Monday, March 12, 2007

Biases in Popular Cinema

I saw Mel Gibson’s directorial venture Apocalypto recently. In my opinion it is the single most irresponsible piece of movie making that I have seen in a long, long time. Long, long time.

The film is set in the sunset days of the Mayan civilization when it was ridden by disease, crop failures and superstition- and the solution to the problems were seen in building temples and offering human sacrifice. The locations are lovely, and many would argue (and rightly so) that it lends deep insights into the demise of a civilization that has long gone by. I would be lying if I said that there are no lessons to be learnt from that episode.

My dissonance with the movie is at a different level. There are some things, which I feel should never reach Hollywood. Some chapters of history should remain confined historians and academics, and should appear in moderated précis form in high school textbooks for consumption of the public at large. Nevertheless, if one does have the burning desire to tell a story such as this, then please don’t be selective about your representation.

The problem with disseminating selective aspects of a civilization, the descendents of which roam the streets of our global village today is that it only aids to form prejudices in an increasingly polarized world. What one read in history texts- primarily a more balanced view of an ancient civilization is easily overwritten by the images of gore that are seen on celluloid. Representation of history through mass media should always holistic- otherwise it is not fair.

The Mayan civilization has many credits to its name.[1] For instance their art, architecture, urban design and town planning was at par with many contemporary civilizations of the world. Further, they were a largely literate people and their script was the only syllabic one in the Pre-Columbian New World. Their measure of the solar year was much more accurate than the Gregorian calendar that we use today. They are the only pre-telescope civilization to demonstrate the knowledge of constellations being fuzzy and not a stellar pin-point. And so on…

Let us say a hundred years from now, when the geopolitical landscape of the world is very different from they way we see it today, a certain Gel Mibson the XXV were to make a movie on the US of A, and focuses only on the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Do you think it will be fair? Is it fair to remember the United States only for the wars it waged and the atom bombs it dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? For the leadership of George Bush Jr. Think about it.

From a film-maker’s perspective I can understand why one needs to make such a movie. Tragedy confirms success whereas, glorification of a civilization reduces it to mere work of history. Nothing sells like gore and tears.

I think such a film, unless it presents a holistic picture, and thereby keeping the downfall as an important but not overwhelming part of the offering is pointless in current day and age. It raises more walls than it breaks down, asks more questions than it answers. This form of responsibility is even more important when dealing with issues which are otherwise not as well-known. For instance no one complains when an Earth is made, or for that matter Tamas.

Established makers of popular cinema should realize that the impact of their one successful production on shaping public opinion runs very, very deep, and hence their responsibility to the society is much beyond what most historians can hope to achieve in an entire life time. Therefore being selective in their representation, being short-sighted manifests misunderstandings which can never ever be washed away.


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