Interesting lecture by Sut Jhally on the organization of digital technology in capitalism, via Aldous Huxley and Neil Postman...
According to my late mother, my grandad was evacuated on 'the last boat out of Dunkirk'. I didn't discuss this with the old guy before he died - I was too young and lived too far away from him - but after his death I read more about Operation Dynamo and often wondered about his story. Christopher Nolan's much-heralded extravaganza is the latest of several attempts to put that story on the big screen.
It's only fair to begin by saying that I'm no great fan of Nolan's work. I found Interstellar (2014) overblown, and several critics have - rightly, I think - identified films such as The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) as politically conservative. Let's just say I prefer Nolan's early work. Nevertheless, stylistically, the new film is innovative and sometimes captivating: throughout Dunkirk, sea and sky twist and spiral in a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of blue-grey fractals. And Nolan builds tension well, emphasizing the soldiers' desperate plight by showing men in various types of trap: Harry Styles and company are trapped in a boat that is being shot at by the enemy; a Spitfire pilot is unable to escape from the cockpit of his sea-ditched plane as the water level rises; a traumatized and unpredictable soldier (Cillian Murphy) is locked inside a room below deck on a rescue boat - and presumably locked inside himself, too. All are encased and in danger.
On the other hand, we are hardly invited to empathize with these imperilled men. The ensemble nature of the film - together with Hans Zimmer's bombastic musical soundtrack - leaves little room for expressions of interiority or, indeed, for any sort of character development; as one might expect from a film shot on 70mm, this is experiential, immersive cinema rather than character-driven drama. Of course, ensemble war films can work well: one thinks here of The Thin Red Line, whose metaphysical voiceovers provide a ruminative and arguably subversive perspective on war; but in Dunkirk there is no such narrative device to shed light on the soldiers' feelings or thoughts, making this a rather unengaging film at the emotional level.
The film’s ideological register, meanwhile, is distinctly British-patriotic. While the opening scene (easily the film's most exciting) fleetingly depicts some glowering Frenchmen manning the town's barricades, the very significant French presence on the beach at Dunkirk is all but ignored (for that side of the story, see Henri Verneuil's superior, irony-laden 1964 film Weekend at Dunkirk). Whether in the air with an impossibly deadly Spitfire ace played by Tom Hardy (who single-handedly seems to down the entire Luftwaffe), at sea with saturnine sailor Mark Rylance, or on the beach with the harried and frustrated evacuees, we see through British eyes. At times the national-chauvinist sentiment grates: Rylance, sailing towards a deadly warzone, finds time to wax lyrical about the beauty of the overhead Spitfires 'with their Rolls Royce engines' and the film ends, all too predictably, with the words of Winston Churchill, solemnly read aloud from a newspaper by a returning soldier.
None of the soldiers, meanwhile, expresses a view about the political causes of their plight and there is thus no counterweight to the film's patriotism. Indeed, while Dunkirk is a film about an inglorious defeat, the mood slowly lists towards sentimental nationalism (recalling a motif from Interstellar, 'Home', as uttered by Kenneth Branagh's naval officer Commander Bolton, becomes the film's most resonant utterance). Evacuated of the French allies, the German enemies, and any political frame of reference beyond Churchillian bluster, Nolan’s film feels strangely insular and abstract (perhaps, as Adam Nayman suggests, Nolan should be seen as a Platonic rather than a humanist filmmaker). And so, for all its audio-visual Sturm und Drang, Dunkirk is ultimately a rather tame affair in which character development and political context are sacrificed for grand spectacle and bland sentimentality.
First published in Star and Crescent
At the end of last year, a supposedly new threat to the integrity of Western public discourse hove into public view. I am referring, of course, to ‘fake news’. This blunt, monosyllabic phrase strikes the ear as childish and naïve and its association with Donald Trump, whose boastful speeches and vulgar tweets represent an unprecedented debasement of political communication, hardly commends it as a serious analytical concept.
Nevertheless, fake news is both real and ubiquitous. It is, as the writer Richard Seymour puts it, ‘the chemically distilled version of “churnalism”’, an epiphenomenon of a journalistic economy that increasingly relies on attracting eyeballs to weird, scandalous or sensational content. And it can have alarming consequences. In December 2016, for example, it emerged that Pakistan had issued a nuclear attack warning to Israel after the appearance, on the Pakistan-based conspiracy website AWD News, of an entirely fictitious story claiming that Israel had threatened the country with annihilation.
Yet the fake news phenomenon is hardly new, especially where wars and geopolitical conflicts are concerned. Nor is it a problem particular to the age of the Internet. The reporting of the Bosnian war, which began in the spring of 1992 – just before the widespread commercialization of the World Wide Web – provides an object lesson in how media manipulation, up to and including outright fabrication, can deform public understanding of world events. The media presentation of Bosnia, I would suggest, parallels that of the current conflict in Syria and is therefore worth briefly rehearsing.
Although the Serbs possessed significant advantages over Croat and Bosnian forces in military hardware, the Bosnian war was a multi-lateral civil conflict. Most journalists, however, cast it as a one-sided war of Serb aggression instigated by one man: Serbian president Slobodan Milošević. Although his counterparts in the governments of Bosnia (Alija Izetbegović) and Croatia (Franjo Tuđman) were men with well-known fascist inclinations who played key roles in pursuing and prolonging the war, Milošević, as the Western media’s designated demon, was the only leader blamed for hostilities.
Throughout the war in Bosnia, it was seldom acknowledged that atrocities widely blamed on the Serbs, such as the Sarajevo marketplace bombings, had disputed authorship. At least some of these ‘Serb’ atrocities were Bosnian Muslim operations aimed at provoking a Western military response; as the British diplomat David Owen, the EU peace negotiator in Bosnia, noted in his memoir Balkan Odyssey, no seasoned observer of the war doubted that such deception went on.
Unreliable statistics, meanwhile, were reported as facts. To take only the most egregious example, it was widely claimed by the end of the Bosnian war that 250,000 people had lost their lives in the republic (US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, in his book To End A War, puts the tally at 300,000), whereas the true death toll is likely to have been more like 100,000. The inflation of this figure – which is horrific enough as it is – helped to bolster the case for military intervention.
Moreover, Western journalists’ descriptions of the Bosnian war often drew upon historical analogies that were at best strained, at worst downright propagandistic. Looking back at the coverage of Bosnia in his book Strange Places, Questionable People, the veteran BBC reporter John Simpson complained that ‘everything came to be seen through the filter of the Holocaust’. This dubious historicization resulted in a grossly simplified narrative of villains (Serbs) and victims (Bosnian Muslims) that licensed well-meaning liberals to argue for US/NATO intervention on humanitarian grounds.
As I show in my recent book Screening Bosnia, even Hollywood played a part in reinforcing a misleading picture of the Bosnian conflict. Michael Winterbottom’s film Welcome to Sarajevo (1997), for example, alters the identities of those involved in the infamous Sarajevo wedding party massacre, transforming its Serb victims into Croats, and so on, in line with the Western media script.
If the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s were thoroughly misrepresented in the Western media, fake news was hardly less prominent in the following decade, most notoriously in the fictitious claim, repeated mantra-like by politicians and journalists in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that Saddam Hussein possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ primed for use against the West. More recently, the disastrous NATO bombing of Libya, which plunged the country into a vortex of violence, was justified by sordid lies about Viagra-fuelled rapes and a supposed plan to massacre civilians in Benghazi – a deceit that tricked many leftists into supporting intervention against Gaddafi.
But it is perhaps the Western reporting of the ongoing devastation of Syria that bears the closest similarity to that of the war in Bosnia. As in Bosnia, what is unfolding in Syria is a civil war in which one of the belligerents possesses a significant advantage in ordnance and destructive capability. Indeed, like the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, the ‘Syrian regime’ is responsible for more atrocities than its opponents. Yet its dominance has been absolutized and, as in Bosnia, the war has generally been presented as an entirely one-sided affair.
Bias and over-simplification are the order of the day. As Stephen Kinzer complains, US and British journalists routinely criticize the crimes perpetrated by Assad and his allies, but devote less attention to atrocities carried out by the groups they variously describe as ‘moderates’ or ‘rebels’. The April 4 chemical attack on civilians in Idlib, probably perpetrated by Syrian government fighters, was framed by Western journalists and politicians as an explosion of evil of world-historical magnitude; it even prompted Trump to lament the slaughter of so many ‘beautiful babies’. Yet the even more deadly ‘rebel’ bombing, a few days later, of Shia refugee buses attracted relatively little media attention. The civilians killed in the former event were, to use Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky’s terms, ‘worthy victims’ of a hated enemy; those killed in the latter were ‘unworthy’ and easily ignored. As Robert Fisk wrote acerbically in The Independent following the bus attack, ‘Some dead Syrian babies matter, I guess. Other dead Syrian babies don’t’.
As in Bosnia, ‘facts’ about the Syrian war change at such a rapid pace that few notice – and even fewer apologize – when they are shown to be false. As Fisk points out in another Independent article from last year, Western news sources widely reported that 250,000 people were ‘trapped’ by Syrian army forces in East Aleppo in late 2016, yet this number turned out to be probably less than 90,000. It is hard to know for sure, since no independent foreign journalists were present in the city. As Fisk observes, Western news media have become reliant on social media and testimony drawn from potentially compromised sources operating out of jihadist-controlled zones. This recalls the situation of international journalists in Bosnia, who for safety reasons were mostly confined to Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn and were therefore unable to witness the events of the war at first hand.
And as in the case of Bosnia, liberal journalists have often been the most vigorous advocates of war in Syria. The New York Times and the self-styled ‘world’s news leader’ CNN, who were the loudest supporters of military intervention in the Balkans, have been pushing hard for ‘action’ to be taken against Assad and veteran journalists such as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour are once again producing the sort of advocacy journalism they first practiced during the Yugoslav wars.
Amanpour draws comparisons between Syria and Bosnia, warning that the Western powers ‘cannot stand by’ as she claims they did in the 1990s. In fact, along with politicians such as Hillary Clinton, Amanpour is part of a powerful establishment consensus promoting the doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’. Trump’s recent missile bombing of the al-Shayrat airfield – an attack that killed several people, including children, according to the Syrians – was most likely a reluctant attempt to placate this lobby. The action certainly drew widespread approbation from establishment quarters; the New York Times’s Mark Landler was just one of many liberal journalists who applauded Trump for finally taking a stand on Syria, claiming that the bombing was the righteous action of ‘a man suddenly aware that the world’s problems were now his’.
