Monday, August 6, 2012

Some thoughts on American communal violence on film... (or not on film)

By now I am sure everybody has heard about the terrible mass murder in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a white supremacist opened fire at a Sikh temple. My heart goes out to the families of the victims.

Minorities who appear different to “mainstream society” whether because of ethnic background or just through distinctive dress are always in danger of being singled out as targets for mass rage. America is a complicated place. We define ourselves as a nation of immigrants who came here for a better life (conveniently leaving Native Americans and those brought here by force out of the story) but we have never really unified as a single nation and though our history is long and bloody with communal violence and sectarian disputes we rarely explore these ideas through our films.

As I read about the attack, I couldn’t help but predict that this incident will probably be appropriated and reworked into a Bollywood film. Kunal Kohli probably has 20 pages of white people delivering blisteringly racist diatribes ready to go right now! But America’s film studios will never touch Oak Creek. Not just because the victims are Sikh and the villain a white man but because America’s dream makers like to pretend racism and communal violence in America don’t exist.

While Bollywood picks at the wounds of Partition and the communal violence in Gujarat and other places, Hollywood prefers to keep our violent history buried. Imagine what Anurag Kashyap could do with the Wounded Knee Incident where FBI agents faced down Native American rebels from Pine Ridge Reservation. Why hasn’t this bloody battle been picked apart like so many of the “encounters” of Indian cinema?

Then there are the race riots of the 1960s, almost ignored outside the African-American community. Here in Washington, DC, the damage done to H Street - where the riots were centered - is only now finally beginning to be erased. Why hasn’t this been explored in mainstream American film? Where is our tragic Mausam - lovers torn apart by violence? Is soft-core white fantasy of The Help the only thing in our hearts?

Where are the films about the Japanese-Americans put in internment camps during World War II? The films about coal miners worked to death in West Virginia?

Where is our Aamir Khan willing to support a film about the troubles our farmers face?

And why am I instead guaranteed five sequels to the latest comic book superhero tripe and eight films musing on the troubles of middle-class white dudes?

Watching mainstream American films, one would think the biggest conflict in our history is between people who liked Bush and people who don’t. (Unless it’s a Civil War film, in which the conflict is between heroic white people who want to free the slaves and heroic white people who want to save their farms.)

I know Bollywood is far from perfect; depictions are biased and politics simplified. My Name Is Khan. And I recognize that for every film that explores a social problem, there is an utterly inane Kyaa Super Kool Hain Hum to negate it, but you can watch mainstream Bollywood (and especially South Indian) films and be made aware that these problems exist - that these events happened and still define our relationships to each other.

The only reason I know who the Naxalites are or about farmer suicides is because of Bollywood.

I’m not holding my breath for another American History X any time soon - not with ten more Marvel Comics and remakes of every film made in the 1980s in the works - but I am curious to see how the film studios of Mumbai will handle this. Will we see a turbaned Sunny Deol airdropped into downtown Madison ready to bash heads? Only time will tell.

But I kind of hope so.

28 comments:

Ness said...

I may be completely wrong, but isn't it true for...any kind of horrific violent episode, not just communal violence? I mean, I was thinking about this recently after the Colorado shooting, and the only film I could think of that touched Columbine was that Gus van Sant one, Elephant. It's like there's a sense of "it's way too soon, we don't want to offend anyone" because...it's only NOW there are films even remotely, REMOTELY touching 9/11? I dont know, that;s the impression I get? So yeah, I'll be looking to Bollywood before Hollywood too.

Filmi Girl said...

Like studios looking to avoid lawsuits? That could be.

Are there 9/11 films now? The issue that I've seen popping up is veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan... and a whole slew of films dealing with gay issues.

Filmi Girl said...

And this post is very much an invitation to conversation!

Ness said...

Well, no there aren't 9/11 films, not the way Bollywood would/has(?) addressed it. It's starting to crop up in the background, like as a setting thing. That Tom Hanks thing based on a book? Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Seriously...thinking about it, Bollywood is in its way more progressive in addressing actual events, though the treatment can be...simplistic or flawed at times

lvrplfc4l said...

The problem is we don't like movies that show the truth about America we would rather have the myth. Other than Spike Lee I don't remember many films looking at race at all, unless it was a white teacher saving inner city schools or a white coach helping a black team finally win. We loved to make movies on South African Apartheid and preach from a moral high ground we had no right to stand on but look at our own form of apartheid, never.

