Monday, January 15, 2007

"Children of Men"


The movie "Children of Men" is many things. It is well acted. It is visually powerful. It is well written. It is emotionally difficult to watch in parts. It may not, as this article claims, be "the best movie of the year -- possibly the decade," but it is quite good. But I'm not sure, even though many would disagree with me, that it qualifies for the label "political movie."

"Children of Men" is a big-budget, sci-fi, near-future dystopia directed by Alfonso CuarĂ³n. It is set in England in 2027. The premise is that 18 years before the movie, the human race inexplicably ceased being able to reproduce. Neither cause nor cure has been found. This has caused a great deal of social upheavel, as one might imagine -- the viewer is given the impression of some sort of generalized chaos outside of the United Kingdom, and a fairly openly fascist state which has closed its borders and labels all non-Britishers as "refugees" within. These refugees are routinely rounded up and stuck in camps. It is not made explicitly clear what happens to them then, though it is not unusual for the characters to pass by without remark fields with piles of still-smoking bodies as they drive through the green English countryside.

The main character, "Theo", is played by Clive Owen. Many years ago he was a political activist and married to "Julian", Julianne Moore's character. Their young child died in a flu epidemic shortly thereafter, splitting them up and pushing him into cynicism and alcoholism and her further into the movement. Julian has become the head of an underground group that struggles for the rights of refugees. It appears to be a small, secretive organization of both English people and refugees, with many contacts among refugees but without a mass base. This group abducts Theo in order to ask him to get illicit transit papers for a woman from his cousin, who is a government minister. He does so (apparently both for the money and for another shot at the long-estranged Julian) but only manages to get papers that would let both him and this woman travel together. He meets up with the guerillas again. They are beginning their journey, there is an ambush, and Julian is killed. The rest of them retreat to a rural safehouse. Theo discovers that the refugee woman they wish to transport, "Kee" (played by Claire-Hope Ashitey), is miraculously pregnant. They want to get her to the coast for a rendez-vous with a ship belonging to a very secret organization of scientists and "wise men" called The Human Project who are working in secret on the infertility problem.

Quite quickly, Theo figures out that it was Julian's lieutenants in the guerilla group that arranged the ambush and her murder so they could take over the group, divert Kee and her baby from the Human Project, and use the baby -- remember, the first on earth in nearly two decades -- as a banner to ignite armed struggle by the refugees. Theo, Kee (who trusts Theo implicitly because Julian told her to), and another woman who is a member of the anti-government group and was a midwife back when women still had babies contrive to break their way into a refugee camp in order to get to the point on the coast where they are to meet the ship. An armed uprising begins, which they somehow navigate, and the ship shows up to pick up Kee and her newborn just as Theo dies.

Before I get into the weightier stuff, a number of the minor characters deserve mention. The midwife, played by Pam Ferris, is an amusing mix of grim determination and a particularly English brand of new age flakiness, with a mix of appropriated pseudo-Hindu patter and a belief in UFOs. Michael Caine plays "Jasper", an eccentric grower of high-quality weed and also an old friend of Theo. Both hilarious and chilling is Peter Mullan's "Syd", a caricature of the kind of working-class, psychotic, Scottish "wee hardman" who has been filling out the lower ranks of English colonial armies for generations.

The Present, The Future, and Urban Warfare

There are a number of things about this film that are worth talking about. The first is how depressing it is. One of the things I find hardest about watching near-future dystopias like this, even though I generally like them, is that I find them all too plausible. Sure, the no-babies premise in this one is unlikely, and the regime in V for Vendetta was a trifle cartoonish, but the general trend that they extrapolate in terms of social organization not only seems possible, but in my darker moods seems likely.

Red Jenny wrote an interesting post on the movie, and said that in viewing such movies she is "struck by how much they reflect the past and even the present." I think that is right on the money. She comments in particular on the scenes of urban warfare in the refugee camp later in the movie, which could be straight out of Palestine or Iraq. Personally, since the style of the uniforms and equipment were very much British Army, I kept flashing back visually to evening news scenes of the Northern Ireland of yesteryear, but I also couldn't help thinking of the pending massacre among the two and a half million residents of Sadr City, Baghdad (being openly planned by the U.S. state and tacitly endorsed by the Canadian state). Red Jenny opines that, "Perhaps these movies allow us privileged folk who live in relative peace and prosperity to begin to visualize how terrible war and related atrocities actually are. These films succeed in communicating with wide audiences, and reach us a gut level in a way that newspaper articles often don't." I hope so. I know that these scenes wrenched me out of my suspension of disbelief in very visceral ways, accompanied by thoughts like, "This is happening somewhere right now and my government is supporting it!" But still I worry about the highly trained capacity among privileged North Americans to be blase about cinematic violence and to avoid connecting it with reality at all, let alone our complicity in that reality.

