Cinema – or rather, moving image, is in the news these days for all the wrong reasons. A film emanating from obscure sources in California is said to be the catalyst for massive protests around the Muslim world, and has also brought Muslims living elsewhere together to protest in other countries.
As a film-maker and film lecturer I was amazed and curious. What kind of film was this? I understood it was a low budget “independent” film that did not have any actual cinema distribution, but was available on Youtube. So I took a look.
I'll be honest: I did not watch it all, not all two hours of it. I saw about 15 mins of different clips and what I saw was so incredibly, laughably bad that yes, I laughed my socks off.
I was offended, but I was offended as film-maker is offended: by bad film making. Bad artistry. Bad writing, Execrable acting.
The overwhelming dreadfulness of the film made me at first forget what the film is actually purporting to be about. Then I had another look.
The comedy of the film surely disguises, for me, the fact that this film is hate literature. Really hate literature. It ladles on every cliché that Hollywood is already guilty of in terms of “anti-Arab” stereotyping, then loads in another ten tons of specifically anti-Muslim hate melodrama. I won't go into what is in it, see for yourself.
Now, as a film maker, I have to ask what makes this film hate material whereas films that have emerged in recent decades criticizing Catholicism, for example, are not. As a Catholic myself, by upbringing, it's worth exploring.
Firstly let me say that, as resident of the UK I'd say that there are sometimes rather nasty anti-Catholic remarks and attitudes, showing that historical memories die hard. Any heir to the throne still cannot to this day, marry a Catholic. Am I offended by this? - yes I am, I admit it, deep down. I am not a churchgoer, and I have a much more complex relationship with theology, but I am culturally a Catholic and like it or not is embedded in my identity. Does it bother me that I am a bit offended by it? No it doesn't. I care and don't care at the same time.
That is because the snide remarks and prejudices do not in any way whatsoever coalesce into a campaign of hate directed at me and my papist fellows. I see them for what they are, the leftovers of historical events that somehow still hang about despite being rotten to high heaven.
Then there are the films. There are several categories. There are the ones that the Church speaks out against and tells its flock we must not go and see this offensive film. As one often-overlooked important part of the Catholic tradition is intellectual enquiry – we usually flock to see these: The Exorcist, Da Vinci Code etc. Tripe, yes, but all the more scary for toying with our tradition. Nobody loves a good witch or devil film like a Catholic – as Dario Argento very well knew. I can't be bothered with slasher films or torture porn – to scare me you just have to bring in The Devil and his minions and I'll be clutching the sofa in terror. One of the most enjoyable recently being the very bad no-budget film The Devil where some people are trapped in an elevator and one of them turns out to be The Devil (btw it's pretty obvious who it is right from the start). Harmless fun, with a frisson of chill, despite the fact that almost nothing happens.
Then there are good films, the proper ones that really explore the psychology of the religion. The only one I can recall that really worked for me was Paul Verhoeven's The Fourth Man based on a novel by Gerard Reve. Surrealistic, scatological, exploring (among other things) the sexuality and homoeroticism of what is essentially a primarily symbolic and mystical (not a literal) religion, The Fourth Man explores the most mysterious parts of the faith but does not shatter or – crucially – exploit it. Perhaps that's because both Reve and Verhoeven are Catholics, and invite us viewers to have an experience they are not trying to inculcate a message. Needless to say it is an arthouse movie that hardly anyone has seen.
But this film emanating out of California has nothing in common with any of these kinds of films. It's not even a straight typical albeit 10th-rate Hollywood anti-Arab film. I turned instead to the films of a much earlier era, the Nazi propanganda films.
Hitler spent some serious money on cinema and so his films are definitely more stylish and better made. The Nazis also favoured the documentary approach, rather than the overheated bargain-bin Cecil B deMille style of the Californian epic. (I won't use the title of the film here, I won't dignify it with its title) But the message of the scripts could have been written by the same hate machine. The same accusations, the same claims of subhumanity, they same assertion of the essential Otherness of the groups attacked. Accusations of brutalising children (eating them or raping them); uncontrollable sexuality; desire to “take over” and destroy our “way of life” - they are all here in these Nazi films just as they are replicated in green screen glory in the Californian film.
In fact, I was astounded at just how preserved in aspic the propaganda approach is here; a perfectly preserved Nazi-esque script brought to life in 2012 – note perfect.
As an educated person I studied propaganda and history, and then again as part of my film-making studies so I now how it's done. And the Californian film is pretty darn crude and is not going to “convert” anyone to Muslim-disdaining. But for those who already hold the prejudice, it will reinforce that and – more crucially – bring these disaffected souls together, into the warm arms of where the film makers want them to be: the extremist far right.
I am not going to write here about the protests and the struggle between factions in post-Arab Spring countries. Clearly, they are in a revolutionary era and there are many factors involved. The film has acted as a kind of shorthand for a whole host of views and groupings fighting for dominance in the new settlement. That is not “our” problem as citizens in the West. I want to write about this as a film.
The Californian film is a piece of hate literature not less than The Nazi “doc” Der ewige Jude or the melodrama Jud Süß.There is little to distnguish them expect the relatively high quality of the Nazi effort. The Nazi films are also laughable, but we don't laugh becuase we know that they were for and what their makers went on to do.