Filmi Girl said...

@Ness Ahhh~ like in that Robert Pattison movie?

Yeah. For all the gloss and glamour, Bollywood is much more proactive at trying process things like terror attacks. Even if that processing ends up with Sunny Deol punching Pakistan in the face...

@lvrplfc4l Yeah, Spike Lee is an outlier for sure but I wonder how much is that we white people not wanting to see the bad things we've done or the Hollywood studios deciding for us that we don't want to see it?

Communal violence doesn't have to be race-related... How about a historical film based on the Bisbee Deportation?

Oh wait, I think there are some British royals that need films made on them first... nothing bad EVER happens in the US of A.

Moimeme said...

I am really, really surprised by FG's post and all the comments agreeing with it. No films on 9/11? My gosh, it was only a few months after the event that there was a made for TV movie on it! There were even criticisms that it was way too soon to make such a movie! I'm hardly a big time Hollywood film watcher, and a practically non-TV watcher, and even I am aware of them.

[Unfortunately, I've now reached the age where blanking out on names (of people, movies, books, etc.) is an almost everyday phenomenon, so please indulge me for posting this reply without doing extensive research to tease out the exact titles from my foggy brain. But here goes.]

No films about the Wounded Knee incident? I'm sure there was at least one TV movie. As for movies with the general theme of the exploitation of Native Americans, how about "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" and "Little Big Man" for starters?

No films about 9/11? Within a year, there were at least three, either made for TV or theatrical releases. I think there were three just on Flight 98 alone(the one to Boston where the hijackers were supposedly overpowered by the passengers).

Film about the struggles of a family farm: Places in the Heart -- Sally Field even won a Best Actress Oscar for it.

Race riots? I recall some TV movies about the Watts riots, and several TV movies about the L.A. riots after the Rodney King verdict. I can't remember one specifically about the Washington, D.C. riots, but there are several noted films (not TV movies) about the whole civil rights struggle (Mississippi Burning, for example), and the general upheavals during the 1960's, such as the student protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. I recall two films just about Abbie Hoffman's trial. And there was more than one film portraying the Civil War from the point of view of the African Americans.

Japanese internment camps: Farewell to Manzanar (TV movie).

All these are just off the top of my head. The only topic you've mentioned for which I couldn't remember a film was about coal mining in West Virginia. That doesn't mean such films don't exist.

So I really don't know what's going on here. Is it that all of you are too young to remember these films? Is it that you're only aware of current blockbusters? Is it that you don't watch TV?

On the last point, note that a number of examples I've mentioned have been made for TV movies, which have more or less died out as a genre now, but were very big in the 1970's and 1980's. In fact, many a touchy topic that was considered too "risky" to be touched by Hollywood were first and freely explored on television (case in point: "That Certain Summer", about a young boy discovering that his divorced dad is a homosexual and is living with his male partner).

Maybe all these films don't portray the ideology that you approve of, but they certainly exist, enough to make someone unfamiliar with U.S. society and history aware of the issues.

Moimeme said...

@FG - I have to disagree that Bollywood is "better" at processing things like terrorism. Tell me of *one* film that condemned the terrorist or terrorism? They are all about "understanding" the terrorist.

Another point is that there are many, many books in the U.S. about all the issues you've mentioned. While the reach of films may be wider than that of books, Americans typically look to literature to "process" major historic events.

Moimeme said...

@FG - BTW, you may not want to use the term "communal violence" in your post. "Communal" in India has a very specific meaning, not just to mean religious based issues, but in recent times, to mean only bias against Muslims (and in a few cases Christians). So the burning of the train in Godhra which killed Hindus is not considered a "communal" act, but the riots which followed it are communal, while the 1984 riots targeting and killing Sikhs are not communal. I really don't think there is any way this term can be used in the U.S., and anyway you have gone on to list many issues which are more political in nature rather than religious. Even the killings in Wisconsin are probably more politically motivated than religiously.

Filmi Girl said...

@moimeme Thanks for your comments, as always! You add such great things to these discussions.

You are talking about TV movies and literature but I am talking about mainstream film that anybody would have seen. I don't think I've heard of half the things you mentioned and I am much more aware of what is at the cinema than most people.

All I'm saying is one television film in 40 years that I hadn't even heard of isn't exactly mainstream.

And what is wrong with understanding terrorists? They are people, too. Isn't it important to understand something rather than blindly hate?

