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Avatar, Palestine, and Dressing-Up for the Cause

February 15, 2010


Here come the Natives.


So those Palestinians are getting desperate, eh? Decades of documentaries, roomful of facts, libraries of maps and personal accounts, and galleries of photos all work to show the stark reality of how the Israelis are oppressing the Palestinians…and now, Palestinian activists have resorted to dressing up as the alien characters, the Na’vi, from Avatar as they demonstrate against the Apartheid Wall.

On a superficial level, this is humorous and, some may argue, brilliant, in that it takes the pulse of pop culture and uses it to highlight the Palestine situation, making a correlation that your average Westerner can relate to.

On a deeper level, this is worrying. Behind the 3-D and out of this world splash of vibrant colour, Avatar masks an age-old story: a a dash of White Man’s Burden, a pinch of the Nobel Savage, and a slice of Messiah prophecy.

Many have spoken on Avatar’s environmentalist, anti-capitalist, and pro-aboriginal messages within the film (maybe due to the zeitgeist of this pseudo-positive- hopey-changey world). When I watched Avatar, or hear other people, specifically, Arabs, speak on the film, there is a strong association that it represents current events in Iraq or Palestine. Many people, Arabs especially, have embraced the movie as representing a celebration of resistance over occupation, and the right to land over exploitation of resources.

I’m more inclined to be cautious.

Cinema, according to Slavo Zizek, is a potent tool that publicly represents our inner and deepest desires on the silver screen. Cinemas, and stories by extension, are tools that affect us in an emotional and intellectual way to convey a message.

Now Avatar is a technological marvel, and a spectacle of cinema. But, the story is not that revolutionary or subversive. It follows the same pattern of movies like Lawrence of Arabia, the Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves, Pocahantas, etc. The pattern presents itself as such: a white man (always) on a mission for his country/company/army/group/organization against the natives (African/Arab/Aboriginal) because of political or economic reasons. The white man falls in love with native life (or literally, falls in love with a native that represents the society – usually the chieftains’ daughter, or something). The love-struck white man fights for the natives, or leads them into a special kind of victory (usually bitter-sweet).

In the case of Avatar, the protagonist was able to “go native” and unify all the clans of the fictional Afro-Aboriginal Na’vi, and he was able to go beyond anyone else, in both the warrior and religious class of the Na’vi, to influence the spiritual deities of the land, moving the entire ecosystem (animals, plants, oh my!) to defend the planet.

As the audience, we are meant to understand that the natives are reliant on this person to be freed. Liberation is then never personal, never possible without the help of something or someone external, and in this case the help of those who are part of the oppressive and colonial machine. The narrative of resistance, of liberation, in essence is still trapped and outlined by the perspective of those who have power.

Strikingly what is not tackled in the movie and even in the underlying message is what comes after. Questions still remain to be asked: is there justice and accountability against those who have caused harm? Is there a lasting and sustainable peace? Are the “natives” secured from another invasion? All these notions are left unresolved, as the movie ends with the natives integrating the white man and rebuilding their society.

Reality is not that simple.

The use of the Avatar narrative by Palestinians is problematic because Avatar is really not the story of resistance and those who resist. Rather, it is a narrative of a society, or an individual from that society, coming into terms with his society’s historical and contemporary actions as an exploiter, a colonizer, an occupier. After that is done, the individual is saved by that realization.

For the Palestinian, this is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, resistance against the Zionist State that is heavily armed with the marvels of military technology, 200 nuclear warheads, a webbed system of economic, physical, and political control, and a powerful alliance with some North American, European, and Arab states is a daunting and overwhelming task; to appeal for solidarity and to connect with the mainstream by putting on the Avatar mask may be a smart PR move. But, on the other hand the narrative, in itself, is flawed and disarming and does not challenge the status quo mentality. Ultimately it requires reliance on those in power and who are privileged to succeed.

On a different level it speaks volumes on the desperation of Palestinian activist. To resort to the realm of cosmic fantasy and arch-typical characters to convey the situation on the ground in Palestine seems to suggest that the kind of audience this is designed to appeal to is so alienated from reality as to need it. Actual documented facts, a wealth of personal accounts do not seem to work anymore. Let’s bring out James Cameron, and while we’re at it, maybe David Spielberg.

That makes me uncomfortable to a certain degree.  How desensitized and apathetic is the public audience on the global stage?

More and more, the lines between reality and fiction have become blurred. Using fiction for a goal may not be a terrible thing, but it should be the right fiction, the right story.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Max Demian permalink
    February 16, 2010 10:55 am

    Great post, poignant analysis. I personally thought the storyline was blue-dyed fluff, precipitating in perhaps the corniest line in cinematic history: “I SEE YOU!”