Perhaps another way of connecting the speculative dystopia of "Children of Men" to past and present is in how it depicts space. Back in the middle of the twentieth century, anti-colonial revolutionary Frantz Fanon wrote,

The colonial world is a compartmentalized world...The colonialized world is a world divided in two. The dividing line, the border, is represented by the barracks and the police station... In capitalist countries a multitude of sermonizers, counselors, and 'confusion-mongers' intervene between the exploited and the authorities. In colonial regions, however, the proximity and frequent, direct intervention by the police and the military ensure the colonized are kept under close scrutiny, contained by rifle butts and napalm... The 'native' sector is not complementary to the European sector. The two confront each other, but not in the service of a higher unity.

He could be writing about Baghdad today, and a few other places, though in the intervening five decades some details of the spatialization of power have changed in much of the world even if the underlying relations are much the same. Still, physical division of spaces with very different physical realities and very different relationships to power are the rule, and those divisions are currently getting steeper and sharper. The world is still "compartmentalized" and "divided" in this sense despite formal decolonization in much of it, and "sermonizers" and "rifle butts" are still allotted accordingly -- within many cities, across regions, between countries, or even according to the same indigenous/settler divides Fanon writes about in still-colonized countries like Canada.

In "Children of Men", the demarcations of kinds of space are very sharp -- sharper than within most places in rich countries today, but on a credible extension of current trend lines. Theo exists in "normal person" space, which is bleak and depressing, full of propaganda and evidence of police power, but still relatively functional. It takes him past another kind of space all the time, the space of refugees -- cages, cops with vicious dogs and assault weapons, sorrow and violence. On his trip to see his governmental cousin, a limousine takes him through an area for the elite of the elite, where all is golden and musical and the refugees and the proles are safely out of sight, as are the fences and soldiers and artillery that keep them out of sight. Really, the lines are simlilar in character to lines that exist today; they just stand out for us in the film because the locations of the lines are different, and they are drawn a bit more clearly for us.

Using Racialization/Racism For Narrative Effect

A second thing that did not clobber me over the head quite the same way the scenes of urban warfare did, but that became more and more clear the more I thought about the film, was the ways in which the studio's choices around use of racialized actors and other markers of racialization seem to purposefully invoke (and therefore reinforce) racist narratives common to the culture. (By the way, I often find it easy to misjudge the significance of this kind of stuff. I mean that not in a right-wing or liberal, "Aww, it's just a movie" kind of way, but as an acknowledgment that the "racial illiteracy on the part of white people [that] is part of the hegemonic power of whiteness" not only helps us keep from seeing stuff, it also keeps us from easily developing a sense of how much energy and outrage various manifestations of current white supremacist social relations in the realm of popular culture really deserve. Sometimes we say the quiet part loud and the loud part quiet. So comments, as always and about everything, are welcome.)

I can think of three examples.

Example #1: I'm least sure of this example. Kee, the pregnant refugee, is the only Black woman, in fact the only woman of colour at all, to have a speaking part in the film. Though it also invokes a quite reasonable nod to Africa as the original cradle of human life, the fact that the only woman on the planet capable of bearing a child is an impovrished African refugee and she also happens to be the only Black woman allowed to speak in the film also risks triggering narratives about Black women and sexuality and reproduction, a la the hateful "welfare queen" ideology.

Example #2: Julian, the white woman who is initially the leader of the anti-government group, has ended bombings as a tactic by the group (or she claims to have, anyway), and is pursuing a humane, idealistic approach with Kee in trying to get her to The Human Project. The scheme to kill Julian originates with two of her lieutenants (one, "Luke", played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, whom I first encountered and very much liked as "The Operative" in "Serenity"), the only two racialized men in the film with speaking parts. They are obsessed with using the baby to trigger an armed uprising by refugees which they can then, with the legimtiacy given them as guardians of this miraculous baby, hegemonize. So the only men of colour in the film are shown as obsessed with creating violence, and as committed to using a woman of colour to accomplish it, in contrast to the benign white woman who preceded them and who only had the woman of colour's best interests at heart, and the white male main character who also only has the woman of colour's best interests at heart. Lots of colonial stuff here. The minion that actually kills Julian for them is a white youth, but interestingly enough he is also symbolically racialized, because he wears his long, thick hair in dreads.

Example #3: As one might imagine, there are lots of shots of refugees -- refugees in cages, refugees in transport buses, refugees in slum-like dwellings, refugees in camps. When the refugees are presented in ways obviously intended to humanize them, they tend to be presented in appearance and imagery as Eastern Europeans. When the refugees are presented in ways that are intend to show anger and violence or potential violence, the appearance and imagery tend to be Arab or Muslim.

Political or Not?

The final thing I want to talk about is my impression that this, despite all appearances, is not a political movie.

Whether or not you agree with that statement has everything to do with how you understand the adjective "political" in that sentence. The most common understanding would probably take it to mean a movie in which context and conflict are explicitly linked to the social, to the collective, especially if one element of that context and conflict involves state relations. By this measure, "Children of Men" is most definitely a political movie. You might also consider it political is something about it, even just imagery rather than explicity narrative, pushes viewer contemplation of issues of current political importance. I could see that.