I was looking through the films nominated for Oscars over the past 10 years or so and almost all of them were either about the exotic troubles of somewhere else or the inward looking issues of middle class white people. I think "Precious" was one of the few exceptions.

And I did mention the race riots were the topic of films by and for the African American community - but not in the wider mainstream community.

Certainly, if you look at small budget films you will find a lot of material but how many people really see those compared to the intended audience of a film like Mausam?

Moimeme said...

@FG - Thanks, I hope I didn't get on your nerves.

Unlike you, I didn't do any searching, but simply listed things off the top of my head. My point was that I could come up with mainstream films for almost all the issues you mentioned. It doesn't mean that's all there were.

I knew you were probably too young to remember the impact of TV movies. They were *the* thing back in the day - a role now taken over by various cable channels. Only, since they were shown on broadcast channels and not cable channels that people have to pay for, they were seen by most people in the country. Actually, I've always felt that Bollywood films are more akin to television programs in the U.S. rather than theatrical films. Till the advent of multiplexes (which drove the cost of an evening at the movies beyond the reach of the average person), movies in India were the cheapest, most readily available entertainment for everybody. Even after the proliferation of TV channels, most of the content is still movies.

As for mainstream, most of the Hindi audience in India would not have even heard of most of the films you listed, as can be seen by their box office collections.

Nothing wrong with understanding terrorists, but "processing" terrorism to me means that the victims should be understood, too -- i.e., that both sides of the arguments needs to be shown. And how come no one else gets this treatment? How about understanding misogynists, rapists, or bigots? They never get their side of the story told, or treated with sympathy on how they ended up doing what they do.

Moimeme said...

Sorry, I forgot to add a couple of more points. Being seen by a large number of people is different from winning Academy Awards. Even in the ten year period you searched, there were a number of issue based films, if not precisely all the issues you listed. There have been many more films about the war in Iraq, for example, which you didn't even list, as well as films on American foreign policy. Have you heard of Syriana, for instance? I think it might have even been nominated for an Oscar.

Filmi Girl said...

@moimeme Like Roots? My mother and I were just talking about that this weekend.

Yeah, the audience is getting increasingly fragmented here in America...

Americans seem to live in an ahistorical bubble, though. We "process" events (if you can call it that) through the 24 hour news networks and then forget they even happened.

At least from what I've seen in films, horrific acts of mass violence have become touchstones that viewers are supposed to know - anti Sikh violence of 1984; Gujarat in 2002; etc. That's all I'm saying - a sense of history is there.

Filmi Girl said...

And foreign policy is not really what I'm talking about... that's outward looking.

Again, I'm really not trying to say that Bollywood is perfect and Hollywood sucks - just that BW (and more often the South cinemas) are more likely to use things "ripped from the headlines" than Hollywood is.

Moimeme said...

@FG, Yes, Roots was very influential, but it was a miniseries (possibly the first), not a TV movie.

I know that you're not saying BW is perfect. But I am completely amazed at how little it rips from the headlines, in an almost ostrich like way.

I think even the Indian films that reference such events (unless the film is specifically about the event), merely refer to them in the background because the events are so ubiquitous! It's a good thing this is not the case in the U.S., for which we should be thankful. For instance, in the Tamil film Thenali, which is a hilarious comedy, there is reference at the beginning to how Kamal Hassan's character became such a 'fraidy cat, and he explains how the terrorists attacked their village one night and killed his family. Now I saw this in a Telugu dub, so I really couldn't figure out where these terrorists came from. I read much later that in the Tamil version, one of the main sources of comedy was Kamal's Sinhalese accented Tamil - so he was a refugee from Sri Lanka to India, and at the time the film was made, the civil war in Sri Lanka was still raging. I doubt that even a Tamil movie made today would have such a topical reference.

Similarly, you might get the idea from a lot of Telugu movies that the Rayalseema region is absolutely overflowing with maniacs running around with machetes, whereas the reality is that they live pretty much like people anywhere else. But, since some factional fights do happen there, it is better to set the film in that region than in another part of the state.

Similarly with terrorism. On average there seems to be some kind of politically motivated violence somewhere in India about once a week, or at least once every two weeks. So to say that a character's parent or friend died in a random bomb blast is as routine and acceptable as to say that a character in an American film died due to a car accident.* That doesn't mean the film is treating terrorism in a meaningful way.