And yet there is a possibility that the horrific chemical attack on civilians in Idlib, to which Trump’s bombing was a response, was not in fact carried out by Syrian forces, as CNN and other liberal media have been insisting with what could be seen, in psychoanalytic terms, as psychotic certainty. As in Bosnia, much is uncertain and the capacity of all of the war’s belligerents for duplicity and misdirection should not be underestimated. Assad and Putin are mass murderers who are routinely committing sickening atrocities against the people of Syria, a reality obscured by pro-Putin/Assad news media organizations such as RT, which serve as apologists for state terror; but so too are the Syrian government’s brutal jihadist opponents, who are responsible for threats, abduction, torture and mass murder.
Even if the Syrians and/or Russians did orchestrate the Idlib chemical attack, this is no reason for the US to add to the death toll in Syria with its own missile strikes. As many radical commentators have suggested, a truly internationalist response to the Syrian horror cannot possibly involve backing one group of imperialists against another; rather, it requires support for Syrian refugees and the subversion, wherever possible, of the military apparatuses on all sides.
The mainstream media’s propaganda blitz over Syria has not gone uncontested. Counter-hegemonic articles – such as the Independent articles of Robert Fisk referenced above, or this one by Patrick Cockburn, also in The Independent – have challenged the Western media consensus, highlighting its selectivity and hypocrisy. Yet the majority of the Western reporting of Syria bleakly illustrates the role of journalists in generating public support for prevailing foreign policy and, when it is desired, military intervention.
In relation to the latter, the lessons from Bosnia – not to mention Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – should be heeded. At the end of the Bosnian war, the US-approved Operation Storm, in which Croat troops moved to drive the Serb population out of the Croatian Krajina in 1995, resulted in the deaths of several hundred, possibly thousands of ethnic Serbs and constituted the most extensive case of ethnic cleansing since World War II. And in 1999, NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia – lauded by the murdered British politician Jo Cox and other liberal commentators as the epitome of benign military intervention – in fact greatly exacerbated the inter-ethnic violence it was supposed to prevent.
By the same token, an extension of Western military aggression against Syria, a far more dangerous theatre than the Yugoslavia of the 1990s, would only result in even more violence in the region. The US-led coalition, which is responsible for killing hundreds of civilians in the Middle East each month, is not a force for global peace. We should condemn the barbarity of the Syrian government and the cynicism of its political allies and media apologists; but if we are mindful of history, we must also reject the Western media’s ‘fake news’ about Syria and the dangerous imperialist agenda it serves.
The new Netflix film Sand Castle (2017), directed by Fernando Coimbra, deserves better, I think, than the lukewarm reception it has generally received among critics. The film stars Nicholas Hoult as Private Matt Ocre, an army volunteer who finds himself in Iraq at the start of the 2003 war. Its writer, Iraq veteran Chris Roessner, claims that his film is 'apolitical'. Now, of course, they all say that. Many US reviewers described Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker (2009) as 'non-political', even though the film depicts Americans as heroes and Iraqis as murderous hajis lurking in the shadows. And Bigelow herself, in interviews, elided her own film's political import by asserting that 'there's no politics in the trenches' - a sophisticated way of telling critics to shut up and support our boys. Bradley Cooper, to take another example, asserted that American Sniper (2015), a film of almost parodic patriotism, is not political. And so on. Sand Castle, however, is a more searching production than the films mentioned above; in fact, it has even been described by some - and denounced by others - as an anti-war film.
Sand Castle certainly has some anti-war credentials, although this has not impressed everybody. Bemoaning the film's lack of originality, Brian Tallerico complains: 'we’ve seen this story before, at least a dozen times. Sure, the particulars are different, but the futility of war, especially in the 21st century, has been well documented'. Tallerico is right that the futility of war is a hoary, perhaps even conservative theme; but Sand Castle goes beyond this banality, mounting some trenchant criticisms of the allied presence in Iraq after the invasion of 2003.
The film's title implies the unsustainability of the American adventure in Mesopotamia and an anti-war sensibility is also communicated via a number brief, mostly silent scenes. Travelling through Iraq, Ocre sees, through the window of his Humvee, US troops ushering a family out of their home at gunpoint and an Iraqi boy pointing a 'gun finger' at him. Perhaps the film's most gruesome atrocity image is of a headmaster who has been hanged upside down outside his school and burned for collaboration with the Americans. Ocre's horrified gaze at the headmaster's charred corpse, seen in the shot above, is aligned with that of several local women, suggesting that he shares in their horror and disgust. Ocre thus comes to perceive the truth about US imperial oppression and the hatred and resentment it generates among locals. In another silent scene towards the end of the film, the soon-to-be-discharged Ocre hesitates to wash himself in the shower, suddenly conscious, it seems, of a deep injustice: he has access to water in abundance, but the Iraqi villagers he has encountered do not - a consequence, as Ocre is painfully aware throughout the film, of the US invasion.
As the shower scene suggests, this is a film about the sense of shame experienced by the soldier of conscience. The theme of shame is announced at the start of the film in Ocre's voiceover ('A war story can't be true unless it's got some shame attached to it'). It also arises, obliquely, in another short scene at the film's halfway point when the soldiers seem to be playing some kind of guessing game as they drive in the Humvee: 'Is it a thing?', 'Do we all carry it?', the soldiers ask. 'We all carry it', comes the definitive answer. The game ends abruptly when the men's vehicle is attacked by insurgents; but the answer to the riddle is clear enough.
And while much of the soldiers' behaviour here is certainly the standard, clichéd fare of the grunt film - the high jinks during downtime, the 'faggot' and 'I fucked your mother' quips, the ignorant comments about towel-heads - this behaviour does not go uncriticized. Ocre often challenges some of his colleagues' prejudiced remarks about the locals and some of the soldiers come across as idiotic (in a rare comedy moment, one of them is unable to understand his translator's word 'apothecary').
Perhaps the film's progressive credentials should not be overstated. The rationale for the war is never seriously questioned in Sand Castle and Iraqi insurgents are responsible for all of the film's outbreaks of fighting. Yet while not quite as bold as Stone's Platoon or De Palma's Casualties of War, the film is characterized by the same kind of critical retrospection that animated the post-Vietnam war films of the 1980s.
Watching Sand Castle I couldn't help thinking about the similarities between Ocre and the real-life anti-government terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the subject of another film recently added to Netflix UK, Barak Goodman's documentary Oklahoma City (2017). Goodman's film focuses on the build-up to Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in 1995, which claimed 168 lives, including those of 19 children in a daycare centre, and injured many hundreds more. The film combines interviews with victims' families and first-responders with extensive footage and analyzes the experiences that turned McVeigh towards mass murder - notably his sense of outrage and horror at the government's violent raids at Ruby Ridge and Waco in the early 1990s.
The documentary also mentions - all too briefly - McVeigh's time in the army during the first Gulf War and its influence on McVeigh's state of mind. An interviewee notes that McVeigh, by all accounts a highly regarded sharpshooter, felt ashamed when he shot an Iraqi soldier in the head from range, realizing that the Iraqis he had been trained to hate were 'human beings no different than myself'. McVeigh was clearly appalled at the meaninglessness of his own action and at the depravity of the military machine that instructed him to kill.
Yet Goodman's film, perhaps out of a desire not to rationalize or mitigate McVeigh's crime, does not make clear that McVeigh, according to his authorized biography American Terrorist, was present when US forces massacred Iraqis (and unknown others) fleeing from Kuwait towards Basra on Highway 80, the so-called 'Highway of Death', and was himself forced to execute surrendering prisoners. This attack - one of the greatest US war crimes of the twentieth century and one that McVeigh and colleagues saw repeated a few days later on Highway 8 - is glossed very briefly in a subordinate clause of the voice-over. And, extraordinarily, in this voice-over, US responsibility for the killings is disavowed and allocated solely to McVeigh: 'When he [McVeigh] killed Iraqis...'. Corresponding with this phrase, some dead bodies on the Basra road are shown, but a context for these images is not supplied either by subtitle or voice-over and the US responsibility for the massacre is elided. In fact, the argument being made in this section of the documentary is opaque - an aporia, if you will. What we do hear is an interviewee's description of McVeigh's response to the massacre: 'He sees the American government as a bully'. By focusing on McVeigh's subjective interpretation of the Gulf War, Goodman avoids taking any position on the state-sanctioned violence of Desert Storm, just as he elsewhere underplays and rationalizes the extreme, surplus violence used by the federal authorities at Waco, opting once again to foreground McVeigh's personal perceptions ('He felt it was murder').
To fill in some of the historical context that has been elided in Goodman's film, we must turn to other tellings of the McVeigh story. In her book Aberration in the Heartland of the Real: The Secret Lives of Timothy McVeigh (2016), Wendy Painting provides a less sanitized view of the US army in which McVeigh served and thus helps us to understand McVeigh's feelings of anger and frustration as a serviceman. Painting shows that while he felt at home in the army and sometimes seemed to take great pride in his achievements, McVeigh at was other times deeply ashamed of what US forces were doing in Iraq. This was a deep ambivalence. In letters he wrote home, he described his fury at being ordered not to feed starving Iraqi children (McVeigh and another soldier would later defy this order by leaving fruit cocktails at the roadside for the locals). And after his arrest, McVeigh also spoke of his dismay at the 'intrusiveness' of fellow soldiers who would secretly watch Iraqi women going to the bathroom at night using their thermal imaging cameras. While he was ultimately responsible for staggering brutality and callous disregard for the lives of others, there is no doubt that he was also capable - during his time in the army, at least - of generosity and humanity. Like Ocre in Sand Castle, he was a soldier of conscience.
McVeigh described the Oklahoma bomb as a 'counterattack' on the US government. It was, of course, nothing of the sort: those slaughtered by McVeigh were ordinary folks and young children. But the vocabulary of war was deeply ingrained in McVeigh, as can be seen from his subsequent, queasy acknowledgement that the deaths of the children in the Murrah daycare centre constituted 'too much collateral damage'. In jail, McVeigh had his Marquis de Sade moment, railing against the double standards of the US political establishment in his post-arrest tract 'Essay on Hypocrisy' and arguing that his act of individual terrorism was merely the corollary of US imperial violence abroad. Why, he protested, should his crime should be condemned while US terror overseas is legitimized?
In his 1916 essay 'Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work', Sigmund Freud identified the character type of the 'Exception' - one who uses his early experiences of suffering to justify his disregard for the moral scruples of his community. Freud discussed this character type as a defensive reaction to the shame of disability and deformity, taking Shakespeare's Richard III as his illustration. McVeigh seems to fit the profile of the Exception well: after all, he was bullied at school on account of his lankiness and failed his physical for the Army Rangers. But while McVeigh can certainly be understood as having a disordered personality, we must also acknowledge the pressures that he was placed under throughout his life and the evils he witnessed during his time in the army. As W. H. Auden had it, 'Those to whom evil is done do evil in return' and, to borrow Slavoj Žižek's terms, we can only properly understand the 'subjective violence' of the individual in the context of the 'objective violence' of capitalism - with imperialist warfare as its highest expression. This context is elided in Oklahoma City, as are all of the troubling questions surrounding the bombing itself (such as the not-inconsiderable evidence that McVeigh did not act alone and that the FBI had foreknowledge of the attack). By downplaying the traumatizing military madness to which McVeigh was exposed as a young man, Goodman's documentary inadequately accounts for the act of savagery he went on to commit.
