Saturday, January 30, 2010

Avatar; blatantly anti-colonialist?

(Spoiler Warning)
It is the eternal discourse and the never-ending contrast between the colonists and the natives. The colonists are advanced, the natives are primitive. The colonists are practical, scientific and materialistic, the natives are spiritual. The colonists are also downright cruel, whereas the natives are loyal and brave.
This sharp contrast not only sums up the blockbuster Avatar but also the discourse on colonialism ever since it started hundreds of years ago. No doubt the movie presents a breathtaking make-believe world of what outer space might hold in the next century, vivid and exquisite scenery, powerful images as well as action and thrill. But you cannot turn a blind eye to the very obvious socio-political message of the film. I don't believe in the ars gratia artis philosophy (art for art's sake). Art always tells us who we are, provides alternate realities, or for that matter, alternate dreams.
The film presents both sides of a colonial discourse, which is fair, and attributes certain features to the natives which is unfair. It is a considerable break away from other silly US films produced in the 90s and early 2000s about the all-American hero who has absolute power of machinery and mind to subdue other territories which are not given voice (Independence Day, Armageddon). The muddle the US is facing now in the two countries it occupies (Afghanistan, Iraq...and Haiti?) clearly disillusioned many filmmakers including James Cameron. It is clear that no communities will get attacked and not resort to resistance, also as clear it is that the attack is never justified, successful or ethical, but blatantly materialistic, destructive and even short-sighted. Hopefully, it is now clear that you cannot crush a community with your machinery no matter how developped and advanced and "go home for dinner" as the commander says in the movie. A people's spiritual attachment to their deity, land, environment and continuity is more enduring than man's desire for earthly matters.
Two issues remain controversial though. The first is regarding the features of the Natives. Throughout colonial discourse, indigenous groups have been described, called and treated as the vilest of creations. The white man (US marine) is expected to "civilise the brutes", and it is "his burden". This racism serves both as a pretext for attack, and for the natives to deem themselves unworthy of living, having failed to rise above primitive. The Na'vi of the film have been called "savages" and "blue monkeys" but it's from the head of the mining operation, which comes as no surprise. However, the natives are really a merge between Africans and animals, or so it seemed to me. Their noses are distinctively flat, their facial bones are distinctive of negros, they live in tribes, they hunt down people or animals using arrows and swords, they are scantily clad....They are totally detached from urbanisation as it hasn't worked with them, as the snooty head of the operation remarks. At the same time, they have unmistakable animal features. They have cat-like ears, tails and they hiss like many animals to intimidate possible attackers. If it were a new form of "creatures" the writer has imagined, it would be understandable, but they have been clearly referred to as "people" by Dr. Grace Augustine. Truly though they are courageous and loyal, but why do people have tails, hiss and live like people in the dark ages?
The second point is, only an avatar having human genes has been able to assemble and mastermind the counterattacks on the US army. Only the hybrid Jake and Dr. Augustine take part in empowering the natives and reshaping their "army". In other words, the natives are still mainly dependent on the "civilised" nation for organising themseleves and desgining an attack, a strategy which any human brain can devise. Frustratingly enough, the "pure" natives are only followers. It is true that they used some machinery made by US troops, but they have been lead by Jake the avatar, the US ex-marine. Though of course in the final scene is compromising in that Jake chooses the Na'vi identity.
A new vision on colonialism the film provides and a vivid foresight of what may become of the US army if they continue exterminating people, destroying their land and taking away all they hold dear. However, the image of the colonised people, or the natives, remains distorted. It has progressed yes, in the sense that they at least have human features, but no filmmaker is obliged to "condescend" to make this move.

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