*In fact I saw this in an Israeli film. The film actually isn't about any of the terrorist attacks or battles going on there, but about a woman and her family. Nevertheless, her lover fails to turn up to their tryst because he gets killed in a bomb blast. The bombing and his death are treated very casually, as just one of those things that happen in life, and more as a plot device than a political statement. I think that's how a lot of political references are made in Indian films.

Filmi Girl said...

I don't know... at least they acknowledge things are happening. For all the violence and horrible things happening in America, our films keep us pretty isolated - unless they are set in the African American community in the inner cities or something.

I think it does come down to that sense of history. We have lost it here and that's not healthy. Of course, it's not healthy to dwell on things either...

Moimeme said...

Oh, one more thing I wanted to say is that "Hollywood", by which is meant the five big studios, is really all foreign owned now. The trend started in the 1980's, and there was much beating of breasts within the industry on what a great cultural loss this would be, and by the 1990's the takeover was more or less complete. So if you're looking at current movies, or even ones within the last 10 years, you won't find many that are introspecting on American society. The foreign owners think in terms of global marketing, and actively discourage meaningful dramas that require knowledge of American culture, or even a great facility with the English language on the viewer's part. That's why the shift has occurred to these big special effects extravaganzas with minimal dialogue, as well as the comic book films, where characters need not even be human, and the story can be followed by anyone of any background. The introspecting type of film is done primarily by small independent film makers, or by big stars with the means to produce the kind of movies they like (Syriana was produced by George Clooney).

I don't know if you remember a film called "Sideways"? (some time in the 1990's I think). To me it wasn't much of a film, but it won the Oscar for best picture that year, and one of the explanations given for this to happen was that it was the first film that was truly "American" in its sensibilities in a long time. It was an independent production (and started the trend of big studios having their own "independent production" units, which is quite an oxymoron).

Filmi Girl said...

@moimeme See, this is why I love your comments even when you disagree (strongly) with me!! I hadn't even thought about this but it makes COMPLETE sense...

I wonder if the entrance of foreign companies to the Bollywood market will see something similar happen (or accelerate the trend vis-a-vis the NRI market)...

Bombay Talkies said...

I can't add much more to the discussion than what Moimeme has already said very well, except to offer that if you don't think American films treat these kinds of topics then you must be going out of your way to avoid them (or not be familiar with them). I believe I'm a year or two younger than you, FG, but I'm familiar with the films (tv and otherwise) that Moimeme mentioned. Most of them were shown to me in school (some probably not age appropriate--Mississippi Burning was played in 6th grade) but I'm glad I was exposed to them).

I haven't watched what you would call a "commercial" American film since I was in middle school. They're all completely rubbish. But even commercial films deal with the kind of topics you're talking about--there was a mainstream film about 9/11 shortly after the event (Greengrass or whoever). I personally find "ripped from the headlines" films to be incredibly tacky, be they American or Indian. It doesn't look like awareness, it looks like exploitation of grief for financial gain.

I think in terms of this topic you only see what you're looking for.

Filmi Girl said...

@BT You must have gone to a much better school district than I did... :P But I think Moimeme hits it on the head with the international conglomerates.

I don't actively avoid anything and I like to think I'm pretty media-savvy in terms of the general cultural conversation just through my day job.

Liking or not liking ripped from the headlines is a matter of taste~ IMHO I think it's better to get stories out there so we can understand them better. Something like "Boys Don't Cry" or "Milk" is valuable to the cultural conversation.

CoffeeQueen said...

"Is it that all of you are too young to remember these films?"

I was thinking the same thing. Sadly, I am not. Every time you refer to saif, salman or Sanjay as Uncle I die a little inside.

I don't mean to be ganging up on you or anything. I do understand that youre rattled by the events over the weekend.

I rememeber the '84 events very well. The aftermath deeply effected my family and myself. We lived under a sikh family. I was close to their eldest daughter.

I remember TV movies .. (Hand up) They could be quite topical on occassion.

I have seen many films that would qualify but cant recall any names :| Do Bowling for Columbine or Shake Hands with the Devil qualify? I know a lot of folks dispise MM but RD is a personal hero of mine.

I think under the present circumstances (being obviously upset)you arent thinking clearly and maybe your recall is clogged. Its understandable.

I can't come up with any other names of the many films ive seen touching these topics, I too have issues with brain fog thanks to middle age BLAH!

Filmi Girl said...

