, the choice before voters looked like this a week before election day.

The election results will be analysed and debated for weeks to come. At first glance, it looks as if the voters used this election to express gratitude to Rajapaksa for having provided the political leadership to end Sri Lanka’s long-drawn civil war.

We can argue whether presidential elections should be turned into referendums on individual performance of candidates – or instead, decided on the vision and policies offered by them. I grant this is a bit more serious than American Idol – or its local variations – where we text our preference for the candidate with the best looks or talent.

In fact, I’m still not convinced whether it’s such a good idea to mix personal gratitude with voting for a head of state.

I’ve voted in four presidential and three general elections (I missed some due to overseas travel). With one exception (1994), all have been ‘protest votes’ – I was voting against an incumbent more than in favour of an aspirant.

But there are more things in heaven and on Earth, dear reader, than are dreamt in our messy politics. Albert Einstein said it so well many decades ago: “Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.”

We can only hope that our votes were properly counted — and that they count and matter to the leader whom we have collectively chosen today. That is, if he can see and hear beyond the cacophony of sycophants who surround him 24/7.

And as I tweeted earlier today: As Sri Lanka re-elects the President, we hope ALL 20 million Lankans can share the promise of a Better Future on which he campaigned and won…

Cartoons courtesy: Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

Open Moment, Closed Minds: New essay to mark 250 days of ‘Peace’ in Sri Lanka

Today marks exactly 250 days since Sri Lanka’s civil war officially ended on 18 May 2009.

In a new op ed essay — titled ‘Open Moment’, Closed Minds! — just published on Groundviews.org, I look back and ask some hard questions.

Here’s an excerpt:

“We all knew the hard-won peace had to be nurtured and consolidated. We also realised just how formidable the challenges of healing and rebuilding were. But could anyone have imagined the dramatic turn of political events since?

“Who would have thought that the victors of the war would soon be engaged in a nasty battle for personal glory and power? Who expected the historical feud between ‘lions’ and ‘tigers’ to be replaced so swiftly by a showdown between self-proclaimed ‘patriots’ and ‘traitors’?”

I raise these questions in the context of a fiercely contested presidential election scheduled for 26 January 2010. I note: “The two main contenders both claim to hold a mutually exclusive key to a better future for our land and people. Their dizzy campaigns bombard us with lofty claims and counter-claims 24/7 delivered through broadcast, broadband, mobile and other media.”

I ask whether either of the leading candidates has the open mind needed to seize the historic ‘open moment’ since the war ended. I recall how we completely missed the last such open moment created by the tsunami of December 2004.

I write: “Having missed the tsunami’s open moment, we cannot afford to bungle again. Rebuilding a nation of lasting peace, pluralism and prosperity will require many sections of society to change their mindset. This is especially and urgently needed in our media, much of which has become uncritical cheerleaders for patriotism and tribalism in recent years.”

Despite the many disappointments of the past 250 days, I still remain cautiously optimistic. But for how long?

The origins of this essay can be traced back to a blog post I wrote on 19 May 2009: Us and Them: Sri Lanka’s first landmine on the road to peace…

Read the full essay, and join the conversation at Groundviews.org

Buzz Aldrin at 80: Still blasting off imagination everyday

Moonwalker No 2

This is one of history’s most famous photographs – and also one that is frequently misidentified. The man behind the space mask is a pioneer Moon walker – but it’s not Neil Armstrong. It’s the Buzz Aldrin, the second Man on the Moon.

According to space historians, all the famous photos from the first Moon landing are actually of Aldrin, with Armstrong reflected in the visor. This is an occupational hazard for those who take photos!

Buzz, who celebrated his 80th birthday on January 20, remains active and publicly engaged as he has been for most of the past 40 years since the first Moon landing in July 1969.

I’m following Buzz on his Twitter feed, from which I find that he’s just back from a trip to Antarctica with a National Geographic cruise, was at the premiere for the movie Avatar in mid December, and is now busy promoting his latest autobiography, Magnificent Desolation.

On his 80th birthday, Buzz asked fans to donate US$8 ot 80 to the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund. And he will soon launch my iPhone App, Buzz Aldrin Portal to Science and Space Exploration.

This contrasts with Neil Armstrong, who is notoriously shy. He rarely speaks in public, turns down all media interviews and has also refused autograph requests since 1994.

Trained as an engineer, the two-time space traveller Buzz has been keeping up with new media pretty well. He has his own website, and launched his own YouTube channel only a month ago, where we can see his latest broadcast and film appearances. Through these and other means, he continues to promote causes like space exploration, science education and nurturing imagination.

To mark his 80th birthday, we present some of the many Buzz Aldrin videos available online.