What is especially interesting is that both these Nazi films were not made not during the propaganda day of the Reich when Hitler was wining over the German people to his vision of anew resurgent nation No they were made in 1940, when the war was already underway and crucially the “Final Solution” was about to be implemented. In order to implement this vile extermination, the Nazis had to portray their victims as utterly unspeakable subhuman monsters that deserve and require eradication .
The Californian film comes out at a time when the far right in the US , and its acolytes abroad, have been very active and from their point of view have made huge gains. The far right have in recent decades identified “Muslims” though interestingly only Muslims in strategic US-interest zones – as being problematic. In Europe, the far right is obsessed with immigration, and are setting the agenda in conservative governments across the continent.
When the far right does something the strategy is for one person to do the action and so the news is always about the “lone weirdo.” We rarely get to see much about the huge networks that support these guys. Page, Breivik, Copeland etc did not do this alone. Even if they pulled the triggers or planted the bombs they did it as part of a movement. A movement that gave them support (often financial as well) and certainly moral support. They belonged, they were not “lone wolves” as police claim.
With the Californian film, we can see into some of the strategies of the far right. The film is a document designed to bring the acolytes of the far right together to reinforce their beliefs. Even the badness of the film works in its favour since the acolytes can laugh and be amused by it, while having their views reinforced. The makers of the film appear to be a coalition of far right people and groups with different but linked interests in attacking Islam. (Unlike the left, the far right tends to stick together.)
Which brings us to the question I am facing. How do I as a film maker respond to film being used as a method of far right propaganda? Should it be banned as hate literature? Or should we be allowed to see it so we can judge for ourselves? What is the harm in a a film anyway?
This raises several complex issues. What is the harm in a a film anyway? We know that if films did not have ANY persuasive/influential value, the advertising industry would not spend a peeny on ads, but since we know that they do we can be sure that films (and literature and images in general) are persuasive.
Can we judge for ourselves? That assumes we are capable of making judgement. That we live in communities where intellectual enquiry and rational thought is valued and prized. That education and different points of view are available. This is one of the problems of liberalism: it often assumes too much about the position of the people asked to make their own judgements.
Should it be banned as hate literature? Jihadi films are banned, why not this? I was able to see the Nazi films in Youtube although when I first went to them I was warned about the offensive content. And I have to admit I find it a bit rich that “freedom of expression” means we can see hate films on Youtube but not a home-made video where someone has used a song by a recording artist as a soundtrack. What is is that about, anyway? But I am glad I could see the films, since only by seeing them could I understand how filmic propaganda works. And as it's the Internet I have, right to hand, within a second, a huge range of authoritative opinions and facts to compare the films to, and show how they are peddling lies. So no, I don’t want this or other films to be banned, though I do think the warning about the content could be stronger. I am not even sure we should be banning the jihadi material. I would also like to see Youtube NOT ban films that use “copyrighted” content: if we're doing the free speech thing, let's actually do it.
And it was pointed out to me that in terms of inculcating the general non-extremist population the mainstream films do a much better job in furthering the view of the Muslim as “other.” Jack Shaheen's documentary goes into exhaustive detail to the expose this. But I myself recall with utter clarity the way Midnight Express used Koran on the soundtrack during the most brutal and horrific scenes, creating an association that took ages to shake off. The casual racism of The Mummy, and Raiders of the Lost Ark with its comic Nazis and sinister “Arabs” have always passed without comment by every film critic in the Western world. Even the recent Narnia adaptation Voyage of the Dawn Treader (directed by veteran Michael Apted who should know better) dresses the slavers in “Arab” robes (and the only non-white faces in the film belong to these villains) – this in a film that is set in a fantasy land inhabited by centaurs etc! Here you go, kids, get your stereotyping in early.
Should it be identified as hate literature? Yes, and here is where I think we collectively can take responsibility. In all the furore around the protests (and to be fair the fact that some used the protests as a cover to assassinate at US diplomat is utterly appalling) there was almost no discussion of the film as hate literature. All comments start out with “The film is a disgrace but it's no excuse for ...” Wrong. The film is a disgrace and it is hater literature. That is what WE need to talk about. Let's talk about it. Let's talk about our won dirty secret: hate. Hate as an industry. As a way of life. Pure, vile hate.
There has so far been no discussion of how hate literature proliferates in our society and how we can counter it. And we desperately need that. The silence out of Hollywood, who for all its history has traded avidly on Arab stereotypes is deafening. Yet film as a medium owes its power and prevalence to the success of those who have made billions out of it. Would it be too hard for a few key film makers to stand up and denounce filmed hate literature as something that does not have any place in American film culture? Can we perhaps collectively take responsibility for hate literature and hate propaganda in our mist? Can we not speak out against it, while still upholding the right to freedom of expression? Can we not try to make films and art works that challenge it, that unpick and attack stereotypes?
Politicians artist, film makers and other concerned citizens can denounce hate while supporting freedom. Voltaire put his life on the line in defense of freedom of expression. He did not expect the shrug and “everyone’s' free to do as he likes and say as he likes” we are seeing now. The right to criticise religion and the state through thoughtful texts such The Age of Reason (Paine) and The Fourth Man, was hard won in the West and it is precarious, so let us not now throw it away on defending hate literature by our silence.