Historical pictures are a challenge. Just ask Ben Affleck. Or Laure Michel and Eric Wastiaux, the makers of La bisexualite: Tout un art? that had its controversial North American premiere at Outfest in Los Angeles two years ago. There is always someone questioning the veracity of events depicted, suspicious of the filmmaker’s intent, or stunned by the casting choices (John Wayne as Genghis Khan, for example). Frankly, with rare exceptions, historical pictures deserve such treatment.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, the rare exception, portrays post 9-11 history with dispassionate neutrality, albeit from an exclusively American point of view. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is a reimagining of history purely for the sake of entertainment and self-righteous racial justice. J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible distills history through such a narrow perspective as to render the full scope of the disaster almost inconsequential and, even worse, by changing the real life Spaniards into white Brits and reducing the indigent brown citizens of southeast Asia to window decorations The Impossible should go down in the cannon of historical pictures as one that whitewashes history to the point of insult.
History as it happened: Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn Bigelow
The biggest surprise of Zero Dark Thirty is that the dogged pursuit of the courier who led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan was the work of a young, female CIA officer dedicating ten years of her life to no other case but this one. Everything else about the events that happened after 9-11 up to the capture and death of Osama bin Laden we have seen, read or heard. But how did those events happen is the story that Zero Dark Thirty tells.
In the now famous and hotly debated early scenes of Zero Dark Thirty showing “enhanced interrogation techniques” used on suspected al-Qaeda members, CIA officer Maya (Jessica Chastain) flinches and covers her eyes a couple of times. But she quickly moves on with a tenacity and efficiency of a trained investigator simply doing her job. Without a hint of emotion, she says to the detainee “You can help yourself by being truthful.” She might as well be personifying the fundamental essence of Zero Dark Thirty: to be truthful without emotion. And that is the biggest success of this film; to allow the audience to view the truth and feel whatever emotions we feel. Enhanced interrogation techniques, by any name, took place. It’s a fact. It’s on record. To accuse Zero Dark Thirty of glorifying or condoning torture is absolute rubbish.
Zero Dark Thirty is about as big an epic in its detail and scope as the other Oscar nominated historical picture, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. There is not a single scene that is superfluous to the plot. Every scene is meticulously staged and superbly executed. Even though we know what happens, the sense of dread and pulse pounding suspense this film evokes – particularly during the raid on bin Laden’s compound – is astonishing. This kind of mastery and command of the medium only happens with a great director and by not acknowledging Bigelow with a nomination, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made a grave error.
The final image of Zero Dark Thirty shows Maya aboard a military C-130, specially commissioned to get her out of Afghanistan, and she begins to cry. Why she’s crying is open to interpretation. Is it relief, fatigue, guilt, sorrow, loneliness? The pilot asks her, “Where do you want to go?” Maya does not answer. Perhaps because it’s a question many of us ask ourselves: where do we want to go from here?
White Men’s Fantasy about Black Slaves: Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino
In the polarized opinions about Quentin Tarantino, I belong to the camp that believes his films are self-indulgent, juvenile, and far from the bold critiques of racism and sexism that his fans feel his films are purportedly about. Still, I honor Tarantino’s irreverence and salute him for making exactly the kind of films he wants to make. It’s a tribute to a filmmaker when his films provoke, disturb, and viscerally engage the audience. In that regard he is similar to Oscar nominee Michael Haneke whose body of work includes many controversial films but they are all films he made on his own terms.
What is fundamentally wrong about Django Unchained is that it is a white male fantasy of black power through an imagined revolt of a black slave. That black men had the agency to revolt in this way is a narrative proposed to recuse ourselves from the culpability of slavery. As Salamishah Tillet writes, “More often than not, slavery is the historical backdrop against which filmmakers and audiences can gauge their own racial problems or progress.” (Read Dr. Tillet’s excellent “Opinion: Quentin Tarantino creates an exceptional slave”, December 25, 2012, CNN In America.) Indeed Django (Jamie Foxx) is only able to revolt after he has been rescued by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), who also teaches him how to fire handguns, thus perpetuating the myth that the end to slavery was facilitated by kind white men who didn’t “like this slavery bit”, as Dr. Schultz casually claims when he meets Django. Even Dr. Schultz’s cultured manner, etiquette, and diction (that Waltz plays with exaggerated dandyness) are drawn as a sharp contrast to Django’s limited literacy perhaps to underscore our modern misconception that black men are all gut instinct and aggression compared to the reasoned approach that white men might take.
But is Django Unchained entertaining? Check. Are all the actors stellar in their roles? Check. Does it have the usual Tarantino flourishes like humorous detours and a smartly calibrated soundtrack? Check. Do heads explode and litres of blood shed? Check. The only thing missing is a gladiator figure – white, of course – calling out, “Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here? Are you not entertained?”
History Whitewashed: The Impossible by Juan Antonio Bayona
The real life family at the center of The Impossible wholeheartedly supports this film. By all accounts, they have been closely involved in the filmmaking process providing crucial details to the actors and to director Bayona. The real life family is from Spain. In the film, they are changed to a British family (played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as the parents of three young boys) by the name Bennett instead of Belon. This decision was presumably to attract bankable stars and market the movie through Hollywood so that it reaches as wide an audience as possible.
One is still left to wonder: a wide audience for what? An event in recent history that the whole world watched in horror? An event in which more than 230,000 died, the only disaster to result in this many casualties in a single day. An event that caused mass hysteria among people living in coastal regions. An event from which hundreds of thousands of people in south/southeast Asia are still recovering. An event to which people from around the world contributed a reported $7 billion in aid. Does anyone believe that we still need a wider audience to watch a movie about this event?
More troubling is the fact that The Impossible focuses on a beach-front resort occupied by mostly white tourists, shows hospitals crowded by mostly white patients being cared for by Thai citizens who, curiously, display no signs of any emotional trauma they themselves might be suffering due to this enormous tragedy that hit their homes and families.
The Impossible takes great pains to not be exploitative. It is also superb in all technical categories, has an undeniable emotional punch, and gut wrenching performances by Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Holland who plays the oldest son Lucas. Still, these factors ought not to be an excuse for us to blithely ignore the facts. And the facts are: More than 230,000 people died from the tsunami and an additional 150,000 died from infectious diseases in the days following. Around 500,000 people were injured. The estimate for dead or injured tourists varies from 5000 to 8000, that’s less than 1% of total deaths and injuries.
Every death from this disaster is a tragedy, no doubt. But the facts point to the greatest impact on south/southeast Asians, a third of whom were children and 1.5 million additional children have been wounded, displaced or lost homes. Just as no single movie about slavery has been made by an African-American, the fact remains that no movie about this tsunami has been made by a south/southeast Asian from the countries torn apart by this disaster. Bayona may have very well wanted to tell this story from the point of view of one family. But for millions of families this continues to be a story too horrific to tell, via film or otherwise. Perhaps we should honor and respect that.