    Most of my Palestinian buddies in diaspora criticize my starbucks purchasing habits (under the guise of a greater zionist conspiracy), and spend a lot of time debating the nefarious Hollywood Jewish elite and their ‘menacing’ plan to keep the stranglehold on us Palestinians…Now they celebrate a new blue PR resistance front, perhaps choosing to be oblivious that it was indeed spawned by a man named Spielberg…

    The irony that lies therein is lost on them: the indirect admission that only a Zionist can help the Palestinians win the PR war…I chuckle at their fickleness, then I find a quiet corner to self-flagellate and commit Seppuku on the backdrop of a Celine Dion cover of Hava Nagila.

    • theflithyviewer permalink
      February 16, 2010 11:21 am

      Thanks for the kind words.
      The “I See You” line, made me cringe many times.

      Now on the point of irony you made.

      There has to be a strong distinction in the movement for liberation of Palestine, between Zionists (who are not all Jews) and Jews (who are not all Zionists). Having brave Jews be part of the struggle is pivotal in success against the Zionist state, so I see no harm for that. The alliance between Palestinians and Jews against the Zionist Project is historical, even prior to 1948 and after, people forget this.

      On the issue of Starbucks, heh, I don’t enter into the cafe because: a) I whole heartedly support the Boycott and Divestments movement has a potent weapon to pressure the Zionists; the stronger and broader it becomes, the better. The parallels with South Africa in the Apartheid Age comes to mind as a lesson to the current BDS movement.
      b) the coffee is over priced, and terrible man.

      anyhew, great points, wonderful compliments, and glad your enjoying the site! We aim to please…sometimes.

  2. Max Demian permalink
    February 16, 2010 11:49 am

    We are in agreement regarding liberation through cooperation. What I failed to mention is that there is a cognitive deficiency with the aforementioned buddies who are very representative of the general populous in the area I live in: most fail to draw a distinction between religious denomination and political affiliation. They argue that to be a ‘good Jew’ in the eyes of Yahweh, one must believe in the Promised Land for the Promised People, automatically placing all Jews within the Zionist bucket.
    As for the coffee, I like my Turkish (here come the Greeks) bitter.

  3. theflithyviewer permalink
    February 16, 2010 12:06 pm

    That is unfortunate. The distinction is becoming harder to do, on both sides.

    The more the governmental apparatus of the Zionist State plays on this exclusive identity of Jewishness, the harder it is for Jews who are Anti-Zionist to fight back I think. The discourse on Zionism is a European narrative after all, based on Jewish European experiences of pogroms and discrimination that was blanketed over other Jewish societies and individuals (Jews in Iraq, in India, in Yemen) who did not face the same hostility, and were quite better off…but that is another discussion and another post.

    On our part, as Arabs, we have failed in distinguishing the difference, a massive failure in our battle against Zionism. I have many friends, like yours, who do generalize and who do not draw that necessary distinction…

    as for beverages; I’m a Tea lover. The drink of the Gods, and all that.

  4. February 17, 2010 2:06 pm

    “The use of the Avatar narrative by Palestinians is problematic because Avatar is really not the story of resistance and those who resist. Rather, it is a narrative of a society, or an individual from that society, coming into terms with his society’s historical and contemporary actions as an exploiter, a colonizer, an occupier.”

    They type of people who are woken up to the abhorrent situation in Palestine through Avatar are probably not the people who will dig deep enough into the films story beyond the oppression of a peoples so all in all its probably a good thing lol.

    Good post!

  5. Balls permalink
    March 22, 2010 9:50 am

    I think that Avatar is for hippie fagets, which is why I’m surprised that you didn’t like it.

  6. theflithyviewer permalink
    March 22, 2010 11:01 am

    1. This hideously misspelled derivation of ‘faggot’ is primarily used by uneducated rednecks who fail to see the irony of calling someone a derogatory name but having no idea how to say the word.

    • Balls permalink
      March 22, 2010 12:24 pm

      Like my neck is so red, I don’t even know what to call rouge anymore.

      While faggot is the generally used spelling, I prefer to use FAGET, to describe FAGETS, because FAGET, sounds more like FAGET, than FAGGOT, which sounds more like FAG-OTT not FAG-ET.

      Communists these days, I don’t even know what to call insurrection anymore.

  7. theflithyviewer permalink
    March 22, 2010 12:31 pm

    Shouldn’t you be auditing someone these days.

    Accounts these days, I don’t even know what to call bloodsucking anymore.
    I’m surprised you liked Avatar, thought you were smarter than that.

  8. sysh permalink*
    March 25, 2010 11:49 pm

    Balls and theflithyviewer– I’m honestly lost. I have no idea what you guys are saying to each other…

  9. theflithyviewer permalink
    March 26, 2010 2:22 pm

    Don’t ask.

    Just trust that there is a meaningful and coherent logic to this. Because there is.


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