I recently, rather belatedly, caught up with Angelina Jolie's second directorial effort, Unbroken (2014), a biopic adapted from Laura Hillenbrand's 2010 book about the tortures experienced by the American Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. Although the Coen brothers are on the writing credits, it's a rather formulaic film featuring a square-jawed hero, a monotonously fiendish camp guard, and predictable geopolitical biases. As Adelaide Martinez puts it, Unbroken
"tells a pretty standard US centric story about the Pacific theater during WW2. In the standard story, there is usually a single white hero, the person who sets and interprets the story for the viewer. They are like Cool Hand Luke, getting up over and over again, no matter how many times they are struck down, overcoming the great challenges put in front of them – usually put there by the Japanese. If Japanese are given roles at all, it’s either non-speaking ‘people who sit in a room planning war actions’ or the single sadist that tortures and violates the hero of the camp."
The Cool Hand Luke reference is apposite here, since Jolie's film doesn't stint on the Christic imagery, most obviously when Zamperini is forced to hold aloft a wooden beam as a punishment - a feat that he accomplishes with the superhuman stamina that is statutory in this genre. Indeed, Zamperini is crudely heroised here and as several critics have noted, the film elides some unhappy biographical details, such as Zamperini's post-war struggle with alcoholism, that, had they been kept in, might have made for a more complex tale. Indeed, Unbroken lacks the psychological subtlety (and musical delights) of Nagisa Oshima's classic Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, the film it most obviously invokes.
The problem is not just that the film is oversimplified and bowdlerised. There's also a sort of false balance at work here. Jolie draws a parallel between Zamperini's brutal mistreatment in the Pacific and, through a series of flashbacks, his experiences of anti-Italian racism in the US. Superficially, at least, this seems an even-handed gesture aimed at establishing some kind of equivalence between racism at home and abroad. Yet a fairer and more salient comparison would have been between the undeniably appalling suffering of US soldiers in the Pacific - which Jolie actually depicts with restraint - and the savage treatment of the Japanese by the Americans in the same theatre, up to and including the dropping of the atomic bombs. That would have made for a far less patriotic picture and it is clear that Jolie et al did not want to go there. The Yanks, after all, were supposed to be the good guys.
I wasn't entirely surprised by the film's national chauvinism. As I argued in a previous blog post, Jolie's 2011 directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey is a tendentious effort in which the complexities of the Bonian war are reduced to a morality tale of heroic Bosnians and cartoonishly monstrous Serb villains - the standard presentation of the conflict in Western media and political circles (indeed, Jolie's research for that film included a meeting with US General Wesley Clark). And let's face it, it's not easy to make a critical film about WWII, which was, according to patriotic myth, a 'good war' fought by America's 'greatest generation'.
Nevertheless, it is possible to do better. In the best war films we witness the chaos of conflict, the dissent in the ranks, the soldiers' cowardice and bravery, heroism and meanness, and the sufferings of 'the enemy'. Such films communicate what the psychologist Lawrence Le Shan calls the 'sensory reality of war'. Take, for example, Terence Malick's richly phenomenological The Thin Red Line, a Pacific War film in which the overwhelming force of this 'sensory reality' exposes the narrowness of military discourse and poses a direct challenge to official propaganda ('They want you dead - or in their lie', in the stark words of First Sergeant Edward Welsh). The island of Guadalcanal is perceived by many of the film's soldiers in a highly subjective mode as a liminal space between life and death, a contradictory place of man-made horror and natural plenitude that is filled with the sights and sounds of human suffering but which also pullulates with exotic plant and animal life (Malick's earlier Badlands also exploits such narratively 'unmotivated' images of the natural world). It is a heterotopia, in Foucault's sense, an 'other' place which facilitates different ways of seeing and knowing and which opens a minimal space for social critique. Here idealized conceptions of the Good War or martial heroism are rendered absurd by the sheer abundance and diversity of Life. But in Unbroken, as in In the Land of Blood and Honey, we are taken to a very different place; here we enter into Le Shan's 'mythic reality of war': a Manichean realm of good versus evil in which the confusions and contradictions of armed conflict - and the experiences of enemy Others - are imperceptible, foreclosed by convention and cliché.
These failings matter not just because Unbroken was a huge box office draw, but also because Jolie, as a result of her work with the UN and her earlier cinematic performances in 'humanitarian' films such as Beyond Borders, has achieved a certain global standing as a celebrity liberal philanthropist. In its pro-US sentiment and soft orientalism, Unbroken recalls some of Hollywood's earlier gung-ho and historically dubious treatments of the war in the Pacific, such as Michael Bay's 2001 turkey Pearl Harbour. But Bay could never be mistaken for anything other than a conservative jingoist; Jolie, by contrast, has a reputation as a thoughtful humanist devoted to 'good causes'. To earn this reputation, Jolie will have to use her considerable resources - including her evident passion for political filmmaking - to better effect in future projects. Her forthcoming Netflix drama about the Cambodian genocide has been produced by the brilliant Rithy Panh, so all hope is not yet lost.
Given that Stephen Poliakoff's latest drama, Close to the Enemy, is currently screening on BBC2, now seems an appropriate time to offer some reflections on the Great Man's work. Next year an essay of mine about Poliakoff's television dramas will appear in David Forrest and Beth Johnson's collection Social Class and Television Drama in Contemporary Britain and what follows is a short extract from a draft of that chapter:
Poliakoff and the Proles: From Demonisation to Idealisation
A certain anxiety about the disruptive potential of the working class mob is evident even in Poliakoff’s earliest works. Written by Poliakoff and directed by Stephen Frears, the 1980 television film Bloody Kids (ATV) is a ‘state of the nation’ drama whose depiction of social decline and violence among working class youths in Southend-on-Sea is characterised by an ambiguous representation of the working class. Set against a decaying urban landscape that recalls the brutalist environments of Poliakoff’s earlier stage – and later television – play Hitting Town, Bloody Kids, like Caught on a Train (1980), comments on the theme of hooliganism. In a misguided bid for celebrity, a mischievous and manipulative child, Leo (Richard Thomas), encourages his friend Mike (Peter Clarke) to pretend to stab him with a knife outside a football stadium; yet the prank goes badly wrong and the hospitalised Leo tells police that Mike is guilty of attempted murder. Mike goes on the run from the police and falls in with a group of older teenaged hooligans led by Ken (Gary Holton). After involving Mike in a series of minor crimes, such as joyriding, smashing shop windows and leaving a restaurant without paying the bill, the increasingly frenzied Ken jumps from the top of a double decker bus, in a desperate and fatal attempt to impress his gang with a display of bravado.
Hooliganism was, of course, a distinct social concern throughout the 1970s and was by no means always condemned in cultural texts of the era. The novels of Richard Allen (the pseudonym of James Moffatt), for example, depicted the violent anti-authoritarianism of Britain’s white working-class youths with a good deal of psychological insight and sympathy. On stage and in film, meanwhile, the work of artists including David Hare, Barrie Keefe, and Derek Jarman reflected a widespread sense of despair and cultural collapse among British youth. So too did Franc Roddam’s film Quadrophenia (1979), which, like Bloody Kids, stars Gary Holton as an aggressive young rocker. But in contrast to Quadrophenia’s kindly take on the subject, Bloody Kids seems more ambivalent about the meaning of youth rebellion. On the one hand, the film seems to encourage sympathy for those young people, like Mike, who are caught up in hooliganism, especially since the adults in the film are presented as the detached and uncaring functionaries of a panoptical Establishment whose surveillance cameras are kept in view throughout the film. On the other hand, the violence and mayhem caused by Ken’s gang is accompanied by a threatening synth soundtrack and the crescendo of militaristic drumbeats that accompanies Ken’s fatal leap seems to cast his riotousness as the expression of a ‘totalitarian personality' and an amoral and degenerate youth culture.
In some of Poliakoff’s later television plays, the aggression of the working class mob is even more troublingly presented. Throughout The Tribe (BBC, 1998), for example, the working class denizens of the area where the goth-like tribe lives are threatening and abusive. As Jamie’s colleague Forester (Julian Rhind-Tutt) puts it, the tribe’s house is located in ‘the badlands’, ‘the most violent part of town’. Indeed, on arrival at the tribe’s house, Jamie is verbally abused by a gang of mostly white male hooligans, who hang out on street corners bullying young members of the community. The tribe is also subjected to constant harassment from the hooligans and in one scene its members are brutally beaten up by them in a seemingly unmotivated attack. The thugs later attack the tribe’s vehicle, daubing it with a symbol that resembles the circle-A used as a mark of identification by some anarchists (a detail that problematically associates the political movement of anarchism with mindless violence). Like Poliakoff’s 1990 film Close My Eyes, The Tribe is in part a drama about the changing face of London and, in particular, the gentrification of the city that hit the headlines when the incoming Prime Minister Tony Blair moved to the London borough of Islington in 1997 (Cadwalladr 2015). In Poliakoff’s telling, however, working class people are not the victims of gentrification, but a lumpen mass of anti-social proles. This is precisely the kind of stereotypical representation of London’s 'white working class' that entered popular consciousness in the New Labour era and which was angrily denounced in Michael Collins’s 2004 book The Likes of Us (and, more recently, in Owen Jones's Chavs).
Although they are not lengthy, other scenes in Poliakoff’s dramas depict the working class as a riotous mob. In Friends and Crocodiles (BBC, 2005), a dissolute yet generous millionaire, Paul (Damian Lewis), throws a party at his country manor house to which he invites all sections of society; yet his working class guests become a minatory presence at the event, running amok, driving quad cars across the lawns and drinking heavily, much to the alarm of Paul’s assistant Lizzie (Jodhi May). What makes this scene of mayhem so strange is the absence of any apparent diegetic justification for its inclusion; the working class, it seems, are simply ‘like that’. To take another example, the sensitive Joe, in Joe’s Palace (BBC, 2007), is verbally abused by a mob of working-class youths who pass outside the tower block where he lives. Later, Joe is physically threatened by a homeless man whom he tries to help; once again, there is no clear narrative rationale for inclusion of these scenes.
Because they are so decontextualised, the frequent depictions of working class delinquency and aggression in Poliakoff’s recent dramas seem to point less to a progressive anxiety about social breakdown and alienation (as could be argued of Poliakoff’s earlier, rather more sympathetic dramatic images of working-class youth in the 1970s) than to a fear of the working class masses as such. This is especially apparent in 2003’s The Lost Prince (BBC), in which collective working class agency is explicitly deplored. Set in the court of George V, here the Russian Revolution is described as an outbreak of barbarity and is condemned as such by the drama’s most sympathetic character, the king’s Private Secretary, Baron Stamfordham (Bill Nighy). In fact, the only occasions on which groups of workers are presented approvingly by Poliakoff is when – as they do in The Lost Prince – they form an orderly row of smiling servants, lining up for inspection by their masters.