@CQ :) I'm glad everybody is commenting!! And you make a good point - this could be a generational thing. Maybe it's us youngsters who really suffer from a lack of context from the corporate media.

I'm thinking of things like how the X-Men First Class was set in the 1960s and didn't mention the Civil Rights movement at all... things like that. Just stripped of context (but as Moimeme pointed out - easily exported.)

It's not that these issues have never been brought up EVER in media but - maybe this is my age again - I don't see them being brought up now.

You have Kevin Smith with Red State and...??

Perhaps it's our splintered media market that means we can easily tune out things we don't want to hear...

I know my post was kind of half-assed (I'm pretty sure I said as much on FB when I posted the link!!) but I'm happy to be half-assed if it gets this good conversation going. :D

CoffeeQueen said...

LOL! OK I laughed so hard I woke up my comatose teenager!

I think we have hit on 'something' anyway.

I am completely clueless to your references, X-Men First Class or Red State.

Filmi Girl said...

@CQ Hitting on "something" is all I can ask for... (the laughs are a bonus! LOL!)

Bombay Talkies said...

I think it's being a bit unrealistic to expect a movie like 'X Men' to delve beyond the superficial and examine history (even lightly).

As far as my school goes, no, it wasn't the most fantastic school lol...just very diverse (Army school). Maybe that had something to do with it?

I think my problem with "ripped from the headlines" style films is that after a while they start to hold the significance of a Law and Order episode. Cheesy, over-exuberant patriotism, bravado, blah blah blah. When I see a major film come out on an event that barely happened a year ago I completely disregard it, because I know they can't have spent enough time on it to do it well.

Filmi Girl said...

@BT I'd be happy to dismiss superhero films as the tripe they are BUT these days that is all we have in the way of forwarding our social conversation.

Look at the hoopla surrounding "Bane" and "Bain Capital" just a few weeks ago. And nobody is more self-important than the X-Men. That film was talked up in more than one corner as being a "metaphor" for Civil Rights...

It's things like this that make me wish we had films being made for mass audiences that actually touched on these issues in some way - clearly the public wants it.

I just wonder how we as a society would process a film like Rang De Basanti or even Patiala House.

Filmi Girl said...

This is the kind of thing I'm talking about: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/between-the-lines/201106/the-racial-politics-x-men

http://reflectionsonfilmandtelevision.blogspot.com/2010/01/cult-movie-review-conquest-of-planet-of.html

I love sci-fi and fantasy but it seems a shame that 60 years on we can't have a real conversation about these issues that doesn't involve flying people and talking monkeys.

Chrism929 said...

I completely agree with you about the irrelevancy of most Hollywood films to real life and the struggles most real people go through every day. And about the cowardice of big money to talk about the issues it causes, but maybe that's the crux of the problem right there: a few big corporations are perhaps much ore monolithically in charge of all sectors of the US economy, and how money is spent on big projects, than they are in India? Just wondering.

Here it's left to independent (indie) films and documentaries to reflect reality - but we do have a great tradition of indies and docs here and a small but (in some cases) sufficient public that supports them and the passionate filmmakers who continue to produce them. (And as for the question of where are our Aamir Khans, you can spot some of the relatively more conscious Hollywood personalities by their participation in some of these projects. And come to think of it, weren't some of his more socially conscious films really Indies by Bollywood standards?)

Occasionally one of these indy films, whether fic or nonfic, breaks through to mainstream-level commercialism, or at least recognition through one of the more independent cable TV networks, or one director reaches a wider public, or gets some attention through nomination by the Academy for an award. But taking indies into account our true nature as a nation is anything but undocumented thanks to these sometimes heroic filmmakers (If a Tree Falls..).

Of course my view of this is somewhat skewed since I'm as much a fan of documentaries as of Bollywood, and I live in a town with a fantastic independent film festival and the local culture to appreciate it, and run my own neighborhood documentary series year-round.

As to your larger view, I totally agree that this incident was communal violence. The white supremacy movement is small population-wise but is disproportionately influential as shown in what appears to be growing racism both through legal politics and social influence. Only independent organizations are even documenting this, as the powers that be consider themselves better served by a fragmented population, in my opinion. Most violence occurs within similar populations, in the typical pattern of bullying, but scapegoating of perceived "different" people is spreading, it seems to me. And the violence is being spread, and fostered, by a very sophisticated and well funded propaganda machine.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl