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Fatima Bhutto: cinema can be powerful and inspiring, but it is never innocent

The CIA have had their fingerprints on more films than you’ve ever realised – The Good Shepherd, Argo, Blackhawk Down, Zero Dark Thirty. We must always ask: who exactly are our storytellers?

This is an edited version of a lecture delivered by Fatima Bhutto as part of Power Of Film And Moving Image, an annual cultural event and digital platform to expose and explore the ever-growing power of film and moving image to define and influence the modern world: www.poweroffilmandmovingimage.com/

I have to warn you that the collected works of Rambo are not usually part of my speaking repertoire, but they will be for the next 15 minutes. Cinema is all the things that we’ve heard throughout the morning. It is incredibly powerful as a catalyst for change. It’s at the cutting edge of technology and creativity. It’s inspiring. It’s all those things. 

But the one thing cinema isn’t, is innocent. 

Cinema isn’t innocent, nor in my opinion has it ever been, and it’s precisely the power of film – this medium based on suggestion, nuance, and emotion – that makes it such a popular vehicle for propaganda. Now, you can’t speak about cinema and propaganda without mentioning Leni Riefenstahl, of course. So, I’m going to mention briefly before we get back to the real film classics here. Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph of the Will is – you know this film. I’m going to show you just a few seconds because you know it, whether you know you know it or not. It’s basically a documentary on Hitler arriving in Nuremberg ahead of the Nazi party conference, and it’s considered the classic piece of cinema obviously announcing the rebirth of the German people as a plane flies through the clouds, descending over the city which is festooned with Swastikas and adoring crowds.

*Excerpt from Triumph of the Will*

Okay. So this basically goes for on another two hours, but the film was commissioned by order of the Fuhrer, and it was in 1938 after Kristallnacht that Riefenstahl went to America to promote her film, and when she was in America, no Hollywood studio executives would meet her. No one except for Walt Disney who was himself an avid propaganda filmmaker. Now, I understand why this is considered classic film propaganda but I don’t understand why the following clip from American Sniper is not considered film propaganda.

*Excerpt from American Sniper*

Yeah. So who is Pickles and does the Iraqi sniper have his own Pickles? Who cares? We are going to come back to American Sniper in a moment, but I just want to say that I doubt the equivalent film called ‘Iraqi Sniper’ would have gotten as many Oscar nominations as this one. But let’s return now to the original American hero, Rambo. Before we meet Rambo at the start of Rambo 3, we have just left him having fought the communists in Vietnam – successfully of course – and Rambo has retreated to a Thai monastery where he is meditating his way to inner peace, when duty knocks at his door once more and this time, duty and his country ask him to go to Afghanistan where he is to rescue a captured friend – captured again by those communists – while at the same time arming the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan or as you know them today, the Taliban. 

Now, this is the original dedication to Rambo 3 back when America was financing and arming the brave fighters of Afghanistan, some of whom did end up being the Taliban. Cinema is not innocent, even Rambo is coded with the politics of its government and its time. Now, this is the original dedication, and this is the dedication it had to be changed to when it turned out that some of those brave fighters started to fight Americans. Rambo is classic ‘warnography’ or war pornography, and what it did is it raised a generation of viewers with an insidious but galvanising political message, which is that when Americans kill, they don’t really want to – so unlike the Vietnamese or the Soviets or the Germans or the Japanese or now the Iraqis – they would really rather be doing other things like meditating in monasteries or like Ben Affleck’s character in Argo, be at home with their kids, you know, in time for bedtime stories and kisses. But as Rambo, James Bond, and even Rocky fought the Soviets in the 1980s, they instructed us that killing, if you were a creepy serial killer, was bad and wrong, but with the right ideological underpinnings, it was not just good, it was heroic, and in many cases, a duty. 