These stigmatising images of the working-class mob in Poliakoff’s work are regularly juxtaposed with rather idealised images of virtuous working-class individuals. Often in Poliakoff’s dramas, working-class characters serve as narrative helpers whose role is to enlighten their powerful yet bewildered masters. In Gideon’s Daughter (BBC, 2006), the shop worker Stella helps the stuffy and privileged Gideon to ‘find himself’ and ‘do the right thing’. She also introduces Gideon to the pleasures of ‘ordinary life’, bringing him to her favourite Indian restaurant in the West London suburb of Southall, a place that is socially and economically far removed from Gideon’s glamorous yet stultifying central London bubble. In Joe’s Palace, another shop worker, Tina (Rebecca Hall), is enlisted by Elliot as a family historian and eventually uncovers Elliot’s family secret. And in several Poliakoff dramas, young, childlike innocents or savants (Oliver in Friends and Crocodiles; Joe in Joe’s Palace) serve as exemplary figures of moral purity.
This figure of the uncorrupted working-class innocent is, of course, hardly unique to Poliakoff; it has a literary pedigree that can be traced back at least as far as Dickens (Brown 1982: 49), with whose novels Poliakoff’s melodramatic narratives are sometimes compared, and it appears often in contemporary television drama. In a 2005 drama, The Girl in the Café (Channel 4), written by Richard Curtis and directed by David Yates, a young working class woman named Gina (Kelly Macdonald) softens the heart of a jaded civil servant (played by Poliakoff favourite Bill Nighy). The official invites the ‘girl’ to accompany him to a G8 summit meeting, where she urges world leaders – in particular the Americans, who are stalling the process – to ‘make poverty history’, as the campaigning slogan of the day had it. The Girl in the Café resonates with Poliakoff’s later television work in several ways. Its soft anti-Americanism, for example, is apparent throughout Poliakoff’s work: the corporate drone Christopher Anderson, in Shooting the Past, is an American, and it is American businessmen who lead Elliot Graham’s father into business with the Nazis in Joe’s Palace; indeed, as D. Keith Peacock (1984: 503) noted many years ago, the vulnerability of British society to pollution by ‘alien’ influences is a perennial Poliakoff theme. More important, from the point of view of the present chapter, is the drama’s idealisation of the working-class character as a beacon of integrity and enlightenment. While this may, on the face of things, seem an unobjectionable or even progressive positioning, here again Slavoj Žižek’s writings about ideology help to problematize such ostensibly ‘positive’ representations. Discussing James Cameron’s film Titanic, Žižek (2008: 58) detects an ‘all too obvious privileging of the lower classes and caricatured depiction of the egotism and cruel opportunism of the rich’. Underneath the apparent concern for the lower orders, Žižek identifies another, reactionary narrative in Titanic, namely that of ‘the young rich kid in crisis whose vitality is restored by a brief intimate contact with the full-blooded life of the poor’. In fact, as Žižek points out, Titanic ends with Rose, having listened to her lover’s sermon about ‘never giving up’, actually pushing Jack away from her towards his death. For Žižek, this indicates a patronising conception of the working class as mere catalysts for the moral transformation of the rich.
There are far more – and far more positive – things to say about Stephen Poliakoff’s television dramas than can possibly be discussed in this short chapter. Through his use of the techniques of ‘slow television’ (Holdsworth 2006) and ‘accented text’ (Hockenhull 2012: 638), Poliakoff has created a highly distinctive, off-kilter aesthetic that has rightly earned him the status of a respected auteur in British television. His dramas contain many sequences of intense lyrical beauty, his characters are often charmingly drawn and he can be seen as a metaphysical dramatist whose detailed evocations of place and space are unparalleled in contemporary television drama. Moreover, in an era of aggressive turbo-capitalism, Poliakoff’s criticisms of capitalism’s functionalism and inhumanity are highly pertinent.
These criticisms are, however, romantic rather than radical in nature. Poliakoff’s plays tend to echo the lament of the Georgian poet W. H. Davies for those who, ‘full of care […] have no time to stand and stare’ and in his critiques of the baleful social effects of materialism and technology he is closer to Lawrence than to Lenin. Indeed, Poliakoff can be understood as an author in the Romantic tradition, or, more specifically, drawing on Sayre and Löwy’s (1984) typology of ‘Romantic anti-capitalism’, as a ‘liberal Romantic’ who disdains the sterility of the contemporary status quo and harbours a limited critique of capitalist alienation. Poliakoff’s prescriptions for social and political change, meanwhile, are largely moralistic and idealist in character. While Poliakoff’s conflicted white, middle-class protagonists are forced to acknowledge their privileges and to contemplate the cultural, political and moral decline of the world around them, his working-class characters, especially in his post-millennial plays, take little part in the making of history and are portrayed either as degenerate yobs or idealized helpmates. This bifurcated representation of the proletariat is all too suggestive of the Victorian, yet currently recrudescent, distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor (Bochel and Powell 2016).
"His cupboard bare; his vision hardwired" - Wire, 'Internal Exile'
As some wag tweeted after the recent presidential election, orange is the new black: Trump the Terrible will soon replace Oleaginous Obama as the leader of the world's most powerful nation. Trump's white nationalist supporters and hangers-on are naturally ecstatic - and some of them may even find positions of power in the new administration.
Trump himself, of course, is a thoroughly rebarbative figure, a blundering clown in the freakshow of American democracy. Every element of his face betrays his nastiness and narcissism: the florid cheeks with their expression veering between phoney solemnity and leering frivolity; the puckered, hole-in-a-pie mouth, twisted at the corners into a rictus of sneering contempt; the cold, watchful eyes of a deep ocean predator. Groucho Marx once said, 'I never forget a face, but in your case I'll be glad to make an exception'. But we will not be allowed to forget. For the next four years at least, Trump's fleshy fizog will be squinting and gurning from every television screen and social media feed, a demented icon of capitalist degeneracy.
Although the competition is fierce, Trump might just be the most dimwitted president in US history. This is, after all, the man who publicly said 7-Eleven when he meant 9/11. He is certainly highly dysfunctional, hailing from a traumatizing and traumatized family. Like his father (by all accounts), Trump is a bully, a psychologically damaged man who is now projecting his own malignancy onto a range of officially sanctioned Others: Mexicans, Muslims and women. From a psychoanalytical point of view, his tough-guy persona might be explained in terms of the 'traumatic bond' that often forms between victim and abuser, which in Trump's case was likely formed with his father in childhood. This 'identification with the aggressor', as Sándor Ferenczi famously called this kind of defence mechanism, might also explain the appeal of Trump for the many disgruntled left-behinds who voted for him: in a ruthless world, it's best to keep on side with the guy with the big stick.
While it is unlikely that Trump will go through with all, or even many of his pledges, we can expect the policies of Trump's administration broadly to match the reactionary rhetoric of his presidential campaign. Disaster certainly beckons - for workers, minorities and the environment. But some context and a sense of proportion is also needed.
Judging by mainstream journalism and social media commentary, most liberals reckon a Trump presidency to be a worse outcome than a Hillary Clinton one would have been. I am not so sure. While the Orange One is undoubtedly a monstrously vulgar reactionary capitalist, Clinton is a thoroughgoing neoliberal and a corrupt sadist. Who can forget her derisive quip following the butchering of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi in a drainage pipe: 'we came, we saw, he died'? And as Secretary of State under Obama, 'Killary' was responsible not just for cruel words, but for spreading real death and destruction across the globe. There is no reason to assume that she represented the lesser of two evils in the recent election.
Similar points could be made about the relationship of Trump to his predecessor, Barack Obama. Many liberal commentators see the passage from Obama to Trump in terms of what Carl Jung called enantiodromia - a radical transition from good to evil. Throughout the election campaign, they execrated Trump's every racist remark and lewd confession - and even seemed to derive a perverse enjoyment from doing so. And when Trump emerged victorious, some US liberals even expressed a desire to emigrate before the nasty stuff got underway (I'm a cosmopolitan individualist, get me out of here). But while liberals have revelled in the daily reports of Trump's bigotry, they have generally been silent on the crimes of the man who was US president for the past eight years. When these crimes are considered, Trump's succession appears less like a break with the past and more like business as usual.
So let's briefly consider Obama's track record. Obama implemented - and lied about - an unprecedented surveillance campaign against his own population, waged a veritable war on whistleblowers, normalized extrajudicial killing, lied about wanting to renegotiate NAFTA and stop job outsourcing, deported more immigrants than Clinton and Bush combined, and presided, with Hillary Clinton, over the destruction of Libya. Nor was Obama averse to expressions of Trump-style narcissism. In reference to his global drone murder programme - described by Noam Chomsky as 'the biggest terrorist campaign in history' - Obama is reported to have made a typically creepy joke to his aides: 'it turns out I’m really good at killing people' (an example, perhaps, of what psychoanalysts call 'defence through admission'). And who can forget his violent and patriarchal Correspondents Dinner 'joke' about using predator drones to take out potential suitors to his daughters. During the financial crisis, meanwhile, Obama showed himself to be the friend of the bankers and the hammer of the working class: the "black mascot of Wall Street", as Cornel West called him in 2011, bailed out the banks and opposed a moratorium on home foreclosures. Obama's rhetoric was slick and euphemistic - his administration re-branded the War on Terror an 'Overseas Contingency Operation', for example - but his actions bespoke his full commitment to capitalism and war.
Indeed, it should surprise nobody that the Obama years saw an unprecedented transfer of wealth in the United States from the poor to the rich. Trump, should he actually manage to survive as President, will surely bring misery to the working class at home and abroad; but Obama, the slick desk-bound assassin, has been doing precisely that for the last eight years, even if the US liberal-left, hopelessly lost in the labyrinths of identity politics, has largely proved unwilling to criticize his administration. Whatever else it stands for, then, Trump's triumph hardly represents a rolling back of eight years of enlightened governance. This is no Orange Thermidor.
Nevertheless, the shift from Obama to Trump is not just a changing of the guard, a transition from Tweedledum to Tweedledumber. Trump's victory, like the Brexit vote in the UK, does seem to signal a certain reconfiguration of forces in the post-crisis political landscape. The so-called 'neoliberal' political consensus of the past few decades is facing a challenge to its legitimacy and this, it seems, is giving rise to new strategies of ideological containment. This not a resurgence of fascism. Some ultra-right elements in the US have certainly been emboldened, even empowered in the wake of Trump's success. But this is not the 1930s and Trump is not a new Hitler, popular as such tropes are among many liberal activists. Rather, it is right-wing populism that is the order of the day and Trump's rise is mirrored in the ascendance of regressive strongmen all across the international stage: Duterte, Orbán, Erdoğan and other xenophobic demagogues.
