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Stories that Ally vs Stories that Appropriate: a Yardstick [The Throwback]

In this February 2010 piece, Thea Lim examines how “Avatar” exemplifies a disturbing type of faux-progressive filmmaking.

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

How do you know when a story is allying, versus appropriating?

In other words, if someone of privilege writes a story about the political oppression of a group they do not belong to, what is the difference between:

a) a story that brings marginalised voices to a wider platform and advocates for their rights, versus
b) a story that simply appropriates a political conflict for a writer’s own end, taking advantage of the fact that communities who experience marginalisation are rarely ever allowed to speak for themselves?

Apart from the fact that a story that appropriates usually winds up grossly misrepresenting a marginalised group, this is my yardstick for telling friends from foes:  one of the central purposes of a story that acts as ally, is to use one’s own privilege to tell another’s story, in the hopes of ameliorating the others’ situation.  Meanwhile, a story that appropriates just wants to spin a good yarn, get some adulation, and uses another’s story in order to do so.  An ally story is giving, an appropriating story is taking.

Quit jabbering Thea, you may say.  It’s easy to tell the difference between stories that appropriate, and stories that ally! We don’t need a yardstick!

Not true.  At least within mainstream opinion, it is startling and depressing how many stories that appropriate get passed off as political progressive, as allies.  Like Not Without My Daughter.  Or the documentary Born into Brothels, which purported to tell the story of the children of sex workers in Calcutta, but really just seemed more interested in showcasing the magnanimity of the American photographer who worked with the children.* Or another documentary, Paris is Burning, about the black trans/gay vogueing community of New York City, which brought immense praise on the white outsider director, but painted the community as tragic and hopeless, while bringing little benefit to them. I’m sure you can think of loads more films like this.

Including…(drumroll)…Avatar. Which I finally saw last week, in all its headsplitting 3D glory. And it fulfilled all the negative press I had read over countless months, from anti-racist and anti-ableist camps among many others. But seeing how my esteemed peers did a lot of the deconstructing work for me, I was left to ponder another question. If Cameron is as leftist as claimed, why didn’t he tell the story of an actual conflict between big business (or colonialists) and an indigenous group? Why use blue allegory?

Hollywood films have a generally untapped power to sway how people think about political events. Packaging a political story within the rhetoric of emotion (and also I guess, within face-blasting special effects) is often the best way to get people to swallow arguments they would otherwise reject.  Hence a movie that – at least at face value – is very anti-war, anti-military and anti-capitalist is demolishing box office records with hardly a peep from conservative viewers.

Can you imagine the impact that a movie like Avatar could have, if Cameron had used all the CGI to recreate (for example) any area of the Americas the way it looked before first contact with the Europeans, and instead told the real story of an indigenous group struggling to protect themselves from genocide?  Imagine the kind of support it could create for indigenous rights.

So why not go all the way Cameron, and tell a true story, instead of inventing a weird, azure copy of a familiar history?

Well, because Avatar ain’t allying. It’s appropriating. Along with the fact that Cameron’s version of indigenous people is quite insulting (they are monochromatically spiritual but stupid, and would die without a cunning but smart “civilised man” to save them) the answers to my question make it clear that Avatar is an appropriator, not an ally.

And responses to this question include but are not limited to:

1) Because making a movie about a real indigenous group would require work and resources that Cameron preferred to devote to special effects.

2) Because it’s one thing to do as Avatar does and make an argument that has already gained mainstream popularity – i.e. the war in Iraq is bad, our rate of consumption is untenable, people should be concerned about the environment** – it’s another to go way out on a limb and make an argument that is considered childish leftist faffing: i.e. that some meaningful political action should be taken to improve the conditions under which many indigenous people live, conditions that are a direct result of colonisation.

I am hard pressed to find a card-carrying liberal who will say “The native genocide on which our country is based is an atrocity that we all continue to be benefit from,” without hedging statements like “but hey, what are we going to do, move back to England?”  That kind of zero-sum reasoning distracts away from the fact that many First Nations people in Canada, my own country, live under third world conditions in a first world country,*** meaning (among many other things) poor access to clean water and safe housing, with suicide rates 2 times and infant mortality rate that is 1.5 times the rest of the country.  Throw in the fact that communities are still reeling from the residential school system which only came to an end around 1996, and the horrifying numbers of indigenous women that go missing or are murdered yearly, while the justice system does very little about it.

Surely there is a political option to remedy this beyond shameful situation, between ignoring it and moving back to England.  (Speaking of political options of even the most lipservicey variety: in 2007 when the UN tried to pass the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People the US and Canada were among only four countries to refuse to sign.)