However, another definition is possible. I would argue that a movie is made political not by its use of spheres of life that we might label the social, the collective, or the political in defining its context and conflict, but rather by its endorsement of the idea of deliberate, collective intervention into those spheres of life in order to make things better. In other words, it does not just plunder "the political" for imagery, but it presents a story which shows "the political" as a legitimate and even advisable direction for the exertion of human agency. This is not some sort of cultural Stalinism: I am not insisting that it must show one type of struggle, one model of change, one core axis of conflict. The space left open is very broad. I ask only for a story that endorses, even subtely or in conflicted ways, the idea of actual political doing (broadly understood). By this definition, "Children of Men" is, I would say, decidedly anti-political.

I have several reasons for saying this. First of all, the viewpoint character, Theo, has renounced political engagement. At one point he even says something to the effect that way back then, when he was active and with Julian, it was Julian that was the real activist and not him. Now, I read that line as being more about providing characterization of the path their relationship took after that, and about the kind of latter-day rewriting of self that we all engage in. But the fact is, however much the man whose gaze defines our entry into this world hates the current state of social relations, he is profoundly alienated from the idea that there is any point in trying to do anything about it. This is not to judge the character -- cynicism and passivity in his situation would be eminently understandable -- but it is an accurate description, and it shapes how we are shown things.

A second crucial element is the way that those who do engage in struggle are portrayed. No effort is made to make the choices by the underground anti-government group understandable to the audience. Admittedly, given that detailed exposition tends to kill a feature film and that most North Americans know next to nothing about the basics of social change, this is a tall order. However, whatever the reasons, the filmmakers are able to get away with showing radical social change activities as more or less unmoored from processes of rational decision-making as ordinary people would understand them.

For one thing, the only social change activities which are shown or even named are violent ones. Early in the movie, a cafe is blown up, and Theo is almost caught in it. When Theo is abducted by Julian's people the next day, he confronts his ex-wife about it. Her response is not, "What on earth could we possible gain by blowing up a coffee shop? We hit military targets" or something like that, but rather, "We don't do that any more," implying that these irrational activists once did delight in blowing up ordinary English people to further their cause of refugee rights. Her claim that they don't do it any more, which seems at least somewhat credible given events later in the film, does not counterpose any concrete action to that which they no longer do -- a vague "talking to the people" is all she offers, and that seems to be enough for Theo. Later in the movie when the uprising in the refugee camp has begun, the only markers of resistance to oppression are gun battles or preambles to gun battles. The imagery of the very powerful scenes of urban warfare draw heavily from images of the Palestinian intefada in the Western consciousness, but the only aspects of resistance they show are the bloody ones than Western media makes familiar to us rather than the complex and multifaceted resistance that has actually occurred. Not only is it a tremendous failure of imagination on the part of the filmmakers to show bombs and gun fights as the only possible answers to "What is to be done?", but it is profoundly unreaslistic -- in various times and places those tactics are taken up, for better or worse, but they are almost inevitably integrated into a spectrum of far less spectacular activities which from the basis of the resistance of which the violent stuff is the most visible, and not necessarily the most effective, face. Resistance to oppression, even the harsh, directly oppression shown in the film, is an everyday activity, but the way it is portrayed keeps it safely disconnected from the everyday, and associates it only with one of its possible components -- of course the component most likely to alienate most viewers from resistance as an actual activity.

(An aside: I should add that I do find something positive in the fact that the filmmakers resist the immense cultural pressure to give the male lead even a single scene of venting his rage at some oppressor or enemy or "bad guy" by picking up a machine gun and going all Rambo, or a pair of knives and going all V (for Vendetta, not the UFO mini-series from the '80s). Not that I'm saying rage in the face of oppression is at all a problem. Nor am I sitting on my privileged behind and passing judgments out of context about how any particular person should resist. But it is kind of nice to see a Hollywood hero, especially one shown as socialized into masculinity, responding to a situation of violent conflict in some other mode than righteous and horrible violence. It's even kind of nurturing, albeit with problematic "save the (racialized) damsel" overtones.)

The final anti-political element to the story is the goal that gets constructed as "good": getting Kee and her baby to The Human Project. Judging this course of action in the context of the options presented in the story, it is an eminently sensible choice. However skewed its portrayal of struggle in general, intra-group violence a la Julian's death at the hands of her lieutenants and a masculinist fetishization of open armed struggle as the One True Way regardless of circumstance are not, regrettably, implausible, and responding to those with an attempt to escape and get what may be the only hope for human survival to safety seem like a good way to go. However, by constructing the story in this way, a better tomorrow is put in the hands of experts, sages, and "wise men" who are beyond the fray. Salvation will come from outside. Efforts to create a better future ourselves result only in bloodshed, and are shown as being driven hardest (the occasional benevolent white woman notwithstanding) by violence-prone racialized men.

Despite all of my critical words, I like the film. I'm very glad I went to see it, as difficult as parts of it were to watch. And, as Red Jenny suggests, perhaps there was political value for me in those excruciating moments in which the urban warfare scenes pierced a little more deeply than usual my first world comfort that persists despite knowing intellectually that such things go on "over there" all the time. But I'm still not sure it is a political story.



J. David Zacko-Smith said...

WOW! Now THIS is a movie review - what detail, what analysis, what panache! ;-)

Scott said...



Admittedly, from time to time I get a bit carried away... :)