The precise meaning of this populist turn is not yet clear. Some radical analysts argue that the populist surge actually operates against the interests of dominant ruling class factions and thus represents a certain strategic impasse and even a loss of control among the bourgeoisie in the established democracies. According to this view, all is not well with the ruling order. Yet even if this analysis is correct, given the current absence of almost any serious working-class struggle (or even, let's be honest, basic organization) in most parts of the world, this destabilization of global politics is a potentially dangerous development.
As socialists, we can only reiterate that populism and charismatic leadership, whether in its right-wing or left-wing form, is not the answer to our problems. To those seeking a world without exploitation, war, xenophobia, racism and sexism, it matters little which butcher is currently wielding the cleaver over what Hegel called the 'slaughter bench of history'. As Marx insisted, the liberation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself. With this in mind, we should reject the idea that salvation lies in a nicer president or more enlightened prime minister. Whether black, white or tangerine, these politicians speak and act in the interests of the ruling class. In the immortal words of the punk group Crass, 'we've got to learn to reject all leaders, and the passive shit they feed us'. When Trump fails to make America - or anything else - great, we socialists will still be around, arguing that our future rests in our own hands.
"I read somewhere that the boatman who rowed King William back across the river after the Battle of the Boyne is supposed to have asked the King which side won … To which the King replied: 'What’s it to you? You’ll still be a boatman.'" - J. G. Farrell, The Singapore Grip
On Thursday, British people will be offered a vote to decide whether Britain should remain in an undemocratic bosses' club or leave it in pursuit of 'national sovereignty'. The EU referendum debate has played out as a clash between what Jacques Lacan called the University discourse and the Hysteric discourse, that is, between a discourse invested in knowledge and expertise and another characterised by populist defiance (of which Justice Secretary Michael Gove's attack on 'experts' was a notable expression). Both sides present their case in terms of decency, fairness and common sense; but in my view, neither Leaving nor Remaining will bring any good for the majority of working-class people in Britain.
Many Remainers are apt to cloud the issue of EU membership by denouncing all Brexit supporters as racists and thickos (you can't have a plebiscite, you know, without plebs) or by appealing to a sentimental Europhilia. But such appeals overlook the very pragmatic, political motives underlying Britain's EU membership. European states joined the EU in the first place largely to exempt themselves from the criticisms of their own populations, bypassing democratic accountability for capitalist 'reforms', as James Heartfield has argued; indeed, the EU has undermined collective agreements and restricted trade union activity in member states - something that seems to be poorly understood even among left-wing Remainers. And for all their supposed anti-racism, very few Remainers care to talk about the EU's current role in effectively pitching thousands of desperate refugees into the Mediterranean or pushing them into mass deportation camps. In light of this, EU is not an institution that can be defended by socialists. It is an inhuman behemoth that threatens the pay and conditions of workers across the continent and shows a callous disregard for human life.
Some Remainers - such as the Guardian's Polly Toynbee - have drawn the recent, horrific murder of the pro-EU Labour MP Jo Cox into the discussion, warning that an exit from the EU will unleash the forces of 'fascism' (the familiar bogeyman of the liberal imagination) or at least pave the way for a right-wing cataclysm led by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. I'm not so sure. Johnson and Farage, it is true, have nothing to offer working-class people except hatred and oppression. But politicians on the Remain side of the debate - the Camerons, Osbornes and Hunts of this world - have been responsible for inflicting terrible suffering among the unemployed, disabled and immigrants for many years. They are at least as dangerous as the Brexiteers, not least because they are the ones who have actually been attacking the working class, as opposed to merely bloviating about immigrants and benefit scroungers.
On the other hand, it is true that many right-wing and some left-wing Brexiteers appeal to racist and anti-immigrant sentiments ('they' are a 'drain' on 'our services' or take 'our jobs', and so on). Such appeals must be rejected outright. Nor do I see any reason to buy into the 'progressive' Leave campaign's narrative that exiting the EU - once the common goal of most British leftists - will improve the lot of ordinary people in Britain. For the advocates of a certain left-wing, Bennite social democracy, the case for Brexit is clear: this vote is purely about EU membership and the EU is a patently undemocratic, 'neoliberal' apparatus that only recently hammered Greece over its debt repayments. Yet even if a Brexit does come about (and it should be remembered that a referendum victory for Leave would not be legally binding), an 'independent' British capitalism will continue to be locked into the structures of global capitalism and will continue to exploit, degrade and divide workers. This is not because the campaign has been hegemonized by the populist right - although it certainly has - but because Britain is a capitalist state that cannot, even without ties to the EU, be truly democratic. The exact makeup of political forces in post-Brexit Britain is largely unknowable at this point; but in the absence of large-scale working-class struggle, the idea promoted by some left-wing Leavers that an exit vote could usefully destabilize the British state seems fanciful. The financiers and business-people funding the Leave campaign are doing so in order to avoid EU financial regulation, bonus caps, and suchlike; working-class people have no shared class interest with them.
This referendum is the stage for a bourgeois faction fight in which the dominant faction of British capitalism aims to strike a decisive blow against the anti-EU blowhards. But whichever side prevails on Thursday, it's hard not to feel that the big winner will be the British ruling class as a whole, which will have succeeded once again in persuading us to participate in another of its electoral spectacles. The fight over EU membership is really not our fight. Instead of voting for one gang of capitalists or another we would do better, I think, to focus on our own struggles. True internationalists should consider what is going on just across the Channel in France, where the current, massive labour reform bill protests are a reminder that the working class can and must fight on its own terrain, regardless of the capitalist formations - national, European, or global - in which it finds itself.
The text below consists of several passages untimely ripp'd from my latest book on the Bosnian war in screen fiction (forthcoming from Bloomsbury Academic). These chunks were hastily stitched together for a recent talk to Film Studies staff and students at London South Bank University (thanks to Professor Phil Hammond for organizing this and to the students for their patience as I tried to cram all of this into one hour). What follows lacks context/nuance in places (especially in the Introduction), as the aim was to present a highly condensed polemic for thought/discussion rather than a carefully balanced academic paper. The text also omits discussion of many subjects considered in the book, notably that of war rape, concentrating instead on the issues surrounding geopolitics and nationalism. Nevertheless, since several people have asked me what the new book is all about, here are some 'bits and pieces of the working thesis', as The Minutemen once sang.
Introduction: The Bosnian War and the Media
Many of us have vivid memories of horrific scenes from the Bosnian war: the carnage caused by bombs and sniper fire, the burning of villages, rapes and massacres. What caused the conflict is much less clear in most people's minds - after all, the Bosnian war is a massively over-determined event. By the late 1980s, Yugoslavia was in dire economic distress, caused in part by its obligations to a savage IMF ‘restructuring’. Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian Muslim nationalism had been growing for decades, exacerbating tensions in what had been, for most of the post-war period, a relatively peaceful multi-ethnic country. But the break-up of Yugoslavia was also precipitated by the world’s great powers. Germany, and especially Austria, encouraged the secession of Croatia and Slovenia in 1991 and there are strong suggestions that in the spring of 1992 the US encouraged Bosnia’s president, Alija Izetbegović, to reject the Lisbon Agreement, a plan for the partition of Bosnia that might have prevented war. And once the war had started, Western and other global powers defied a UN arms embargo by supplying arms to their regional client states. Indeed, the widespread claim that the great powers passively ‘looked on’ as the Bosnian war raged is, quite simply, a myth.
Responsibility for such myths lies partly with the news media. As Yugoslavia disintegrated into nationalist madness, a ‘paranoid public sphere’ (Adorno and Horkheimer) arose in each of the country's former republics. News bulletins collapsed into absurd and crude propaganda. Western journalists, meanwhile, were mostly confined to their Sarajevo hotels, unable to report from the field and disastrously over-reliant on government propaganda. The conflict was a three-sided civil war, albeit an uneven one, the Serbs possessing more firepower than the Croats and Muslims and perpetrating hideous atrocities, from the brutal siege of Sarajevo to the Srebrenica massacre. But as the US tilted towards its client, the Bosnian government, the conflict was increasingly presented as a one-sided war of aggression, or even a genocide, waged by Serbs against Bosnian Muslims. The Western press transformed Serbian president Slobodan Milošević into a modern-Hitler, when in fact he was less nationalistic than his opposite numbers in Croatia and Bosnia. Holocaust analogies became common, notably in the summer of 1992, when ITN’s images of the 'thin man', Fikret Alić, in the Serb-run detention camp at Trnopolje were exaggeratedly interpreted in the Western media as evidence of Nazi-style ‘death camps’ (although such camps were indeed places of real horror and violence). The same media virtually ignored Croat- and Muslim-run camps.
And when the US and its NATO allies launched a devastating campaign to push back the Serbs in 1995, most Western media praised the attack, despite the thousands of refugees and deaths it created. Western journalists – even, and perhaps especially the liberal ones – were thus responsible for what Ed Herman and David Peterson (2007: 1) call a ‘tsunami of lies and misrepresentations’. These misrepresentations were often justified by recourse to what British journalist Martin Bell called the ‘journalism of attachment’, an allegedly new mode of affective reportage that aimed at infusing a suspect ‘neutral’ journalism with a proper sense of moral outrage, but which in fact became a license for over-simplification and one-sided reporting. Serbs bad; Muslims and military intervention good.
My recent work explores the extent to which screen fictions support the one-sided view of the war propagated by many Western journalists. The following talk examines some of the best-known cinema and TV reconstructions of the war in both the West and the Balkans from the last 20 years. I argue that the cinema of the Bosnia war, East and West, is heavily compromised by misrepresentation, nationalism and racism; however, I end on a more optimistic note, discussing some less partisan treatments of the conflict.
Humanitarianism and Its Others: Three Film Dramas about the Bosnian War
Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo was released two years after the end of the Bosnian war and would become the definitive cinematic treatment of the conflict. Based on the memoir of British foreign correspondent Michael Nicholson (1994), it focuses on the experiences of journalists in Sarajevo and in particular the quest of one of them, Michael Henderson, to evacuate a young girl from a Bosnian orphanage.
The film has a documentaristic quality. Dramatic reconstructions of civilian suffering, including bloodied bodies strewn across the pavements of Sarajevo, are intercut with real television news footage, suturing Henderson’s reports into the ‘real world’ of the Yugoslav wars. The children in the orphanage are presented to the viewer as part of Nicholson’s news reports, speaking directly to camera with Nicholson’s voiceover translation. It’s an engaging technique that interpellates the audience as witnesses to the horrors of war through a cinematic rendering of the ‘journalism of attachment’.