First, here’s the moment when Buzz Aldrin set foot on the Moon, in a partial restoration by NASA Video

Here’s the DVD Promo Overview of the latest Buzz video:

On the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 crew landing on the moon, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin shares his experience and predicts where man will go in the future. (Assciated Press video, 20 July 2009)

Buzz has long years of close association with popular culture. For example, the popular space ranger character Buzz Lightyear, in Pixar’s Toy Story movie series, is named after him. Apparently the film’s makers felt that he has “the coolest name of any astronaut.”

NASA video: Follow Buzz Lightyear on Spaceship Discovery

Finally, for comic relief, here’s the 2003 interview Buzz did with Ali G (Sacha Baron Cohen) in the British comedy series Ali G in da USA, during which Ali G referred to him as Buzz Lightyear:

P.S.: If you prefer a more detached look at the man and his career:
The Guardian, July 2009: The Man who fell to Earth

Making of ‘The Greenbelt Reports’ recalled in ‘The Green Pen’

The process of producing and distributing TVE Asia Pacific’s educational TV series, The Greenbelt Reports, is showcased in a new book on environmental journalism in South Asia, just published by Sage, a globally operating company that specialises in bringing out academic and professional books.

The book, titled The Green Pen: Environmental Journalism in India and South Asia, is edited by two senior Indian journalists, both good friends – Keya Acharya of Bangalore, and Frederick Noronha based in Goa. (In 2007, Fred and I co-edited Communicating Disasters: An Asia Pacific Resource Book.)

Arranged in 10 sections, the book brings together contributions from three dozen journalists, broadcasters and film makers in South Asia. It opens with a foreword by Darryl D’Monte, one time editor of The Times of India and Chair, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI).

I co-wrote the chapter titled ‘Dispatches from the Frontline: Making of The Greenbelt Reports’ with my colleague Manori Wijesekera, TVEAP’s Regional Programme Manager. I was researcher and script writer of the 12-part, 4-country series that we made in 2006, in which Manori was series producer. The series looked at the environmental lessons of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

The title reflects the lingering print bias in media related discussions: in our case, the content we produced was disseminated on broadcast television, narrowcast DVD and online. We wielded cameras rather than pens, but are still very glad to share our experience in this book.

Keya Acharya (left) and Fred Noronha

The publisher’s blurb says: “This collection of essays by some of the most prominent environmental journalists in Indian and South Asia gives deep insights into their profession and its need and relevance in society. It looks at this ‘specialisation’ of journalism both in the past and the present. Underlying almost all the essays is the changing nature of media in the region and the dilemmas facing environmental journalists. The varied background of the writers ensures the showcasing of a wide range of realities and experiences from the field. Contributions include essays by Darryl D’Monte, the late Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, among others.”

“This is the first book of its kind on environmental journalism, which would be an excellent resource to aid the future evolution of the enterprise in the region. Apart from essays from India, there are contributions from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives. The book will interest a wide readership, any informed reader, besides journalists and environmentalists.”

It’s an honour to be part of a book which features the work of respected seniors like Anil, Darryl and Sunita – all of who have influenced my own career and I’m privileged to count among my friends (alas, Anil is no longer with us). In fact, I have either met, worked with or am friends with more than half the three dozen contributing authors of this book.

Who says South Asia is large?

More in TVEAP news story: The Greenbelt Reports featured in new book on environmental journalism in South Asia

Wim Wenders: How our images can change our world

Wim WendersEvery now and then, we come across a simple yet profound statement that sums up our work or our aspirations – or both.

Here’s one such gem from Wim Wenders, the German film director, playwright, author, photographer and producer: “If we can improve the images of the world, perhaps we can improve the world.”

I must admit, now and here, that I’ve not seen any of his films (except for extracts online – does that count?). Yes, what a lot I have missed — but I’ve read a bit on him and been enormously impressed by how he plays with images, both still and moving, in a unique style of his own.

The more I searched about him, the more impressed and amazed I became about his progressive and pragmatic comments about his art and craft.

Consider these other gems I found, all talking about how movies can catalyse or support change in society:

“Any film that supports the idea that things can be changed is a great film in my eyes.”

“Any movie that has that spirit and says things can be changed is worth making.”

“Entertainment today constantly emphasises the message that things are wonderful the way they are. But there is another kind of cinema, which says that change is possible and necessary and it’s up to you.”

“On the contrary a film can promote the idea of change without any political message whatsoever but in its form and language can tell people that they can change their lives and contribute to progressive changes in the world.”

Read collected quotes of Wim Wenders on BrainyQuote

Opening of Wings of Desire (1987) by Wim Wenders

Here’s an interesting interview with the legendary film maker by a legendary broadcaster:

Frost over the World featuring Wim Wenders – Al Jazeera English on 11 Jan 2008

I’ve now run out of excuses for not seeking out Wim Wenders films. That’s one of my aspirations in 2010.

But meanwhile, this particular Wim Wenders quote is a caution for people like myself: “The more opinions you have, the less you see.”