Lessons from history
The dust has barely settled on the streets of Iraq following last yearâ€™s pull-out of British and American troops. However, for the Hollywood machine time is money, and the vanguards of the â€˜Iraq genreâ€™ are already on the horizon.
2010 will bring cinemagoers not only Paul Greengrassâ€™ Green Zone, an adaptation of the award winning non-fiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, but Ken Loachâ€™s Route Irish. Both promise to be powerful, sober pieces of filmmaking thanks to highly respected directors (Paul Greengrass directed the highly acclaimed United 93), but is it too early to be fictionalising the Middle East conflict?
Film treatments of historical events are nothing new. In fact, for as long as film has existed, studios have been retreading history on the big screen. In 1941, Powell and Pressburger made The 49th Parallel, little more than a propaganda film, the directors designed it to scare the neutral Americans into action and buoy flagging morale during the darkest days of the Second World War.
However, it wasnâ€™t until the late fifties that the raft of propagandist filmmaking died out and Hollywood turned to the historical reality as a source of inspiration. Films like The Dambusters (1954) and Dunkirk (1958) were the first to present the war in realistic terms â€“ with notable casualties for the Allies, as well as the Axis powers.
The eventual film treatment of any difficult historical period appears to be an inevitable part of our ability to make sense of disaster. In the same way that we are encouraged to talk through our problems after a shock, the rationalisation of complex historical events into a simple, two hour narrative serves as a global coping mechanism â€“ an ability to re-examine the event from a position of hindsight and safety.
But if cinema really is a global â€˜talking cureâ€™, itâ€™s been talking non-stop at us over the last few years, as filmmakers struggle to make sense of the past decade. Weâ€™ve already been treated to Oliver Stoneâ€™s World Trade Centre â€“ a true story, in which the heroes survive the September 11th attack after being buried in rubble and United 93 â€“ which told the true story of the passengers who overthrew their hijackers on September 11th.
Both of them, much like the World War Two movies of the fifties, tell amazing stories of the unsung heroes that surrounded the tragedy, though the direct depiction of their subject matter â€“ the World Trade Centre attacks – is respectfully absent.
Although film makers are not yet able to deal directly with the September 11th attacks, their impact is still felt in many of the blockbusters of late noughties, which saw the rise of a number of politically astute action and drama films that strongly criticised the Bush administrationâ€™s foreign policy decisions in the wake of 9/11. In particular, political dramas Lions For Lambs and Rendition sharply criticised the U.S Governmentâ€™s policy on the treatment of terror suspects, and attempted to locate the Middle East conflict in the context of America. In both films, Iraq and Afghanistan are only dealt with tangentially â€“ with the bulk of the story focused on the U.S reactions to conflict, as opposed to the conflict itself.
In fact, the only film of the last decade to have directly dealt with the Middle East conflict was the dumb, propagandist portrayal of The Kingdom, which was loosely based on a true story (and featured Abu Hamza as an antagonist). It presented a cartoonishly simple view of the Iraq conflict, and was widely criticised for Islamophobia and negative portrayals of Saudi Arabia.
If nothing else, The Kingdom proved that it is too early to attempt to re-write history by propagandising the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. In contrast, Kathryn Bigelowâ€™s 2009 epic The Hurt Locker demonstrated that a fictionalised account can be more sensitive and insightful than real events. Hopefully Green Zone and Route Irish will continue the trend for intelligent, thoughtful depictions of the conflict. The only question that remains, is whether the movie going public are interested.