Sunday, March 7, 2010

David Round: Reflections on Avatar

Have you seen the film Avatar? Simply everyone is talking about it.

I have seen it, but am not sure if I should recommend it or not. The special effects are amazing, of course, but I have to say that the plot leaves a little to be desired. It is not so much that the plot is shaky ~ it is a perfectly reasonable, tried and true story, pretty predictable therefore, but tried and true precisely because it is true to real life, where such changes in attitude do actually happen. No, the plot is unsatisfactory not so much because of its lack of surprises as because of its superficiality. While keeping the story, action and special effects exactly as they are it could have explored issues more deeply and become an opportunity to dwell on some of human life’s eternal perplexities and tragedies.

The setting is the planet Pandora, in another solar system. The planet is covered with jungle, and is home to the Navi (sometimes spelt with an apostrophe, but why complicate things?). The Navi, who are blue, about nine feet high and have tails, are a simple people, who live in tribal communities in the jungle and are wise in its ways. They are environmentally responsible and live in harmony with living things. Alas, Pandora is the only place in the known galaxy where the precious mineral Unobtainium is to be found. The inhabitants of planet Earth, having irredeemably fouled their own nest and used all its resources, desperately need Unobtainium if they are to continue to live. But to mine the mineral they must, at the very least, move the Navi, whose settlements are right slap bang on top of the best deposits.

Many no-nonsense humans would like to give the Navi very short shrift, but humanitarians have obtained a breathing space of a few months, in which they hope to persuade the Navi to move elsewhere on the planet. To do this they have developed, in their laboratories, perfect copies of Navi bodies, each one developed so as to be compatible with one particular human being. These human beings ~ most notably our handsome young hero and a lady scientist ~ lie down in a special chamber, and then, at the push of a few buttons, their minds, their consciousness, their souls, one might even say, are transferred to their special Navi bodies, which can then run around in the jungle with other genuine Navi, until the buttons are pushed again, the Navi bodies fall immobile (but still alive) to the ground, and each human consciousness returns to its own human body which wakes up in the special chamber again.

An avatar, by the way, is (in Hindu mythology) the descent of a god to earth in incarnate form, and also more generally an incarnation or embodiment of another person.

Well, you can guess what happens. Our young hero’s duty is to befriend the Navi and gain their confidence, but in order that he may in the end betray them. His conscience revolts against this. He is overwhelmed by the beauty of the planet and its jungles, he admires the sustainability and harmony of Navi life, and ~ he falls in love with a female Navi. He goes native, as we used to say; he warns the Navi, with not much success, of the human plans to destroy them and eventually leads them in the battle in which, assisted by numerous forms of jungle life, the Navi defeat the humans and send nearly all of them ~ the bad ones ~ back to Earth to repent and, presumably, perish.

Avatar is obviously a film for our time, with a strong environmental message about living in harmony with the earth, and with an indigenous people to boot, who know how to live properly and happily. Yet, as I say, I, environmentalist that I am, found it a little shallow, and Rawiri Taonui, head of the School of Maori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury, also found some fault with it.

In the Christchurch Press of the 1st of January Mr Taonui complained that the film repeated ‘negative stereotypes’ about indigenous people. Among other things, he complained that in a religious ceremony the Navi swayed rhythmically to and fro, which, he said, happened ‘only in B-grade movies, and ‘just didn’t happen in any indigenous population’. I don’t know about that; from my youth I seem to recall any number of documentaries and newsreels showing mass swaying, especially if native women wearing little above the waist were involved. That was the era, of course, when Jack Benny, in his old age, said that he was not as interested in sex as he used to be ~ but every now and then he still liked to leaf through the African section of the National Geographic.

Perhaps other things secretly made Mr Taonui unhappy, but he dared not say so. Although we were not really invited to think about it, the life of the Navi in their simple communities is, like the life of anyone in a small simple close-knit community, one which is, by our standards, without privacy, intellectual curiosity or freedom. Inevitably, in any village where people live next to each other and spend all their waking hours together, everyone knows everyone else’s business, and private life is impossible. Private thought, different from everyone else’s, is impossible. Freedom, as we understand it, is impossible, for social cohesion requires adherence to traditional ways and loyalty to traditional leaders. Any deviation from the norm is actually threatening to the community. Consequently freedom of thought and intellectual curiosity cannot exist either. Life there is, by our standards, both extremely constricting and extremely boring.

Everything comes at a price. Strong communities are excellent things. But the price of community is the loss of the individual. This is in the very nature of things. Those who sing the praises of simple happy community life often display a considerable degree of condescension and even hypocrisy. They would be horrified at the suggestion that they might live that way themselves. It is an ideal they have no intention of trying; it is something for other, lesser folk. If for a second they entertain the possibility of living that way, it would have to be as one of the leaders, vested with traditional and unquestioned authority, not as one of the common herd.