Now, the marriage of politics and film goes back way before Rambo was assisting the Taliban. Lenin said that for them, for the Russians, cinema was the most important of all the arts and certainly, the Soviets and the Russians have their own reels of propaganda films, but nobody subscribes to Netflix to watch those, which is why I’m doing Hollywood today, but you could apply this pretty much to any country and any local cinema. So, to go back, it really starts with the beginning of film. I’m not going to go that far back, but in the 1940s, Walt Disney made propaganda films for the US Air Force, the American navy and also the treasury department. Donald Duck himself took out several Japanese airbases all by his lonesome, and reminded viewers, young and old, how lucky they were not to be growing up under the Third Reich. Later in the same decade, it was the CIA who bought the rights to George Orwell’s Animal Farm and turned it into what is the creepiest cartoon of all time, actually, a very good cartoon. In the 1950s, Luigi Luraschi, who was the head of Paramount’s foreign and domestic censorship, had a very important job. Luraschi, it turned out, also worked for the CIA but that’s later, and his job was to cast what he called 'well-dressed negros' into films that were going to be sent abroad, in order to dispel the news that segregation in America was a vicious and violent institution. 

By 1996, the CIA was doing so much business with Hollywood that they just opened their own little wing into it, and this is from their website – I mean, this is obviously Googleable and you can find this easily – and it’s the homepage for the entertainment industry liaison department. So, if you happen to be a filmmaker, a producer, a director, a writer or even an actor who wants to tell a certain story about their country the right way, the CIA is here to help and they will give you their intelligence, they will give you research, if you need help with your scripts, they are perfectly willing to do that, and at the bottom of this page, which I’ve mercifully cropped out, they’ve also got a revolving list of things for those of you that might be lacking inspiration that you might want to turn to: books or articles. They’re there to help basically. Now, the CIA, of course, like Adam Sandler, has every right to be in the movie industry if they so wish, but not to declare their role in the films that we innocently watch is not just deceptive but it’s dangerously manipulative, because movies and everything we consume is coded with messages. 

lead Fatima Bhutto. Power of Film and Moving Image. All rights reserved.We have a right to know who the messenger is, and the CIA and its government and many governments have their fingerprints on more movies that you’ve watched and enjoyed than perhaps you realise: The Good Shepherd, Charlie Wilson’s War, Argo, Alias the TV show, Blackhawk Down. Now, when Ridley Scott was making Blackhawk Down, the Pentagon gave him incredible, incredible assistance. So, those of you who’ve seen the film will know that they got state-of-the-art military helicopters. They got research. They got all kinds of help. And in return, the Pentagon asked only for a few things. Again, those of you who’ve seen the film – have all of you seen the film? Yeah. Okay. So you remember Ewan McGregor’s character Ranger John Grimes who in the movie is a good old boy who is stuck behind a desk, and he just really wants to fight and serve his country which eventually he does and quite bravely. The only problem is is that in real life, the man who John Grimes is based on also happens to be a convicted child rapist, and Mark Bowden who wrote Blackhawk Down, both the book and the screenplay, told the New York Post that he was pressured to remove that inconvenient fact. He kept it in the book, but if he wanted those state-of-the-art helicopters, he had to remove it from the film which, of course, he did. 

Propaganda and cinema not only makes one’s own forces look good but also instructs the audiences, it instructs vast populations of people, exactly who they should be loathing and fearing at any given time, and I would argue that president Trump’s Muslim travel ban was really aided by a vast culture of Islamophobic entertainment. An example of which, I think, is Homeland. Again, you’ve all seen Homeland? Yeah. So, Homeland is basically a series built on the misrepresentation of an entire people and it manages to do that – I’m never going to work in this town again – it does that because it operates in very clearly demarcated provinces of good and bad. So, in Homeland, all the good people are white and all the bad people are not, and when Homeland wants to portray a white person as bad, they’ve got a very easy answer to that. All they’ve got to do is have him convert to Islam, and anytime the Showtime series wants you to suspect sergeant Nick Brody of anything devious, all he’s got to do is look sideways at a Quran or pray, which is something 2 billion Muslims do five times a day, but it’s enough for him just to mutilate a few Arabic words and we’re scared. 

