By Negar Mottahedeh
I still remember the unexpected fever that washed over me as I watched President George W. Bush apply a black-and-white overlay on the world in his 2002 State of the Union address, a speech that followed a series of unthinkable terrorist attacks on American soil on September 11, 2001. My visceral response as I watched the State of the Union that night is captured by a descriptive French phrase, “colère du lait” — (milk anger) — a state of being that, like milk, boils into sudden rage when heated.
In that speech, President Bush spoke of three Axis countries: North Korea, Iran and Iraq. They were evil. They developed and tested dangerous weapons of mass destruction. They curtailed their citizens’ freedoms — — repressed, starved and tortured them. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was, by far, the worst of them.
This political rhetoric is by now familiar ground. It was applied to President Assad by President Trump in his first post-election act of military aggression against Syria, and again to President Rouhani’s Iran in Trump’s Riyadh speech in May 2017.
In the spring of 2003, still outraged by the reconstruction of the world in terms of good and evil, I designed the “Reel Evil: Films from the Axis of Evil” film series at Duke with my colleague and collaborator, Middle East literary scholar miriam cooke. By that spring, there were not just three, but six, countries identified as the “Axis of Evil” by the Bush administration. Three new nations had been moved to the shadow side.
“Reel Evil”, our festival of films from North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Cuba, launched just days before the United States went to war in Iraq. The war implemented the military doctrine of “shock and awe” — -a doctrine of rapid dominance aimed at shutting down the adversary’s society completely, incapacitating its ability to fight.
The “Reel Evil” film series featured a variety of film genres made in the “Axis of Evil” — comedies, verité films, melodramas, war epics and Godzilla films. The film series was media activism in its own right. The sheer variety of featured genres aimed to highlight the presence of well-developed societies in these vastly different adversary countries, against the backdrop of a rhetoric of uniformity and backwardness in the media landscape. The festival’s range established there was an infrastructure supporting the making of feature length films in the axis countries atop a culture and a viewership that enjoyed a hearty laugh and a solid cry.
Global media outlets went bonkers when they heard about “Reel Evil”. miriam and I would give interviews about the festival for weeks on end that spring. The BBC, CNN, MSNBC, CBS, Fox News, MTV, NPR — they were all excited. The conservative talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, denounced us. He wondered what the concession stands on Duke’s campus would be selling during the screening of the North Korean Godzilla movie Pulgasari. Fried frog legs and critter soda?
Pulgasari, made in 1985, was the North Korean Great Leader Kim Jong Il’s crowning achievement in filmmaking. To make it, he had to kidnap a South Korean director, Shin Sang Ok, and his wife, the talented actress, Choi Eun Hee. (The film is so dreadful it’s awesome!) Teetering on this foundation of grave corruption and wrongdoing, the film itself tells the people’s story, the story of a giant metal-eating monster who fights alongside the peasants to overthrow an evil monarchy.
The semester-long film series was intended to educate Duke students about cinemas and film industries in the Axis countries that were now in focus. This simple act, we thought, would undo the representations of otherness that daily colonized our media on the level of content.
It would also upend formal film standards that had been normalized by dominant cinema in its circulation around the globe. Our films would show that cinema could speak to viewers in ways unfamiliar to Hollywood’s global audiences.
“Reel Evil” was a success in that regard, but to say that the majority of our students really cared about this festival of films, or even stepped foot into our screenings, would be an exaggeration. While the screenings were generally packed by the public, our students had their own commitments and their attention was elsewhere.
News networks and newspaper journalists, meanwhile, feverishly pursued their coverage: For global media outlets, the staging of the “Reel Evil” film series at a top-tier American institution represented some form of vigorous resistance to the Bush administration. And it is this word “resistance” — — so in vogue again on social networks and on Main Street USA as #theresistance or #resistance — -that showed up then, as it does now, as a warped self-aggrandizing conceptualization of what is. In reality, all any of us were doing then and are doing now is our civic responsibility as citizens of a democratic nation. Having studied the literature and the arts of resistance made under dictatorships and in non-democratic cultures, a scholar like miriam cooke really understood and modeled this perspective for me.
The journalists who came to Duke to cover “Reel Evil” wanted to talk endlessly about how the comedies and melodramas from the Axis countries were vehicles for politics and power. I didn’t disagree with them. I still don’t.
