Sunday, 7 March 2010

Musings on race in Hurt Locker

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When I heard that the "Hurt Locker," a drama set in the midst of the Iraq War, was nominated for several Oscars, I was intrigued. Americans have not shown much interest as a people in either of the current official wars and even less interest in documentaries about and dramas set in these conflicts. My initial hunch was that this film, was selected to balance out "Avatar", the narrative of which clearly questions militarism and imperialism (while also reveling in astounding levels of mindless violence). So I assumed that "The Hurt Locker" would make a conservative counter-argument which justified the necessity of this war of choice. After finally seeing it, I was stunned that this film was nominated for any awards.
'Hurt Locker' seems to me to be an attempt to make an 'apolitical' war film. So, I partially agree with those disagreeing with the review - the film doesn't engage with issues of race, etc. because it's not interested in them, not so much because of any political programme. It is true that this film could have been set in any war (any war with unexploded munitions, at least). The plot concerns the main character(s), not the overall context and this point is made fairly explicitly.

Having said that though, I also partially agree with the reviewer because this film shows just how impossible it is to make an apolitical war film. War contains far too much politics for it to remain excluded by ignorance. It creeps back in through the spaces in the narrative that are neglected, glossed over or otherwise over-simplified - i.e. every moment there is a faceless, non-descript Iraqi simply taking up space, or an Iraqi acting in a hysterical or otherwise stereotypical manner; so, that is often. (Surely the 'professor' is the most stereotypical character in the film - even more so than his wife. He is the 'good, Western-ish Arab', the exception that proves the rule. He could've been plucked straight out of a cut scene in 24.)

You can't make an apolitical war film. It's like trying to make an asexual porno.

If you ignore the politics then THAT is your politics and, frankly, it is one of the worst sorts.

Making the mise en scène a blank canvas for your protagonist (whether he is a 'hero' or an 'anti-hero', it makes no difference) you cannot avoid endorsing and participating in the narratives that portray the Arab 'other' as an equally blank tabula rasa ready for imperial imprinting.

It is an interesting film with a unique atmosphere and I can see why it was nominated on that basis but its weaknesses far outweigh its strengths. It was apparently made on the basis that ignoring certain issues makes them go away. Now, it is not necessary for every war film to be a pro- or anti-war polemic but to work through a relatively subtle, character based plot in circumstances such as this requires substantially more subtle filmmaking than was on show here.

I too am surprised at the critical acclaim this film has received. I don't suppose the filmmakers ever dreamed that the film would be as successful as it has been and in this sense I think that the fact this film has been so well received is more important than the specific construction of the narrative itself. Clearly there is a strong appetite for films that give the appearance of gritty realism (to what extent these appearances are valid is an open question). To me this film suggests that many people want to get a 'soldier's eye view' on the war without being subjected to difficult questions about their own complicity in the acts they see occur. This desire is passed off as 'mature' filmmaking, surely a distant cousin of academic 'objectivity'.

These wars are now so deeply engrained in popular consciousness and popular culture that they are developing their own narrative conventions and it could be that this sort of withdrawn, 'matter of fact' aesthetic will become more popular and achieve a place alongside the masturbatory, gun-toting action movies and bleeding-heart-liberal platitude-reels. We will see. What is certain though: a minute spent watching the Oscars is a minute wasted!

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