Jun 172008

The film fails because it portrays Muslims as being one of two: evil and violent or poor and helpless. There is no third category. I look around the movie hall again. According to Hollywood, I guess nobody here exists

There’s something twisted about watching a movie, in your country, in which your countrymen are the villains, and you watch yourself cheer as they go down.

“The ganja guy is Pakistani”, explained my seven-year-old to me in the manner that little kids feel compelled to explain the plots of movies to their parents. “He’s the bad guy”. I took a deep breath. This was going to be interesting.

Iron Man, the new superhero in town, was not out fighting evil in the form of obscure villains. There was going to be no Sandman, no Joker, no Riddler and no Green Goblin. The world was ready for a different villain. And it was us.

Perhaps I was more taken aback by the Hollywood rendition of this 1960s Marvel comic-book than others because growing up, sandwiched between two brothers, I actually read it. In his original incarnation, Iron Man fought evil, like he does today, but back then evil had a red face: Communism.

Without a doubt, Iron Man was created as a vehicle for fighting Cold War themes at a time when children read more than they watched. It was the best way to indoctrinate an entire generation in favour of a war you were fighting. It was pure political propaganda — a superhero that condoned the arms race as he supported the role of American technology in the fight against Communism — what better way to win your people onto your side?

Over the years, as the threat of Communism subsided, the Cold War themes in the Iron Man comics were replaced by contemporary concerns, such as corporate crime. However, as we all know, internal threats are never quite as exciting (or lucrative) as external threats, and so Marvel, like Washington DC, created a new green goblin — the evil Muslim.

“In kuton pay nazar rakho!”, we hear the terrorists say to each other in the beginning after capturing Tony Stark, a US weapons developer who is proud to be “ensuring freedom, protecting America and her interests around the globe”. I look around the movie hall. It is full of young, educated Pakistanis with titillated expressions. How cool, they seem to be thinking. We finally made it to Hollywood. And that we have.

Even though the film begins in Afghanistan, the first burly terrorist we see speaks Urdu. In fact the head terrorist, a rabid looking man sporting a black and white keffiyeh, is a Pakistani. In one scene, he lectures bitterly about how “Gengiz Khan once ruled from the Pacific to the Ukraine. His empire was four times the size of the Roman empire. But today whoever has the latest weapons rules these lands.”

Angry, violent and power-hungry, he is presented as a one-dimensional character obsessed with grabbing as many American weapons as he can.

Despite its obvious stereotyping, the film makes a few attempts at fairness. In one scene, it exposes the under-handed dealings between American weapons manufacturers and the terrorists. In another scene it tries to draw a distinction between “good” Muslims and “bad” ones.

In fact, Iron Man even saves a villager from being killed by a terrorist. But at the end of the day, the film fails because it portrays Muslims as being one of two: evil and violent or poor and helpless. There is no third category. I look around the movie hall again. According to Hollywood, I guess nobody here exists.

I think of all the young people here, including my seven-year-old son, cheering for the US military as it pounds a country it has occupied illegally while they watch their own countrymen being demonised and painted as the villains. How will this affect their view of themselves, of their country, of their place in the world? Are they going to be proud of being Pakistani the next time they travel?

I am reminded of a discussion between two very learned men about Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi’s bestselling novel based on her experiences as a teacher in Iran. One of them felt it was an accurate portrayal of life in Iran during the Revolution. The other — interestingly, a renowned American academic — felt that even though it was based on a true story, it had been promoted in the West by an American group as part of its anti-Iran propaganda. He said they were preparing the American public for the eventual invasion of Iran.

I am still not sure whom I agree with. But I do know that countries are not invaded out of the blue. The invasions, some planned decades in advance, are preceded by lengthy media campaigns in which “the other” is dehumanised. After all, it is easier to attack those whom you have already declared sub-human.

Given this fact, what better way to dehumanise a people than to use the superhero de jour to beat up on them? After all, superheroes don’t beat up good guys.

Ayeda Naqvi is a journalist and can be reached at ayedanaqvi@yahoo.com

Source: Daily Times, 17/6/2008

 Posted by at 10:07 am

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