While Cameron is willing to dabble in native politics, he’s not willing to commit.

3) Because you might have to get permission from the native group you were representing to tell their story, if you wanted to do it in a way that still allowed you to look “progressive”.  You might even have to let them get involved in the filmmaking, God forbid! And this would mean that…

4) Because you wouldn’t be able to manipulate the story for your own purposes.   Though we should note that representing real life indigenous people and doing research into their plight did not stop Mel Gibson from grotesquely skewing the history of the Mayans in Apocalypto.

5) And most of all, because writing about real life indigenous people would prevent the kind of feel-good, Disneyfied ending that Cameron wanted for Avatar. While four hundred years later, First Nations people in the Americas continue to survive and resist the ongoing erosion of their cultures, it is a massive understatement to say that things did not  turn out for them the way they did for the Na’vi.

In other words, if Cameron had based Avatar on real people rather than blue ones, he would not have been able to use that story for his own purposes.  Again, for his own purposes.

While Avatar has more subtext than it knows what to do with, its biggest facade is that it is a political movie.  It most definitely is not, because it has zero interest in mobilising political action.  Its storyline is much too farfetched to be giving any kind of clear instruction on what the average viewer can do to stop environmental degradation, the war in Iraq or work for native rights.

It is a movie that hijacks the ongoing struggles of real people with far less privilege than Cameron, in order to hook as many audiences as possible.  But how is a story of native struggle an easy sell to worldwide audiences, you ask?  The tale of swarthy white man saving unenlightened savages is such an old cultural meme that it quickly hooks our brains.  That’s why Avatar has drawn countless comparisons (and multiple accusations of plagiarism): it’s a common story for our culture, a story we can’t get past because those of us who are settlers cannot reconcile ourselves to the horror of our history.  But don’t be fooled; that doesn’t mean Cameron is interested in that history.  He’s just capitalising on the story’s draw.

This is what theft is, in intellectual or artistic terms – rather than get someone’s permission to tell their story, tell a corrupted version of their story and then pass it off as original genius. Cue accolades.

In recent weeks we’ve heard stories of how indigenous people have begun using Avatar to talk about their own struggles.   Most famously, indigenous Bolivian president Evo Morales has shown unreserved praise for the film.  This article from Survival, an international organisation devoted to advocacy for tribal peoples, talks about how multiple Indigenous groups are trying to make clear the parallels between their own histories, and the fictional Na’vi:

A Penan man from Sarawak, in the Malaysian part of Borneo, told Survival, ‘The Penan people cannot live without the rainforest. The forest looks after us, and we look after it. We understand the plants and the animals because we have lived here for many, many years, since the time of our ancestors.

‘The Na’vi people in ‘Avatar’ cry because their forest is destroyed. It’s the same with the Penan. Logging companies are chopping down our big trees and polluting our rivers, and the animals we hunt are dying.’

The photo at the top of this article is from a protest by Palestinians against an Israeli separation barrier, where Palestinians dressed up as Na’vi to get their point across.

It just goes to show that when resistance is a way of life, you make the most of imperfect advocacy, of stories that are only pretending to be your ally.

Sympathy or even empathy that is not coupled with power-sharing is meaningless.  Any story that purports to show solidarity or uplift marginalised groups, but is not willing to let us tell our own stories in our own way, is not a friend.

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Some notes:

* The reason why I say this is because I was troubled by the lack of context the film gave for the children’s situation. Rather than looking at the poverty and pressure their parents were under, it seemed to demonise the parents for not wanting their children to get an education, without looking at the reason’s for that behaviour.  It was willing to show the cute and loveable children, but their parents were apparently not photogenic enough for the camera.

After writing this paragraph I looked up the film on Wikipedia, and found more depressing news:

However, Partha Banerjee, who worked on the film as an interpreter, has disputed the claim that the children’s lives have been improved. In a February 2005 letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he says that many of them ended up in worse circumstances than they had been in before their involvement in photography classes. Critics argued that the lives and family circumstances of these children were too complex to be revolutionized by educating one family member in photography, or even by sending them to boarding school.

**I’m not saying that all these precepts are beliefs everyone holds.  Lord knows there are countless people who continue to support the war and believe global warming is either a myth or a natural occurence that has nothing to do with how humans use resources.  However the cultural trend right now is that many more people oppose the war than when it first began, and that people should care about the environment; even if only in the most silly ways, like Walmart’s Sustainability Goals or buying a hybrid H3.  There is no cultural trend to support native land rights.

***We usually use the term “global south” at Racialicious in favour of “third world” – I used “third world” because it is the term that First Nations people themselves use to describe conditions on reserves.

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Photo courtesy of the Huffington Post.