A Teachable Moment: Linking AVATAR To Gaza and Af-Pak

by James M. Wall

At a special morning New Year’s Eve screening in Hawaii, President Obama took his family to the mall to see the new 3-D movie, Avatar. Whose idea was that?

Did the leader of the Free World realize he was going to experience a “teachable moment”? Along with millions of movie-going families from Kansas to Qatar to Quebec, the Obama family found itself in Pandora, a lush jungle on a distant moon where the Na’vi tribes live in harmony with all living things.

The time is the future, 2154 to be precise, and the Na’vi live on land coveted by outsiders who have the military might to take their land from them.

Oh boy. Who among the Chicago nerds and political operatives who help the president organize his day, understood that Avatar could become a Teachable Moment for Obama, and the world.

The president likes Teachable Moments, when he recognizes them. Remember how effectively he turned all that negative publicity about his pastor into a serious discussion of race in America?

And remember how badly he missed another Teachable Moment when President Jimmy Carter came to his defense and described right-wing attacks on him as “racist”, which they were? Obama had his White House issue a statement disassociating the president from Carter’s defense.

Avatar now offers him the same opportunity. This is a Teachable Moment he should not reject. Maybe a special screening in the White House with some kind words for director James Cameron?

What viewers of Avatar discover is that the film immediately suggests the oppression of Native Americans by the US government, because the Na’vi and the land on which they live share a spiritual bond.  The film also evokes the Vietnam War because the setting of the military struggle is a lush jungle.

Gaza, Afghanistan and its neighbor Pakistan, are mountainous; there are no jungles. The dominant indigenous religion of Gaza and Af-Pak is Muslim, but like the Na’vi, the inhabitants live on land the outside invaders wish to control.

The demographics of the Avatar audience is young, the much coveted 12 to 35 age group.  It is science fiction, technologically advanced beyond anything movie-goers have seen before.  Younger viewers will see it over and over again, as they did with James Cameron’s earlier major film success, Titanic.

What an incredible Teaching Moment this film provides.  A built-in audience in which the way has been prepared to consider the foolishness of following the path to destruction which the military-industrial complex insists is necessary for human survival.

Any preacher who wants to reach her younger constituents should stop reading the latest copy of the Christian Century and race over to the mall to see Avatar.

That’s what Barack Obama did, perhaps unwittingly. Or was there a progressive staffer with access to the President, who had seen the film? God works in mysterious ways.  Why not through Avatar?

Of course, the President is already on the steady downward slope left to him by the Bush war-mongers.  He has to talk tough on terror to keep the Dick Cheney crowd at bay. Someone’s head will roll over that thankfully failed attempt to blow up a plane Christmas Day. That is to be expected.

But what if Obama starts hearing about the linkage of Avatar to Gaza, Afghanistan and its neighbor Pakistan?  He might start by reading this posting (OK, progressive White House staffer, get this posting to him!).

But rest assured, Obama is not going to hear about the linkage from the well-trained Main Stream Media (MSM) which is too lazy, indifferent, or maybe fearful of Cheney and his neo-con gang to see anything in Avatar except an exciting sci-fi love story in the jungle which ends in a video game-like battle in the jungle (and in the sky, where Pandora’s mountains are located).

A few tentative media voices have dared acknowledge the linkage between Avatar, Gaza, and Af-Pak.

Roger Ebert, who writes for Obama’s hometown newspaper, the Chicago Sun Times, correctly identified the linkage in James Cameron’s film.

[Avatar’s] story, set in the year 2154, involves a mission by [former] U. S. Armed Forces to an earth-sized moon in orbit around a massive star. This new world, Pandora, is a rich source of a mineral Earth desperately needs. Pandora represents not even a remote threat to Earth, but we nevertheless send in ex-military mercenaries to attack and conquer them.

Gung-ho warriors employ machine guns and pilot armored hover ships on bombing runs. You are free to find this an allegory about contemporary politics. Cameron obviously does.

Timesonline, of London points to a few additional clues:

With the use of such charged phrases as “shock and awe” and [Jake] Sully’s curt summation of the situation (“When people are sitting on stuff you want, you make them your enemy”) Cameron adds a thought-provoking political dimension to the story.

Richard Corliss, writing in Time magazine, alludes to colonization (leaving Gaza out, of course), in this summary of the film’s narrative.  Notice the caution he exercises as he references possible parallels.

Embrace the movie — surely the most vivid and convincing creation of a fantasy world ever seen in the history of moving pictures — as a total sensory, sensuous, sensual experience. . . . Living among these creatures is Pandora’s humanish tribe, the Na’vi, a lean, 10-ft.-tall, blue-striped people with yellow eyes, or what mankind might have been if it had evolved in harmony with, and not in opposition to, the Edenic environment that gave rise to its birth. . . .

This is not only the most elaborate public-service commercial for those of the tree-hugger persuasion; it’s also a call to save what we’ve got, environmentally, and leave indigenous people as they are — an argument applicable to the attempt of any nation (say, the US) to colonize another land (say, Iraq or Afghanistan).