Nevertheless, Welcome to Sarajevo’s inclusion of actual news footage also reinforces hegemonic framings of the conflict. There is a clip, for example, of one of Bill Clinton’s public statements about the war: ‘history has shown us that you can’t allow the mass extermination of people and just sit by and watch it happen’. Later, television images of the Serb commander Radovan Karadžić are intercut with a speech delivered by George Bush, in which the former president asserts: ‘you can’t negotiate with a terrorist’. As the inclusion of soundbites from both Clinton and Bush suggests, the film reproduces the US media-political script of the war. Serbs are depicted throughout the film as the war’s sole aggressors – as raving psychopaths, in fact. There are also some striking factual reversals: the Serb victims of the 1992 Sarajevo wedding massacre become, in the film, Croatians, while the rescued girl, in reality a Croat, becomes, in the film, a Muslim (Gocić 2001: 42-3). Throughout Welcome to Sarajevo, in fact, Muslims are the innocent victims of the war, Serbs are its villains, and journalists such as Henderson stand for the civilized values of multicultural Europe.
This lionization of the Western journalist who goes beyond the call of duty is combined with an explicit endorsement of Western ‘humanitarian intervention’ when Henderson’s flamboyant American colleague Flynn apologizes to his translator Risto on behalf of the US for ‘failing to deliver on those airstrikes’. In Welcome to Sarajevo, Westerners are thus depicted as the actual or at least potential saviours of Yugoslavia.
Let’s take another example. In 1999, the BBC broadcast a two-part drama, Warriors, which follows the fortunes of British soldiers sent to Bosnia as UN ‘peacekeepers’. It was written by Leigh Jackson and directed by Peter Kosminsky. As in many other Kosminsky dramas – No Child of Mine (1997), The Project (2002), The Government Inspector (2005) and Britz (2007) – a key theme is the betrayal of trust in authority. The drama’s central thesis is that the UN’s non-combat remit prevented the blue helmets from protecting the victims of the war and in many scenes, the soldiers can only look on in frustration as civilians are shelled or displaced.
The screenplay of Warriors is based on the transcripts of interviews conducted with more than 90 British soldiers and their families. In fact, the drama’s depiction of war is considered so authentic that the film has been used in army training programmes to illustrate the dilemmas and challenges of peacekeeping. And the TV critics went wild. The Times’ Paul Hoggart, for instance, wrote that Warriors ‘was, quite simply, stunning – gut-wrenching, soul-searing, heart-rending, thought-provoking, sensitive, powerful, deeply disturbing and dripping authenticity’.
Yet the drama’s political messages are problematic. Drawing comparisons between the Bosnian conflict and the Second World War, a Muslim woman, Almira Zec, advises Lieutenant Feeley that some form of Western intervention is required to prevent a repeat of the 1940s; ‘history is screaming at us’, she tells him. But the use of WWII analogies to justify military intervention in Bosnia rests on two dubious assumptions: first, that Western military intervention is benevolent; and second, that WWII was a just war against fascism – a proposition unlikely to find favour in Dresden or Hiroshima.
Nor is the drama's historical authenticity beyond question. Muslims here appear only as victims; this is especially problematic since Warriors is set in Vitez – an area of central Bosnia in which most of the fighting between 1992 and 1994 involved Muslim and Croat forces. The omni-presence of a slimy Serb commander is also an historical distortion, since Serb forces were not active in the area. Kosminsky’s productions have often drawn censure from the political establishment; Warriors did not, perhaps indicating how little it departs from the dominant narrative of the war.
This narrative is not exclusive to Western productions. The most extensive treatment of the UN mission in Bosnia is Alpha Bravo Charlie, an epic fourteen-part TV drama about the Bosnian war directed by the acclaimed Shoaib Mansoor and broadcast by Pakistan Television to record-breaking audiences in 1998. The military-themed production was facilitated by Pakistan’s ISPR (Inter-Services Public Relations), a body responsible for producing dramas and documentaries about the country’s armed forces (Ansari 2011: 8).
Alpha Bravo Charlie’s principal character is mild-mannered Gulsher Khan, a captain who is sent to Bosnia a few days after his marriage. Khan’s unit is respectfully received by the Bosnian community, as rebuilding projects are begun and medicines, food and money are distributed. As in Warriors, the Pakistani soldiers form close bonds with the locals, especially their Bosnian translators, and Khan’s burgeoning friendship with his translator Sandra is one of the drama’s key storylines.
A dramatic high-point in Alpha Bravo Charlie involves Sandra revealing to Khan her family secret. As the camera slowly zooms in on her face, Sandra explains that her original name had been Selma, but that this was changed at the insistence of her stepfather, a Serb, who abandoned the family to join the army. Later, Sandra tells Khan a second story about her former boyfriend – also a Serb – who deserted her at the outbreak of the war but later returned to slaughter her entire village with a rifle. Having revealed the truth about her suffering at the hands of Serb men, Sandra becomes psychically emancipated and soon falls in love with Khan. She further tells Khan that the war is a ‘blessing in disguise’ because, she says, ‘it has given us our identity; we had forgotten who we were. But now things will change, inshallah’. The war – and specifically the Pakistani UN presence in it – enhances Sandra’s sense of ethno-religious belonging. Sandra’s only complaint is that the UN mandate does not allow arms. ‘Please don’t give us food’, she implores Khan, ‘it keeps us alive so that we can be killed by Serbs tomorrow’. Instead, Sandra asks for weapons (Pakistan did in fact covertly provide arms to the Bosnian government during the war).
Captured by Serb forces later in the series, Khan is shot dead in the second of two escape attempts, but becomes a fondly remembered martyr in the drama’s patriotic ending. Alpha Bravo Charlie thus celebrates the legacy of the Pakistani UN presence in Bosnia, casting the soldiers as heroic protectors of the global ummah.
All three of these productions, then, reflect the mainstream ‘Western’ narrative of the Bosnian war. And it is important to note that their directors are political liberals. Shaoib Mansoor's 2007 film Khuda Kay Liye depicts the wrongful detention and torture of a Pakistani terror suspect and strongly condemns the US war on terror. Winterbottom and Kosminsky are also liberal filmmakers who have been very critical of Western foreign policy since 2001. Winterbottom’s docudrama Road to Guantánamo (2005) and Kosminsky’s dramas The Government Inspector (2005) and Britz (2007) questioned the grounds for Britain’s invasion of Iraq and the effects of the ‘war on terror’ on British citizens. In fact, all three directors have elsewhere demonstrated an anti-imperialist sensibility that is lacking from their films about Bosnia. Whether consciously or not, it seems that liberal filmmakers in the 1990s, like many liberal journalists, helped to reproduce the hegemonic understanding of the war.
A more recent dramatic intervention has been made by Angelina Jolie – another prominent liberal cultural figure with a background in humanitarian work and a strong interest in the suffering of Bosnian women. Jolie’s first foray into directing, In the Land of Blood and Honey, is an award-winning film about a Muslim woman, Ajla, and a Serb policeman, Danijel, who date each other before the outbreak of the war, their friendship illustrating the multicultural harmony of pre-war Sarajevo. During the war, however, Ajla is transported with other Muslim women to a barracks where Danijel is a captain and where the women are repeatedly raped, reduced to ‘bare life’. Danijel seems more kindly than his fellow soldiers, at least initially – but nevertheless confines Ajla to his quarters, where he rapes her. At the end of the film, seemingly tortured by his conscience, Danijel gives himself up at a UN checkpoint, confessing that he is a ‘criminal of war’. That Danijel will be punished for his crimes is one of the film’s progressive points; after all, in US cinema rape is often punished by vigilante reprisals rather than legal means, or not punished at all (Bufkin and Eschholtz 2000) and rapists are seldom shamed in films about rape in the Bosnian war (Bertolucci 2015).
That said, In the Land of Blood and Honey is deeply embedded within what James Der Derian (2001) pithily calls the ‘military-industrial-media-entertainment network’ (MIME-NET) and Jolie consulted with Wesley Clarke and Richard Holbrooke when researching the film. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Jolie’s film is overly invested in establishing war guilt. Here again, Muslims are heroic resistance fighters and Serbs are cardboard cut-out villains; the regional Serb commander, Danijel’s father Nebojša, is a blood and soil nationalist who smashes wine glasses as he pontificates about Serb greatness. Jolie even reconstructs ITN’s Trnopolje camp images in a scene where Danijel is driving through Sarajevo. Here is Danijel's point of view shot...
Although the scene is meant to take place in the winter of 1994, Danijel drives past semi-naked prisoners resembling those featured in the 1992 footage and Jolie’s camera lingers on one prisoner who bears a strong resemblance to Fikret Alić. By reviving an image that was widely interpreted in the media as evidence of a fascist resurgence in Europe, Jolie draws an equivalence between Serbs and Nazis, exploiting the best-known image of the war for an ideological rewriting of history.
Hollywood Action Cinema: Masculinism and Militarism
Action films have played a similar role, although often this has not gone much beyond using Serbs as episodic villains. Curiously, in Hollywood, this vilification has often taken a quite specific form, with Serbs depicted as pornography obsessed sexual perverts. In Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996), a box supposedly holding aid for Bosnian refugees turns out to be a Serb booby trap containing pornographic magazines and an explosive toy doll that spews sarin gas – a detail that inverts a real-life story from the same year, in which NATO officers found booby-trapped toys in a Bosnian Muslim training camp (Pomfret 1996: 25). Gustavo Graef-Marino’s Diplomatic Siege (1999), meanwhile, depicts the invasion of the US Embassy in Bucharest by dead-eyed Serb terrorists, one of whom displays a penchant for pornographic gay magazines. And in John Irvin’s The Fourth Angel (2001), Serb terrorists watch pornographic videos. These details revive a longstanding occidental association of the Balkans with sexual excess (think of Bram Stoker’s Dracula); but they also serve a propaganda function, linking Serbs – and Serbs alone – with sexual depravity.
Other Hollywood actioners go deeper. John Moore’s Behind Enemy Lines (2001) merits particular scrutiny as one of the few Hollywood action films to be set during the war itself. The film stars Owen Wilson as Lieutenant Chris Burnett, an American naval flight officer frustrated by the lack of opportunity for combat action. Eventually airborne on a reconnaissance mission over Bosnia, he deviates from his flightpath and is shot down in a demilitarized zone along with his pilot Stackhouse after photographing mass graves. The film’s fetishization of the Americans’ sophisticated surveillance technologies (Burnett refers to his aircraft’s ‘shiny new digital camera’) reinforces the pre-eminence of US high-tech, immersing the viewer in what Graham Dawson (1994) calls the ‘pleasure culture of war’. Burnett’s photographs reveal that the local Bosnian Serb Army commander, General Miroslav Lokar, is conducting a secret genocidal campaign against the local population. Pursued by the Serbs in enemy territory, Burnett is eventually rescued through the belated efforts of Reigart – no thanks to Reigart’s NATO superior, Admiral Piquet, an uptight Frenchman who represents pettifogging ‘European’ bureaucracy. Piquet, who criticizes US unilateralism, is increasingly identified as the film’s villain (Weber 2006: 62).
