Our Years Of Lead – Culture and filmmaking in the age of terrorism

It happened again.

Four months after the deadly attack on Westminster Bridge that killed five people, and two weeks after a suicide bombing in the Manchester Arena took twenty-two lives for the sole crime of being enjoyed by their owners, Islamic terrorism has once again struck the British people at a time when deep-seated political, religious and social divisions have made us vulnerable targets. At time of writing, the attacks on London Bridge and Borough Market have claimed eight lives and injured at least forty-eight people.

In the detestable new normalcy that this war now represents, the pattern of reactions across the board has become so familiar as to feel scripted: politicians reissue strongly-worded statements of condemnation and unity; Muslims are once again asked to dissociate themselves with people the vast majority of them never associated with in the first place; well-meaning multiculturalists continue to spread the gospel of universal brotherhood in order to avoid engaging with the conflict’s theological roots; and neo-reactionary YouTubers upload more angry video screeds against Muslims, liberals and gathering mourners who dare to commit the unpardonable offense of openly displaying grief and empathy for the lives lost and ruined.

Lost amidst all these performances that our media-saturated society of spectacle demands of us is any clear-minded analysis of the tragic uprisings our societies are going through. As thinking voices get drowned in a concert of egotistical social media bickering, we turn to the artists, entertainers and writers whose works supposedly express our culture’s soul, only to find most of them engaged in the same game of ready-made rhetoric. Instead of honest and informed commentary, we are served comforting platitudes about love and hate that may be commendable in spirit but tell us absolutely nothing we don’t already know or feel, and provide no answers to the many questions these attacks prompt us to ask ourselves.

This political vacuity is also reflected in much of our film culture: For sixteen years, the global War on Terror has defined Western policy, cost thousands upon thousands of lives and dramatically changed our ways of thinking and perceiving our place in the world, yet precious few films have examined it in any significant way. Europe and much of the West is currently experiencing a rise in segregation, Islamism and anti-Muslim bigotry due to a complex combination of poorly thought-out immigration policies, institutional racism, cultural trends and demographic shifts, yet film and television creators have consistently ignored, downplayed or grossly simplified these changes.

Certainly, films and TV series about terrorism and U. S. wars have been plentiful, as have been films calling for mutual respect and understanding between religions. But independently of their individual quality, these works have avoided any in-depth examination of the cultural conflicts and longstanding struggles for geopolitical dominance that this ongoing tragedy represents. With a few notable exceptions, perspectives on these matters have ranged from trite naivety (The Disintegration, Babel) to cretinous xenophobic jingoism (London Has Fallen, An American Carol). Even otherwise intelligent films like American Sniper or The Hurt Locker find their assessments stymied by their stubbornly western-centric point of view, often resulting in one-dimensional Muslim characters and zero engagement with the various ideologies surrounding contemporary practices of Islam.

The dearth of insightful commentary from our cultural elite on this unacceptable state of things is all the more infuriating when compared to the still-pertinent observations made by their predecessors in similarly troubled times. The most immediately obvious examples that come to mind are, of course, the multitude of films produced during the Second World War that tackled fascist ideology through satire (The Great Dictator, To Be Or Not To Be), drama (Casablanca, Meet John Doe) or war propaganda (49th Parallel, Mrs. Miniver). But there are many more ways through which cinema has expressed and studied political upheavals, violent or otherwise: from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, Italian horror cinema experienced its golden age by exorcising the fear and trauma of far-left and far-right terrorism through gory games of murder and depravity not dissimilar to the spectacles of blood that so regularly dominated the news media. Concomitantly, satirical comedies such as Bernardo Bertolucci’s Tragedy Of A Ridiculous Man or Mario Monicelli’s We Want The Colonels drew inspiration from real-life cases of kidnappings, murders and attempted coups to reflect on the country’s political unrest and expose the absurd social system that made that unrest possible. German expressionism famously used visual metaphor to highlight the Weimar Republic’s unsustainability and warn audiences of totalitarianism’s inevitable rise; these aesthetic methods would later be reused in noir cinema to visualize the anxiety, paranoia and corruption pervading post-war American politics. For as long as cinema has existed, watchful artists have used its tools to enhance their viewers’ political awareness and provide avenues of thought no newspaper article, no matter how well-researched, could adequately explore.

Today, secular liberal Western societies face a profound existential crisis that demands such a response more than ever. We need audiovisual media that casts a lucid eye on the causes and effects of that crisis. We need art that voices and analyses the fear, anger, desire and confusion that now dominate our political responses to this ongoing tragedy. We need films, television series and video games that bear witness to the peril we face and use their respective mediums to enhance our understanding of it. Where, in the midst of the mindless escapism and political illiteracy that saturate our screens, are the works that tell us anything worthwhile about the challenges we face? Where are the artists with the courage, talent and maturity to face these bloody cultural upsets head-on?

Where are the chroniclers of our Years of Lead?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.