As we know, some Treaty activists claim that the ‘te tino rangatiratanga’ reserved to Maori by the Treaty is some form of continued Maori sovereignty over all our country. Others, though, more modestly take it to mean some form of self-government in local Maori communities. We can hardly object to that as a principle. It is the wise and long-established idea of subsidiarity ~ that government should be devolved to as local a level, as close to the governed, as possible. We are entitled to ask, though, if such communities genuinely exist or are merely excuses for empire building and further drains on the public purse. We are also entitled to ask how many Maori genuinely desire to live subject to the chiefly authority and constricting traditional structures and authority of the past.

There is another unpalatable truth which Avatar could have dwelt on, but did not. In the film the rapacious and insensitive but technically advanced humans are eventually defeated by the Navi and the wild creatures of the jungle. This is seldom the way things have happened in real life. Human history, all over the world and among all races, has been one of the victory of the advanced and technologically sophisticated and the vanquishing of the quiet and gentle. We wish it were otherwise. Without wishing to sentimentalise or idealise them ~ and we must not forget the savage warlike ways of the Maori ~ we have to admit that in many respects ~ their social harmony and environmental wisdom ~ many of the earth’s meek and innocent peoples are, if not perfect, at least often better than we are.

Yet it is in the nature of things that they cannot prevail. One of the tragedies of life is that in order to overcome our enemy we must become like him. In real life the Navi would be overcome by the humans, who would thereby be enabled to continue their course of destruction ~ and ultimate self-destruction ~ that little bit longer. The film’s failure to admit this truth, preferring a happy if untrue ending, reduces it to a piece of clever but sentimental wishful thinking.

Not that Maori were as gentle and wise as the Navi, nor that British colonists were the unscrupulous and voracious exploiters that humans are on Pandora. The truth is seldom clear-cut and simple. It was in the nature of things that the islands of New Zealand were inevitably going to be discovered by questing European powers just as they had previously been discovered by questing Polynesians. Maori are part of the world’s story. They cannot wish away European colonisation, which, for all its disruptions, also brought countless blessings ~ spiritual, physical, mental, political ~ which none of Maori descent would ever consider renouncing.

You will perhaps sense mixed feelings and equivocality in this column. I hope you do not mind. Life is complex, and the truth, as I say, never simple either. Everything comes at a price, and every gain has its loss.

So let us not, then, be too unkind about Navi and community, or about Maori hopes of subsidiarity, community and local self-government. We are entitled to display caution when we examine any idea; but many of us may well already argue that we have gone too far along the road of selfish individualism, and a return to a stronger sense of community and common bonds of thought, and a little less following of wilful and selfish self-interest, might be a very good thing. Our technologies, gadgets and luxuries have not made us happier, healthier or better than our parents. The world trembles on the verge of unavoidable catastrophes ~ of overpopulation, oil shortages, over-consumption of resources, climate change ~ and indeed, probably more immediate than any of these, although not unrelated, economic calamity, to which the ‘correction’ of the last couple of years is nothing more than a quiet introduction. Far worse is to come. For all of us the future will be much harder. The anonymous giant state will simply not have the resources to do a fraction of the things it does now. We will need communities again, genuine local communities and genuine organic local self-government, and we will be far readier to pay the price of community. Racial separatism we should oppose, and a blind return to long-gone days is impossible for any of us. We must live in the future, but we can find tried and true models of living in the past; not just in the Maori past, but also in Europe’s rich experience. Underneath the selfish and divisive Treaty rhetoric, which I, as you know, loathe as much as any, it may be that there is much common ground between the long-term fundamental aspirations of most Maori and European New Zealanders.


Anonymous said...

Bodicea hasseled the Romans but never defeated them.

The German tribes defeated the Roman legions, once. A resounding defeat (by their Roman-trained leader), but no protection to the longer term changes that eventually lead to the modern German state, after the tribal life disappeared in the years between 0 and 850CE.

There are English and Germans who romanticise that tribal past, even today.

The Maori re-invention of their past is understandable. The myth of an eco-friendly aroha-filled society is very attractive when you have lost your traditional lifestyle inside the space of 170 years. However, dwelling on it, and creating a myth, will give them an identity to help them move into the future.

The presence of Jim Moriarty (Te Rakau Trust, is vital and not romantic at all, but a good example of using the past positively. The noise of the political correctness is an annoyance along the way, and we will move through that.

Dolf and Francesca van Asbeck Pouwer
Wellington & Rotterdam

Anonymous said...

You seem to forget that the roman empire collapsed due to the unsustainable nature of their society and it was the "tribes" who took them down. Don't be so condecending! There are lessons to be learned form history and not just the anglosaxon version. Given some of the problems the world is likely to face in the next 50 years we would all do well to reflect on how past peoples lived sustainably for millenia and avoid focusing just on greedy empires who barely lasted 500 years and destroyed numerous other civilisations in the process.