The Serb soldiers, meanwhile, are heavily racialized ‘mono-dimensional demons’ (Watson 2008: 55) who must be vanquished by angelic American forces. Cowardly and merciless and seemingly unable to speak Serbo-Croat, the Serbs execute Stackhouse by shooting him in the back. And unlike the ‘cool’ white Americans and the Americanized, clean-looking Muslim youths who help Burnett during his ordeal, the Serbs are ‘minstrels of mud and dirt’ (Miskovic 2006: 450).
Burnett is successful in his mission and his photographic evidence results in Lokar appearing at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to face justice for his crimes. As in Welcome to Sarajevo, constructed news bulletins reinforce a pro-American perspective. At an affective level, meanwhile, a high-octane rock music soundtrack shores up the assertion of US cultural hegemony. By these means, Behind Enemy Lines promotes a Manichean worldview in which US military masculinity, freed from ‘the constraints of multilateralism and diplomacy’ (Ó Tuathail 2005: 361), guarantees moral clarity. It’s therefore unsurprising that the film, although made before 9/11, was rush-released after the Twin Towers attack.
Serb screen villains often exhibit a backwardness and a desire to ‘return’ to the war, or carry it on by other means, in order to avenge past humiliations. A well-known example is Victor Drazen, the chief villain of the first season of the Fox television series 24 (2001-10), a Serb ethnic cleanser whose wife and child were killed during an undercover CIA operation. Yet a desire for revenge is not entirely the preserve of atavistic Serb villains. The heroes of male action melodramas are themselves typically wounded (and thus, etymologically, traumatized) figures (Rehling 2009: 55-82) and the Western soldiers and journalists who return to Bosnia have their own grievances to avenge, even if they do so under the civilized pretext of bringing Serb war criminals to justice.
From the late 1990s, as Western bounty hunters charged into the Balkans in search of war criminals, Western film and television dramas began to reflect their experiences in a series of ‘back to Bosnia’ storylines. The most high-profile of these, Richard Shepard’s 2007 film The Hunting Party, is set five years after the Bosnian war. It is based on an Esquire article by Scott K. Anderson (2000) about an unconventional plan hatched by a group of three journalists, who decide to spend their holidays finding and arresting Radovan Karadžić (‘It’s payback time for that fuck’, as one of the reporters robustly puts it). The posse of journalists ventures into what one of them calls ‘the heart of this Balkan madness’ in order to track down ‘the most wanted war criminal in Bosnia’, Dr Radoslav Boghdanović, also known as The Fox, and his bloodthirsty bodyguard Srđan.
The Hunting Party’s central protagonist, Simon Hunt, is an American TV journalist whose Bosnian girlfriend was raped and murdered by Boghdanović in 1994. Like Flynn in Welcome to Sarajevo, Hunt is a fearless journalist, stopping in the heat of battle to smoke cigarettes to a rock music soundtrack. But Hunt loses his composure – and consequently his job – during a live TV interview from Bosnia with his channel’s veteran news anchor, Franklin. When Franklin, during a discussion of a massacre of Bosnian Muslims, tries to raise the question of Muslim responsibility for violence, Hunt explodes: ‘These people were butchered. Women were raped. Children were murdered. Come on, Franklin!’. Hunt’s outburst reveals his commitment to the ‘journalism of attachment’. By contrast, the older anchorman Franklin embodies the conservatism of a compromised establishment and his vacillations compel Hunt to seek justice on his own terms. Like Behind Enemy Lines, then, The Hunting Party has a distinctly oedipal subtext: the failure of paternal authority pushes Hunt, like Chris Burnett, to defy that authority and restore moral order by force.
The Fox and his bodyguard, meanwhile, are presented as Balkan Wild Men, animalistic avatars of a ‘volatile masculinity gone mad’ (Longinović 2005: 38). The journalists eventually capture The Fox – no thanks to a laughably ineffectual UN police bureaucrat. Indeed, as in Behind Enemy Lines, US unilateralism trumps slow-moving, corrupt European diplomacy. That this unilateralism is covert and possibly illegal aligns the film with other Bosnian war thrillers, such as Mimi Leder’s The Peacemaker (1999) and John Irvin’s The Fourth Angel (2001), as well as what Ross Douthat (2008) calls the ‘paranoid style’ of post-9/11 Hollywood.
Although it is set in the US, Mark Steven Johnson’s 2013 film The Killing Season also focuses on the settling of old scores. Here Robert de Niro plays Benjamin Ford, a US Bosnian war veteran who has retreated to the Appalachian mountains in order to forget the war. Ford is tracked down, however, by Emil Kovač, a sadistic Serb soldier who had been shot by Ford during the war and now seeks revenge on the American. Most of the screentime in The Killing Season is devoted to the brutal to-and-fro combat between the two men as they chase, torture and occasionally speechify to one other in a battle for physical and moral supremacy.
Critically maligned and a commercial flop, The Killing Season has incurred widespread ridicule for its raft of cultural solecisms (Kovač’s un-Serbian name and incongruously Islamic beard being the favourite targets of the film’s online detractors). More troublingly, Balkanist stereotyping abounds. As Dina Iordanova (2001: 162) notes, the Balkans have often been viewed by Westerners as a place of ‘face-to-face sadistic fervour involving blood, spilled guts, severed limbs, tortured and mutilated bodies’. Kovač brings this savagery to America, his preference for a bow and arrow marking him as a pre-modern savage.
Even worse is the film’s opening depiction of the Bosnian war, which is provided by way of backstory. Purporting to depict to the final stages of the conflict, the film shows the liberation of a Serb-run concentration camp - complete with Trnopolje-style barbed wire fence - as part of an American ground operation in which US infantry fight a close range battle with the Serbs.
This ‘Trnopolje liberation’ scene is, of course, an invention: US ground troops did not enter Bosnia in 1995, let alone ‘liberate the camps’, which in any case had been closed down by the end of 1992. Rather, the scene re-stages the Bosnian war for the purpose of establishing American heroism and Serb depravity. The allusions here to the liberation of the Nazi death camps (notably, a soldier’s discovery of a freight train carriage stuffed with corpses) also serve to re-temporalize the action: 1995 becomes 1945.
Post-Yugoslav Cinema: Nationalism to Normalization
Most Western films about the war are superegoic, calling for action to restore political and moral order in the Balkans. By contrast, Balkan films – especially Serbian films – often display a dark sense of humour and fatalism, exploring the nature of war in more ironic and allusive modes. The elevation of poetics over politics in these distinctly Dionysian films (Gocić 2009) complicates and often confounds critical analysis. Interpretation is further complicated by the generic diversity of these films, which move beyond the drama and action genres favoured by Western directors to encompass satire, comedy and horror. In this final section of my talk, I shall briefly evaluate some negative and positive trends within post-Yugoslav cinema.
As several critics have argued, the cinema of the former Yugoslavia’s most celebrated director, Emir Kusturica, bends Hollywood’s anti-Serb stick in the other direction, betraying his strong pro-Serb political sympathies. In the 1940s storyline in Kusturica’s Underground – a film ‘supported and endorsed by government-controlled cultural institutions of Milošević’s Yugoslavia’ (Iordanova 2001: 122) – the heroes Marko and Crni ‘fight on relentlessly in occupied Belgrade, while the Slovenes and the Croats welcome Nazi troops, [and] Muslims and Croats steal weapons and money from the resistance fighters’ (Magala 2005: 195). Nor does Kusturica, either here or in his subsequent Bosnian war film Life Is a Miracle, acknowledge Serb atrocities in the 1990s. A great deal has already been written about Kusturica’s nationalist affiliations, so here I shall say only that agree with the majority of critics that Kusturica’s films are as compromised by political bias as any Hollywood production.
A rather more complicated case is presented by Srđan Dragojević’s 1996 tour-de-force Pretty Village, Pretty Flame – the Ur-text of Bosnian war cinema. Rich in symbolism and dripping in irony, it is arguably the most sophisticated film about the war. It is set in the Višegrad tunnel (also known as the Brotherhood and Unity Tunnel) in 1992, where a Serbian fighter, Milan, is trapped with his comrades, surrounded by Muslim soldiers. The film regularly flashes back to Milan’s happy adventures with his childhood friend Halil, one of the Muslims now outside the tunnel; many of these adventures take place near the tunnel, which the boys will not enter, convinced that an ogre dwells there. The film also jumps forward to Milan’s post-war experiences in hospital, where, consumed with thoughts of vengeance for the murder of his mother, he determines to kill a young Muslim patient. Milan’s journey from amity to animosity illustrates the poisonous power of nationalism. Yet an American journalist who finds herself in the tunnel with the Serbs undergoes a reverse process: blinded by Western stereotypes, she is initially horrified by the men; but her antipathy towards them lessens with familiarity. Indeed, Pretty Village, Pretty Flame delivers a riposte to Western ways of seeing, expressing ‘frustration with the Western representation of the war, of Serbs and the Balkans in general’ (Radović 2014: 51). Yet Dragojević also shows the depravity of the Serbs, as they drunkenly loot and burn Muslim villages, proudly sporting the kokarda. Milja Radović (2009: 195) therefore rightly argues that the film contains much indirect opposition to the idiocies of Serb nationalism; this is no doubt why the film was treated with suspicion by the Serbian elite and the production ran into significant problems with the authorities.
On the other hand, the film’s only visible Muslim victim appears in a scene in which the Serbs loot a home, the dead body of its owner, Ćamil, appearing in the background of the shot. As Pavle Levi (2007: 148-9) points out, Dragojević’s camera only briefly shows Ćamil, eventually refocusing on the Serb soldier in the foreground and blurring out the victim behind him. It might be added that Ćamil appears not only in the background of this shot, but through a window, a distantiating framing that positions Ćamil as a mere ‘representation’ existing outside the Serbs’ – and perhaps the viewers’ – sphere of interest. Also problematic in Pretty Village is the dismissive representation of the effete anti-war demonstrators who protest in front of the military hospital, risibly chanting John Lennon’s ‘Give Peace A Chance’. Ultimately, then, Pretty Village is an ambiguous text that criticizes some aspects of Serb nationalism while marginalizing Muslim suffering and the aspirations of the peace movement.