Not surprisingly, however, a search of reviews written by other national and local media critics revealed that the majority of MSM critics focused on the advances in 3-D technology and the creatures and machines that clashed in the final major battle of the film. The political parallels to Gaza, Afghanistan and Pakistan were ignored.

No major critic I have read  cited a comment the American strike force commander makes when he refers to the Na’vis as “terrorists” because they resist invaders. He tells his men we must fight “terror” with “terror”.

The Commander’s cold-hearted enthusiasm in the battle recalls Robert Duvall’s classic line from Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Avatar stands on its own as a great piece of film-making. Cameron, who, in addition to Titanic,  made both of the Alien films that starred Sigourney Weaver, who is in Avatar as a tough talking scientist who wants to study the Na’vi, not kill them. (Her name in the film is Grace. Go figure.)

Cameron also possesses the artist’s ability to follow D.W. Griffith’s admonition that a director should “make people see” beyond the surface of a film.

Anyone with the slightest willingness to view our three current wars (Af-Pak directly, Gaza through our Israeli surrogates) will not miss Cameron’s vision.

Except for the above-cited, gingerly rendered signals, from Ebert, Corliss and Timesonline, most American critics ignored Avatar’s vision that indigenous populations deeply resent, and will resist all outside invaders.

You really have to experience this film to fully grasp what is at stake here. Avatar is a work of film art which is denuded of its potential power by film critics who wield considerable power over the viewing public.

Three excerpts from typical vision-deaf MSM reviews:

The New York Times’ Manohia Dargis:

If the story of a paradise found and potentially lost feels resonant, it’s because “Avatar” is as much about our Earth as the universe that Mr. Cameron has invented. But the movie’s truer meaning is in the audacity of its filmmaking.

Kenneth Turan, in the Los Angeles Times:

At one and the same time this film is a boys’ adventure tale with a major romantic element, an anti-imperialism movie that gets considerable mileage out of depicting invading armies, a neo-pagan, anti-technology film that touts the healing powers of nature but is up to its neck in the latest gizmos and gadgets.

Turan gives a passing nod to the film’s “anti-imperialism” but says nothing further on the subject.

Michael Phillip in the Chicago Tribune, another Obama hometown newspaper:

Though the Na’vi adversaries aren’t meant to be US. military personnel (they’re grunts in the employ of the mining operation), Avatar unmistakably pits the peace-loving blue-thins, who are fleet of foot and deft with bow and arrow, against Americans in uniform. Much of the battlefield imagery recalls the firefights and wrenching civilian casualties of Vietnam.

Phillip must have decided he could not totally ignore the obvious; hence, the “wrenching civilian casualities of Vietnam”.  After that passing reference, he quickly moves on with no further word on our current wars.

If Cameron’s vision could reach the general public through Teaching Moments, maybe, just maybe, that vision might register where it will do the most good, a public that knows these invasions are not really in our national best interests.

You can almost hear Cameron shouting “wake up, people”.  (If he wins an Academy Award as Best Director, he might startle America with an anti-colonial jeremiad.)

This Teachable Moment arrives on the scene as other hopeful developments unfold.

More than 1300 activists from 43 countries descended on Cairo, Egypt, during the New Year’s holidays. They were there to cross over Gaza’s southern border and march through the destruction left behind after Israel’s 23-day military invasion of Gaza one year ago.

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak refused to allow the international demonstrators to enter Gaza. Finally, under pressure, and with the assistance of Mubarak’s wife, a smaller delegation was allowed to enter Gaza.

None of the internationals were satisfied with this compromise. But those who joined the smaller delegation were realists, some were veterans of the American anti-war and civil rights demonstrations from the 60s, who operated from experience: Get what you can and keep fighting to get more.

The best thing to emerge from these Gaza demonstrations, in addition to letting Gazans know the world is watching (except in the US where the story received virtually no coverage from the MSM) was President Mubarak’s exposure as a US-Israeli tool, doing their bidding instead of supporting the Palestinians.

One possible explanation for Mubarak’s conduct: Egypt is second only to Israel in funds received annually from the US tax-payers.

Soon, 1300 demonstrators from 43 nations with access to blogs and the internet, will return to their home countries, more determined than ever to demand action against Israel’s occupation. The French delegation, for example, 300 of them, camped out in protest in front of their French embassy in Cairo, an action that drew considerable French media coverage.

The times, they are a’changing, and we have to believe Barack Obama knows this. Maybe he has adopted President Franklin Roosevelt’s strategy.

A group of activists came to FDR and urged him to take specific actions in support of the cause in which they deeply believed. His reply is the sign of a consummate politician: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

Avatar gives us a Teachable Moment. Obama has seen the movie. He also knows the right thing to do in Gaza, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is time to rally the public to make this consummate politician do what he knows, deep down, is the right thing to do.

The picture above is from 20th Century Fox.   Shown are Sam Worthington, as Jake Sully, a former US Marine in avatar form, and the Na’vi, Neytiri, voiced by Zoë Saldaña.

