The Terror: Terrorism and film 2006 By Julie Rigg

in 63rd Venice International Film Festival

by Julie Rigg

We are in another era of terrorism, and we crave films which do more than evoke the terror, or amplify the rhetoric of politicians. We need films which give insights into why terrorism is used against the state, by the state or manipulated from within the state. Fear is the weapon, civilians are the casualties. And so are our dreams.

What do films have to say about this new age?

When Hitchcock adapted Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent to make Sabotage, in l936, he created one of cinema’s classic suspense narratives. A boy is carrying a package across London. He doesn’t know there is a bomb in it but we do. This story of the bus ride and the bomb has been used again and again, in cinema. It has become a staple narrative of thrillers and action films: used recently, for example, by Sydney Pollack in The Interpreter (2005).

Now in many parts of the world our lives are conditioned by this narrative of anxiety. In the Middle East, in Israel, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in London, New Delhi, New York, to take a bus is to buy a ticket to ride with Hitchcock.

The state responds with control. Now at a film festival such as Venice security checkpoints are everywhere; films are in the green zone, everyone’s movements are monitored. To attend a film inside the zone members of the public must provide an identification document. It’s a big symbolic display. On the streets of the Lido a giant column advises the danger level each day. Green at the bottom, red at the top. The state responds with signs, reminding the citizens of… what, exactly? What should we do when the column reaches red? Run?

Film can condition us to this atmosphere of terror, or it can help us resist it. In previous eras of public unease, filmmakers came through with magnificent responses. But it takes time.

Few films can better Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1968) either for its depiction of state deployment of torture, or of the horror of a terrorist response, the bombing of the café, the lines of Arab women waiting at checkpoints. The Pentagon showed it a couple of years ago to American officers departing for Iraq as an example of how not to win a battle of ideas. Maybe nobody came to the screening.

Pontecorvo’s film questions the moral and psychological costs to those who use terror as a weapon.

Is it too early yet for a film of the power and authority of Pontevcorvo’s masterpiece, or the acerbity of Bunuel’s seventies trilogy? (The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, That Obscure Object of Desire) or Bertolucci’s masterpiece about a man who kills and betrays out of sterile ambition, shame and a divided sexual self?

Set apart Ken Loach’s passionate and compassionate Land and Freedom (2006), and Hany Abu-Assad’s somewhat compromised Paradise Now (2005), which minimises the nutty transcendence of fervent Islamist ideology, and too neatly ‘balances’ the arguments. Mostly the films we have now are overheated.

Alfonso Cuaron sets his new film The Children of Men (2006) in a very near future, almost the present. It is a Britain degraded by war and pollution, a Britain of grimy streets constant security checks, and bomb explosions, a Britain divided between the haves and the have-nots. The haves are those entitled to resident status; the have-nots are refugees from war and famine around the world who do not have papers. Everywhere the state exhorts citizens not to harbour ‘fuges’ with reminders from billboards and signs.

The haves can travel from this grimy world past the barbed wire into the tranquil green zones of England in high summer, while the ‘fuges’ build rudimentary lives inside giant refugee camps. Welcome to the third world.

At stake is the future. No baby has been born for 18 years. But in one of the camps a young woman is pregnant. She has sought help from some members of the revolutionary group called FISH. Clive Owen plays Theo, a burnt out bureaucrat drawn in to help smuggle her to safety for the birth.

Cuaron is a director of signs, sometimes too many signs: the Pink Floyd’s Flying Pig hovers outside the offices of a Minister of State who collects the art of the previous centuries, while inside Picasso’s Guernica has become a mural, a status symbol for a reception area. Cuaron’s mise-en-scene is cluttered: he wants to show us everything. There is more evidence of thought in the design than in the screenplay. This world is vivid, instantly recognisable, but I could have done with fewer dogs and chickens wandering through every camp scene.

When P.D. James, one of Britain ‘s pre-eminent crime novelists, wrote The Children of Men in 1993, she wanted to show us the cold face of fascism. She put aside her astute murder mysteries to write this one dystopia. James worked for many years as a bureaucrat in the British home office, and she understands the arena in which politics conditions policy, the place where power and personal ambition operate.

Danny Huston’s character Nigel stands for the power of the police state, and those who rise within it. In James’ novel some leaders of FISH compete with Nigel’s own intelligence apparatus to find the girl and take control of the baby, the most potent symbol of all. And finally Theo comes to understand that it is his cousin Nigel who has betrayed him.

Nigel appears once in The Children of Men, in those splendid offices, and then we see him no more. It becomes a chase film – as indeed was James novel. But Cuaron substitutes guns, explosions and firepower for the manipulation of Theo’s loyalties and the manoeuvring of politely spoken soldiers in a green countryside. The Conformist it’s not.

Are film makers able yet to make the films we crave in the new age of terrorism? To date, it seems like imaginative reportage. Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre (2006), in its early sequences invokes the claustrophobic horror for those trapped inside, the panic as the first tower goes down – and then becomes melodrama. It’s a sincere film, but it’s American Survivor.

Paul Greengrass’ United ’93 (2006) is a fine drama styled as documentary reconstructing the one flight hijacked on 9/11 which did not reach its target. He does not judge; his terrorists are as human and as fallible as the passengers who try to rush the cockpit. He gives humanity to terrorist and victim alike, but leaves us with the fear.

Nothing yet approaches the clarity of Pontecorvo. But two films in Venice 2006 point the way to some resistance.

“Interfering with people’s dreams? That’s terrorism!” insists Dr Atsuko Chiba in Satoshi Kon’s new anime Paprika, in which the fears of individuals, stimulated by new technology which can guide others to their dreams, become a collective nightmare. The film takes time to assemble its elements, but its resolution is Freudian, a dynamic of greed and engorgement. In the collective nightmare toys become monstrous and cute little Japanese dolls inflate to menacing proportions. It’s an orally fixated childish world in which fears must be swallowed. Is this what we are reduced to? I will never see a Japanese doll in the same way again. Classic surrealism.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon, a fine documentary from David Leaf and John Scheinfeld reminds us of another period of fear, war, and assassination. It’s not formally innovative but it is perfectly crafted and paced, and it brings alive the context of those overheated seventies, and the cultural challenge John Lennon with Yoko Ono posed to state power.

Lennon refused to be terrorised. He used his celebrity and his creative talents to support parts of the programmes of Abbie Hoffman, and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers, while insisting on his own Ghandiesque vision. He urged his followers to contemplate a world in which peace replaced war, to use their imaginations to resist paranoia and divisions into of them and us.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a prophylactic against the persistent revisionism in discussion of the Vietnam years. By bringing together so much archival footage, Leaf and Schofield really illuminate Lennon and Yoko Ono’s strategies as performance artists. With it comes the pleasure of encountering Lennon’s sceptical intelligence again.

Theirs was such a simple message. Imagine peace. Lennon paid for billboards around the world to proclaim it. It triggered FBI surveillance, discussions about what could be done to stop him, reports to the White House, and a deportation order which he fought for six years and won. It also made him a target, at a time when individual nightmares were invaded by collective fears.

The subtitle for this film could be War is Ending.