Where then to turn for an unpatriotic imagining of the Bosnian war? Many scholars of post-Yugoslav cinema regard Danis Tanović’s No Man’s Land (2001) as an exemplary anti-war film; but even here there are problems. The film focuses on two combatants from opposing sides of the conflict – Čiki, a Muslim, and Nino, a Serb – who find themselves trapped between the Serb and Muslim front lines, as piranha-like international reporters seek to exploit the men’s predicament and UN officials uselessly look on. Despite its welcome satire on the pretensions of Western journalism, however, No Man’s Land frames the war and the trench-bound duo quite conventionally. The action in the trench is interspersed with a British TV news programme showing Radovan Karadžić threatening the Bosnian Muslims and an argument between the film’s two protagonists about the origins of the war identifies the Serbs as the only aggressors. The film’s presentation of the unlikely trenchmates, meanwhile, is far from even-handed. The Bosnian Muslim, Čiki, is coded as the compassionate hero and his Rolling Stones tee-shirt reminds the audience that Muslims represent liberal, Western values. His Serb counterpart, on the other hand, is neurotic and duplicitous, attempting at one point to stab Čiki with his own knife. Notwithstanding the widespread critical assessment of No Man’s Land as an anti-war film, then, Tanović, I argue, tends to present the Bosnian war as a morality tale of good Muslim and bad Serb.
I’d like to end by discussing two post-Yugoslav films about the Bosnian war that are very different in tone yet which indicate potential lines of flight away from ethno-nationalism. The film that has attracted most international attention for its depiction of the after-effects of war trauma on Bosnian women is Grbavica/Esma’s Secret (2006). Written and directed by Bosnian Jasmila Žbanić, Esma’s Secret is, along with No Man’s Land, the most watched film in post-war Bosnia (Zajec 2013: 200) and its success led to the Bosnian government belatedly agreeing to provide financial support for the war’s rape victims. A ‘film with very few men’ (Pavićić 2010: 49), it tells the story of a working class single mother, Esma, and her wayward daughter Sara, who was conceived when Esma was raped during the war, but who has been brought up believe that her father was a šehid, or war hero. The film alludes subtly to the nature of Esma’s experiences during the war and critiques the sexist social norms of post-war Bosnia: Esma works as a waitress in a nightclub and her abhorrence of the crass philandering of its patrons, together with her unease when in close proximity to men, hint at the nature of her prison camp ordeal and suggest that gender relations have barely changed in Bosnia since the war.
Unlike Angelina Jolie’s film about war rape, Esma’s Secret shows little interest in political demonization. The film’s quiet social realism constitutes an implicit critique of the wild, self-Balkanizing cinema of Kusturica and Dragojević (Pavićić 2010: 48). Žbanić’s use of space reinforces the point. In Kusturica’s Underground, the above ground/below ground dichotomy symbolizes the discrepancy between Yugoslavia’s Communist superstratum and the deceived masses who live under its auspices. In Esma’s Secret, this topography is reversed: Esma and Sara often occupy hilltop spaces overlooking the Bosnian capital city from which Sara derives her name. In contrast with Kusturica’s and Dragojević’s enclosed spaces (basements, tunnels and graveyards), these locales convey a sense of possibility; and unlike the doomed, irredeemable characters of Kusturica and Dragojević, Esma and Sara are capable of change (Pavićić 2010: 49). Once Sara is apprised of her mother’s secret, mother and daughter may begin a new life together.
Some other impressive Balkan films about the war and its effects focus on the perpetrators, rather than the sufferers of trauma. The Enemy, directed by Serb Dejan Zečević and co-produced between Serbia, Republika Srpska and Croatia in 2011, is a supernatural, allegorical drama with a distinctly Tarkovskian tone. Set in the immediate aftermath of the war, the film begins with Serb soldiers, under the supervision of American IFOR troops, removing mines that they themselves had laid several years before. All of the men are damaged – whether by fear, aggression, or excessive religiosity – becoming increasingly abusive and eventually murderous towards one another. Searching a factory, the soldiers unearth a strange figure with the diabolical name of Daba, who has been walled into the building and who, disconcertingly, feels no cold, hunger or thirst. Initially, the chthonic Daba seems to be implicated in the violence, especially when the soldiers discover a mass grave underneath the factory, and at several points various frightened soldiers try – and fail – to kill him. Yet Daba tells the men that he deplores the killing of the war and as the film progresses it becomes clear that Daba is not the source of the growing tension among the men, but rather what Slavoj Žižek (1999: 121) calls an ‘Id-machine’, an uncanny externalization of the soldiers’ hostile proclivities. Craving an enemy, even after the end of the war, the soldiers have collectively conjured one up.
Daba epitomizes Zygmunt Bauman’s figure of the Stranger: a liminal, ‘undecidable’ figure who is neither a friend nor an enemy and thus poses a threat ‘more horrifying than that which one can expect from the enemy’ (Bauman 1991: 55). For the soldiers, Daba is terrifying not because he is an enemy (enemies can simply be killed), but because his uncertain identity unsettles the binary categories of good and evil, friend and foe, that still define the soldiers’ world. Like Pretty Village, Pretty Flame, in which the Bosnian war is attributed to a malevolent, tunnel-dwelling ogre, The Enemy could be accused of supernaturalizing and thereby depoliticizing the war. Nevertheless, the film does offer a memorable philosophical deconstruction of sectarianism. While Western cinema à la Angelina Jolie continues to engage in enemy construction, post-Yugoslav cinema is moving beyond the simple satire of Western normativities, and shows signs of sloughing off its nationalist legacy.
(First published in Star and Crescent)
These days, the name of Jeremy Corbyn is on everybody’s lips. Or so it seems to me. In a canteen yesterday, I misheard a fellow diner’s order of ‘spaghetti carbonara’ as ‘Corbynara’. And who knows, if Corbyn’s star continues to rise, we might yet see the day when the Labour leftist – who is already considered a savoury dish by many of his admirers – has a pasta named after him.
For the time being, though, Corbyn is under fire from his many adversaries. The right-wing press attacks Jezza at every turn, often in the most salacious, moralizing and trivialising terms. Article after article excoriates Corbyn as a scruffy love rat who once had a habit of eating cold beans from a tin. Such is the all-too-familiar viciousness of the British tabloid press. Yet the chorus of mockery isn’t confined to the redtops and the Daily Mail. In a recent BBC Panorama presented by former Sun journalist John Ware, Corbyn was subjected to a tabloid-style whacking, and even the liberal journalists at The Guardian have been putting the boot in. Raphael Behr, for instance, has provocatively compared Corbyn’s ‘populist’ politics to those of UKIP’s ultra-nationalist Nigel Farage.
In recent days, The Guardian has published some more sympathetic pieces about the Labour leader; but Corbyn is likely to be vilified by most of the media for as long as he remains at the helm of the Labour party. The British public now breathlessly awaits the further revelations that Corbyn is a paedophile, eats babies, or shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But why is so much of the media so hostile towards Corbyn? And does this hostility mean that Corbyn is a radical? Can the politics that he represents really help to bring about socialism and a ‘fairer society’, as many of his supporters believe?
Corbyn’s ascendancy comes as something of a shock for those of us old enough to remember him from earlier decades. We knew Corbyn as a campaigning leftist politician, but few of us could have guessed that he would become Labour leader. His extraordinary rise is a consequence of his ability to attract the support of a broad range of leftists and party members, many of whom recently joined Labour specifically to vote for the man they believe represents ‘a new kind of politics’.
The media are hostile towards Corbyn largely because they – and their advertisers and owners – fear the ideological reorientation he seems to represent. Corbyn’s election as leader has restored the dreaded word ‘socialism’ to public discourse. And many of Corbyn’s ideas are certainly radical. For example, on foreign policy, Corbyn opposes airstrikes on Syria, and on education, the scrapping of university tuition fees. Sounds good. And it’s great to hear Corby talking of the need for a ‘kinder society’ in which refugees are treated with respect. To oppose such sentiments one would have to be an idiot or a Tory (or, as is often the case, both).
But even if a Corbyn-led government were elected – and the next opportunity for that is a full five years away – it is doubtful that any of Corbyn’s enlightened policies would by then be intact, let alone implementable. And we’d do well to remember that radical promises are easily broken. Before the 2010 election, Nick Clegg, of the Liberal Democrats, promised the end of university tuition fees, only to renege later upon his pledge. That’s how politicians roll. In fact, we don’t even have to wait for promises to be broken: earlier this year, Corbyn voted in support of Labour’s Compulsory Jobs Guarantee, a scheme involving an element of ‘workfare’ – unpaid work in return for benefits – something Corbyn has elsewhere claimed to oppose.
Here’s the thing. The political system in a country such as Britain has both a right-wing and a left-wing ‘face’. For the last five years we have been staring into the former, and view has not been pretty. Under the Conservatives, many British workers have seen drastic reductions in their wages and living conditions. Disabled people and welfare recipients (dubbed ‘benefit claimants’ in the tabloid media) have been particularly hard hit. In London, rents and house prices have reached insane levels, leading to a veritable social cleansing of the poor. While no mass movement has yet emerged to oppose them, these developments have left people bitter, furious and in many cases suicidal.
It’s hardly surprising that those seeking an end to this miserable state of affairs eagerly embrace political promises of a ‘fairer society’, or even ‘socialism’. And it is here that the left-wing ‘face’ of capitalism hoves into view. At moments when people become disillusioned with the system, left-wing political parties can help to contain and dissipate public anger. The ‘anti-austerity’ party Syriza has recently played this role in Greece.
There’s no reason to think that a newly ‘radical’ Labour party, were it elected, would do any better than Syriza. On the contrary, we’ve been here before. I vividly remember the celebrations in Glasgow in May 1997 when ‘New’ Labour came to power after 18 years of Conservative rule. As the parties spilled into the streets, one man bellowed ‘SOCIALISM NOW!’ into the night sky. But such hopes were quickly dashed. After 1997, Tony Blair’s party did not contribute to the creation of a more decent society, either at home, where inequality deepened, or abroad, where the ‘humanitarian’ bombs rained down, from Belgrade to Baghdad.
Corbyn, of course, rejects Blairism and New Labour. His ideal Labour party, by his own admission, would resemble that of the Wilson/Callaghan government of the 1970s. In fact, Corbyn was a close friend of a key member of that government, the late Tony Benn, a man who delivered searing indictments of the capitalist system when he no longer played any part in government, but who, as Secretary of State for Energy, was partly responsible for devastating pit closures and the repression of striking workers. Whatever fine phrases he uttered in the 1980s and 90s, as a minister Benn was hardly on the side of the British working class. In assessing the meaning of Corbyn, too, we should take into account the gap between left-wing rhetoric and the historical reality of the left in power.
In terms of personal authenticity and genuine commitment to his constituents, Corbyn scores highly and his many radical statements show that it is possible to oppose and humanize the political discourse of the right. This is no small thing after many years in which the media and political parties in Britain have poured vitriol on immigrants, the poor and the unemployed. Ultimately, however, I think that it’s a mistake to support Corbyn or the Labour party, which is, whatever the rhetoric or intentions of its more radical members, a capitalist party. A genuinely ‘new kind of politics’ can only come about through the self-organization of ordinary people working to resist – and perhaps one day overcome – capitalism.