07 February 2007

Violence as a commodity

Violence is a deeply-rooted problem in our society. We need solutions to address this problem and, if not wipe it out altogether (which is a noble thought, indeed), at least, mitigate it… so as to protect our loved ones from harm. In the process, if we are able to engender peace and harmony for the community at large, so much the better.

To this effect, I've always believed that films, as a medium, can be used effectively to communicate messages of peace and harmony as they have fantastic powers of influence over us. Yet, when I recall the films I've seen in my life, I'm amazed to count the number of films which contain violence, sometimes as their central idea, providing thrills and entertainment to millions of people around the world. Sadly, I've enjoyed watching many such films… and have accepted violence as a commodity in a package not much different from comedy or romance.

My defence, like everyone else's, of course, is that films provide harmless entertainment. How much damage can films cause in our lives! There's no real proof that violence in films leads to violence in society! After all, it's a few hours of fun and entertainment in the form of a visual narrative, with actors playing the parts. It's a make-believe world. No-one in his or her right mind would take films so seriously.

Then I wondered if I would take the learning and the messages from films like 'Gandhi' or 'To Kill A Mocking Bird' seriously. I wondered if I would consider these films as few hours of entertainment and forget them, if not immediately, then soon after having watched them. It occurred to me then that these films have already had a far-reaching effect in my life… just as they have had, or would have, meanings for millions of people across the world.

In a September 2001 article in The Christian Science Monitor titled, 'Do violent films shape or reflect?' (based on which I've written this post), film critic David Sterritt compared two Hollywood films which I, too, had seen around the same time: 'Three Kings' and 'Rules of Engagement'. On reading this article and recalling the two films, I realised how important it is to separate films with positive messages from the ones carrying messages which are detrimental to our social, cultural and spiritual well-being.

For instance, 'Three Kings' (starring George Clooney, Mark Walberg and Ice Cube) is the story of a trio of cynical American soldiers in the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War (the 1991 US-Iraq war). It's an anti-war film that deals with various issues of war, greed, corruption, hypocrisy, governmental power play, the use of media for propaganda, among many others. The film opens up our minds to the evils of war… even when it's over.

'Rules of Engagement' (starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L Jackson) is a tale of an American army officer charged with the wrongful deaths of Yemeni protestors at a rally while saving the US Ambassador in Yemen. The film portrays Arabs as villains - evil terrorists carrying deadly weapons under their robes, intent on killing White Americans as capitalists. Now, if this wasn't a biased representation of Arabs, bordering on racism, then I don't know what the film was about?

What was worse, 'Rules of Engagement' promoted anti-Arab feelings amongst Americans and others around the non-Arab world! Instead of resolving US-Arab conflicts, and promoting peace and harmony, 'Rules of Engagement' was actually escalating it.

I realised that films like 'Gandhi', 'To Kill A Mocking Bird' and 'Three Kings' were great because they discussed and presented complicated issues such as war, violence and racism in an even manner… not only to give us perspectives to these issues, but also to imbibe in us a sense of morality. And, in turn, give us the courage to face and challenge such issues whenever we encountered them in our lives.

I realised that these films were not just a few hours of entertainment, but, actually, potent carriers of social, cultural and political messages designed by thoughtful filmmakers. They did not package violence as a commodity for box-office profits, nor to satisfy the need for thrill within us. They reached out to us and touched our sensibilities.

[Citation: 26 September 2001 article 'Do violent films shape or reflect?' by David Sterritt in The Christian Science Monitor.]

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