That's me, on the red carpet at Wellington's hottest Oscar party - the Weta Digital party where hundreds of Weta staff celebrated their win for best Visual Effects for 'Avatar'. The dude next to me is not a VFX, he really did stand there all afternoon posing for photos with people like me. Good people, the Weta people. Good, hard-working people.
Spoiler alert: This post reveals significant plot points of the film 'Avatar'
Yesterday I watched the entire Academy Awards presentation.
First up, can I just say, there were enough war movies in that show to almost give me nasty flash backs. I understand that the United State of America is at war, therefore people want to watch war movies. But can I just speak for myself and say - I don't really want to watch war movies. Alright, thanks for hearing me out on that.
Apart from the award for best visual effects, which went to Weta Digital for 'Avatar', I had no stake at all in any of the awards. I was watching the ceremony with hundreds of Weta Digital staff and I wanted them all to be happy, so I was thrilled that they got the credit they deserved.
Other than that, I had no strong views. I had seen very few of the films nominated and I'm generally a little wary of the whole Hollywood scene.
But I have been thinking lately about the power of cinema as a medium for telling stories in today's world. I’ve always thought that telling stories is a most powerful way to communicate. So after watching 'Avatar', I wondered whether it had the power to inspire viewers to take action to address the very real, current issues alluded to so clearly in the film.
Despite not doing well at the Oscars, 'Avatar' has been a huge success at the box office and is on it's way to being one of the most widely viewed films in history. So, is it likely to inspire positive action for change?
With 'Avatar', James Cameron chose to tell one of the oldest stories on the planet, the story of a terrible threat to the survival of the very eco-system. In his telling of that story he did a great job of revealing much of what is going on in our own world today.
Scientists going undercover into a ‘hostile’ community and then being pressured to reveal their findings to the military has haunting echoes of psychiatrists, anthropologists and sociologists being sent into villages in Iraq and Afghanistan to gather information which is then also passed to the military for use as ‘intelligence’.
I know at least one civilian social scientist in Afghanistan who was killed under those very circumstances. As far as she was concerned she was doing anthropological research, as far as the local community was concerned she was gathering intelligence for the US military.
So ‘Avatar’ cuts close to the bone. I could have done without the stereotypical portrayal of the ex-military gun for hire. By portraying them as thugs, films like 'Avatar' underplay the intelligence and therefore the power of those men and women. But the parallels to the operations of Blackwater and other private ‘security’ contractors were clear.
The real-life relevance of the excavation for “Unobtainium” and the corporation's willingness to destroy Home tree and even the lives of those who lived within it don't need any explanation. James Cameron was laying the analogy on thick and fast.
But will it motivate people? Or will it simple depress people into hopeless apathy?
The answer to that question may lie in another aspect of the narrative: the myth of the single hero.
I’ve seen plenty of critics slate ‘Avatar’ for the use of the classic ‘Great White Saviour’ story line.
To summarise - the Nav’i, indigenous to Pandora, need an outsider (who just happens to be white and American) to rally them to action to save themselves.
It’s not only a tired cliché it’s also a dangerous one.
But it is one of our most beloved myths. Even when we get past the racism and accept the reality that the indigenous and non-white people of the world don’t need a white saviour, we still look for the one great hero to arise.
Think about Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. I don’t want to detract from the significant roles each of these men played as leaders in their respective liberation movements. They were charismatic and committed men who knew how to motivate action in others. But none of them was a singular hero who saved the day by conquering a mythical opponent.
In great mythic narratives, however, that is exactly what happens. I have no problem with that as a myth, it's an excellent allegory for the journey each of us must take to slay (or better, learn to ride) our own dragons and find our authentic path to service in the world.
But I do have a problem with it as a means to motivate ordinary folks like you and I to action.
As long as we take the myth literally and hope that a hero will arise from amongst our ranks (or, even more unlikely, will arrive from somewhere else) and save us, we won’t feel very inclined to take the reins of our own lives and make changes to save our own world.
What do you think? Do films like 'Avatar' motivate you to take action to preserve the planet? Or do they leave you feeling hopeless and helpless?
Did any of the Oscar nominated films this year motivate you or others you know to make positive changes in your life or your community? How about films not nominated for any Oscars?