About wallwritings

James M. Wall is currently a Contributing Editor of The Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, Illinois. From 1972 through 1999, he was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine. Jim launched this new personal blog April 24, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years.
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13 Responses to A Teachable Moment: Linking AVATAR To Gaza and Af-Pak

  1. Cotton Fite says:

    Jim, Hope blooms eternal. One of these times, the teachable moment will indeed be experienced as such, and the tide will turn. I always count it a gift when it emerges from the artistic community, for they know better than most how to move us past our comfortable and well-worn defenses.

    Thanks, Cotton

  2. Pingback: A Teachable Moment: Linking AVATAR To Gaza and Af-Pak « Wallwritings | Afghanistan News

  3. jesse says:

    Another parallel: the mercenaries as Blackwater (now Xe).

  4. Spencer Bradford says:

    My family went to see Avatar a couple of weeks ago, and as soon as we walked out of the theater, I told my 13-year-old son, “That’s why we need to get out of Afghanistan!” Very teachable moment.

  5. Congratulations for making public what so many of us saw in Avatar. Let’s make this teachable moment count. Here’s how. A fantastic Sabeel Conference will be held in Seattle, Feburary 19-20, organized by a committee headed by Seattle activist Brenda Bentz. The Conference focus will be on America’s role in what has happened from the founding of modern Israel until today. What better follow up to Avatar than that. The Christiansons of CIA background will speak. There will be Jews, of conscience, on the program, people like Mark Braverman, Neve Gordon, and Jeff Halper. The Conference will also feature the parents of Rachel Corrie, Sabeel Director Naim Ateek and many more.

    This Sabeel Conference should become more than a local event. We should bring it to all of Seattle and far beyond. The timing is brilliant. It’s what Obama needs to get the message in Avatar to the powers that be, who can change our nation’s directions. http://www.fosna. org has the whole story. In Seattle February 19-20, we will have a chance to make change happen.

  6. Rich Meyer says:

    How sad that the film “Avatar” relies so heavily on redemptive violence for resolution of conflict — the good guys win through their superior violence.
    And how sad that the film is so morally simplistic — the line between good and evil runs cleanly between the communities (which of course is necessary to support the redemptive violence approach to resolving the conflict).
    All in all, a waste of an opportunity to portray a transformational/redemptive approach to conflict — a waste far greater than the waste of a teachable moment.

    Just the view from one member of Christian Peacemaker Teams with a decade of experience in the West Bank,
    Rich

  7. wallwritings says:

    Rich,

    We read the film differently. I did not find it morally “simplistic”. The good and the bad, from the standpoint of values, exists on both sides in the conflict. Ambivalence is at the core of all great art.

    Jim Wall

  8. Had you been at the theater in Des Moines where I saw Avatar, Rich, you would have doubled over with pain at the pre-show of ads for the US military. There were at least six in the 15 min. before the regular trailers. The ads and trailers were all much, much, much more violent than Avatar. I had never seen anything like it. We took seven Rwandan refugees (ages 5 to 15 and the Dad) to see Avatar, and I was really embarrassed by the violence in those ads. We live in a world of military might, so I am grateful to Cameron for not letting that aspect of our world win, this time around, anyway.

  9. Rick Wigton says:

    I agree with Rich that the film would have been better had the Na’vi done nonviolent resistance. I personally think that the film had a far too simplistic ending–i.e. the animals of the forest rising up to help the Na’vi chase out the humans.

    But on the plus side, the film did an awesome job of showing the plight of those who are facing powerful outside forces who want to take their land. It is a truly anti-imperialistic movie. Hopefully this film will wake people up to the fact that we are the warmongers in this world and will make them more sympathic to the plight of the Afghans, Iraqi’s, Palestinians, etc. On a personal note, I enjoyed working with you in Hebron in 2003.

  10. Betsy goes a little too far listing Mark Braverman and Jeff Halper as Jews of conscience. Mark says: “I love Israel … I think it’s a terrific place” in his recent video. Jeff remains a deeply committed Zionist who made Aliyah in 1973, i.e. became part of the Zionist project. Not only does he insist on retaining his mythical “Law of Return” freedom and remain there, in spite of requests he repudiate Zionism and move back to Hibbing, he ridicules those of us making the reasonable request. Indeed, their conscience needs improvement. Zionism and peace are incompatible.

  11. elisabeth southorn says:

    There are so many more teaching opportunities that if not mentioned I’m not sure its worth taking anyone to it. How about the male white “savior” appropriating a native body and instead of empowering the people and the next chosen leader of their community to find their own response the “savior” steals the girl and leads the pack as a blue, bird riding, gun wielding “rambo.” The movie was repulsive on far too many levels for me to recommend it – it needs some serious “teaching” after the fact!

  12. treyfe says:

    Elizabeth’s comments unfortunately do reflect some attitudes in our own peace movement (though I haven’t known anyone to acquire another body), but all of us do need to work on our savior complex when we are trying to be good allies!

  13. Tom Cook says:

    I plan on seeing the movie. From your and other comments I am somehow reminded of the theme in Lewis’ SciFi trilogy “Perelandra.”

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