Movies have a way of changing our perspective. And the international film industry, including Hollywood, has always been a vehicle for ideological persuasion, sensory entrainment, territorial expansion and political propaganda. A vast majority of film industries around the world were specifically set up for this purpose, Hollywood included.
The international film industry was built up and best funded during times of war and efforts in imperial expansion. The industrial films and oil films that were made by, and that funded the more progressive projects of, the international New Wave in the 1950s and 60s testify to the fact that even the most visionary film movements are not exempt from this characterization. What I learned from the “Reel Evil” experience, though, was that it is somehow only when we talk about rogue states that those aspects of film — i.e. film’s rootedness in politics, imperialism and capital — — are highlighted.
To that end, my key take-away from the “Reel Evil” experience was this: that my students on the whole weren’t interested in our festival of films nor were they drawn in by the media’s hype around it. Like most Americans, they lived in a world that had been filtered black and white by the media and, more precisely, by the government’s use of the media, and they couldn’t breathe life into shades of grey. They didn’t know how.
For them, kids who had lived the terror of the 9/11 attacks, criticism meant being negative toward things that “felt” unpatriotic, “felt” threatening or “felt” other. When we, for example, watched Gillo Pontecorvo’s lyrical representation of the struggle for national independence in the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers — a film that was screened at the Pentagon by the Bush administration to train American soldiers in guerilla warfare — my Intro to Film students reported me, making the point that I called members of the FLN in the film “freedom fighters” instead of “terrorists.” This is what the notion of “critical” in “critical thinking” about foreign films amounted to in the post-9/11 media era. For many, anyway.
In that black-and-white world, people of all walks were constantly throwing shade on Saddam Hussein. He had been cast as the force of evil on the planet, after all. It was the collusion of critical thinking with this black-and-white world that finally forced me to see into the shades of grey where Saddam’s Ba’athism, its militaristic nationalism more specifically, corresponded to the ideological positions being taken up by the U.S. government at the time. It also helped me see the ways that the rhetoric about Saddam’s pan-Arabism corresponded to the left’s defense of garden-variety Palestinian nationalism so in vogue on college campuses. In the grey spaces in between the poles that marked the distances between good and evil, were the similarities that demanded our critical attention.
The lack of curiosity and of critical engagement with a world that is cast in black and white (paired with the alarmist stance taken on both sides of the political tribalism of our time and scaled to a whole new level of self-importance by the urgency of media ratings, page views and impressions) must be a pointer for all of us as media activists and educators. We need to think globally and engage critically with concepts such as “civic responsibility” and “citizenship” and to understand what these concepts mean specifically in the context of a democracy, as opposed to a military dictatorship.
What does criticism means and what does it mean to be critical now? What do these concepts look like when animated by our everyday lives? How might these terms be formative of identities and opinions? What media would best articulate them for the public? If and on what platforms could they scale and circulate in the public sphere?
For if there is no exact one-to-one correlation between “media activism” and impact, as my experience with “Reel Evil” showed, and no lack of ambivalence in the valuation of the media that is expressive of our views as the North Korean film Pulgasari exemplifies then we also need to see how our views are wrapped up in the views of those who we see as our opposite. To clearly grasp what they are thinking. To see what life inhabits the darkness where we can’t see them. To see what colors dwell in those grey spaces between us.
As the Iranian painter and poet, Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari, once wrote:
In my paintings where the darkness is, I am looking for you;
And where the light is, I have lost you;
I love the grey…the grey…
The black-and-white filter that George W. Bush applied on the world in that 2002 State of the Union address had real consequences. It resulted in a death toll of more than 170,000 people and a growing number of international post-war veterans in the millions. It articulated a worldview that continues to reverberate now 15 years later in the rhetoric of division and of hatred everywhere and on all sides.
What strikes me as interesting is this, however: that that specific play in light and shadow — that filter that the media too agreed to place on the world that finally turned it into mere shades of black and white — — is now suddenly vibrant with color for Bush as he establishes himself as a painter in his own right. Pushing oil around on canvas in colorful swirls and decisive strokes that capture the disfigurement of his subjects, most of whom are 9/11 veterans, Bush admits to seeing the world differently now — seeing color, where before there were mere shadows. It is in the grey that he now finds the vibrancy of a world we all lost to the stroke of a pen in the highest office15 years ago.
Negar Mottahedeh is an associate professor of literature at Duke.