Now, propaganda and cinema doesn’t just demonise our, I mean, I say ‘our’ loosely obviously because according to this I’m ‘them’, but it doesn’t just demonise our enemies, it also helps glorify and justify violent, even criminal behaviour, so we’re going to go back to American Sniper for a second here.

*Excerpt from American Sniper*

Well, thank God he didn’t have to kill that terrorist child. But it’s a confusing scene for anyone who’s familiar with Chris Kyle’s memoir, where he described killing as fun and said it was something he loved to do aided, no doubt, by the fact that Chris Kyle also wrote that he “couldn’t give a flying fuck about Iraqis” as he “hated the damn savages”. But the film has to show you Bradley Cooper almost fainting with relief for not having to kill that child so that you – kind, thoughtful audience member – feel less guilty and so that you feel protected from the vast landscape of violence that you are in some way a party to by watching films like that. 

Now, at the same time as Zero Dark Thirty...again, we’ve all watched Zero...? Yeah. Okay. At the same time as Zero Dark Thirty was being released, the United States senate intelligence committee was holding hearings on the efficacy of torture, and what the US senate concluded after a very lengthy process was that torture yielded no unique or actionable intelligence – in other words, they found that torture did not work and it did not serve American interests. But try telling that to Hollywood.

*Excerpt from Zero Dark Thirty*

That was disturbing but I’m sure we are all asking the same question: will Jessica Chastain be okay? Now, the CIA – she’ll be fine, just – for those of you who haven’t seen the film, the CIA worked very closely with the makers of Zero Dark Thirty. From the beginning of the process pretty much through until the end, they advised cuts and changes to the script, and they were there to guide the director and producer as they were filming. The basic premise of this movie’s plot is that by torturing men like that within an inch of their lives, information was given up that helped find Osama Bin Laden. That is in fact a lie. Torture did not find Osama Bin Laden. Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote to the head of Sony Pictures after the release of this film to protest its false narrative, but it didn’t really make any difference because Zero Dark Thirty won an Oscar in 2013, which was presented – and here’s where, you know, the link between politics and cinema gets kind of creepy – it was presented by Michelle Obama from live Whitehouse telecast. Zero Dark Thirty didn’t win the Oscar for best picture that year because that honour went to another CIA-assisted movie, Argo

The nexus between power and cinema works on multiple levels. For example, why is the torturer always so handsome, but the tortured always so grotesque. Slavoj Zizek writes that it’s disturbing how neutrally scenes of torture and war and murder are depicted in film, but what is more disturbing is how neutrally we, as audience members, watch and absorb those neutral depictions of torture like we just saw, and how film is so powerful that it has the ability to align our sympathy with the torturer and not the tortured, and how film is able to align your allegiance and your empathy with the sniper rather than with the man he shoots, and Zizek asks if we as audience members would be able or would tolerate such neutral depictions of rape the same way we do of torture, for example. Would we align our sympathy with the rapist rather than the raped? I would like to say no, but given the thousands of scenes just like that that we watch on a daily basis, I’m not so sure. 

Cinema is powerful but it’s not innocent. Cinema smoothes the ground for us to accept a lot of unacceptable things, and cinema also has the power to smooth down our resistance to things like torture, like war, like renditions and many other atrocities. It’s not innocent. And cinema normalises a lot of things that it really, really shouldn’t. We’re entitled to entertainment. We are certainly entitled to all the entertainment we want but we must be conscientious viewers that ask the same questions of our entertainment as we do of our news, namely, who exactly are our storytellers. Thank you.

About the author

Fatima Bhutto was born in Afghanistan in 1982. She grew up in Syria and Pakistan and has written for Granta, The Financial Times, and many other publications. She is the author of four books, most recently, The Shadow of the Crescent Moon.


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