Seraj Assi
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2010-02-17 14:46

There has been a delicious debate in the Arab press of late. “‘Avatar’ is a metaphor for modern Palestinian history,” claimed one prominent Palestinian film critic.
The statement provoked a series of enthusiastic responses praising the movie. Having not watched the movie at that stage, I felt embarrassed and rather ignorant. Motivated by a strong desire to compensate for years of absence from movie theaters, I finally decided to see the movie.
In fact, I did not need to wait until the end of the movie to realize how innocent that claim was.
“They must have watched the wrong movie unless they believe that all Palestinians need today is a white Israeli savior to lead them to the road of liberation,” I told myself.
“Or perhaps they believe Palestinians need an Israeli Lawrence of Arabia who will reorganize the “Na’vi” Palestinians, who are lacking leadership and self-domination.”
Yet while I do believe that Palestinians today undergo a profound leadership crisis, I do not see the salvation through “Avatar” path. 
It was hard for me to watch James Cameron’s “Avatar” without thinking of Edward Said’s Orientalism. To put it in Said’s terms, “Avatar” is an Orientalist scene par excellence.  While it would be unfair to place “Avatar” in the realm of racism, one should admit that the movie did not manage to go beyond the rigid boundaries of Hollywood traditions. “Avatar” simply reintroduces through the backdoor a set of classical themes of the colonial narrative, which are largely conveyed through Hollywood’s portrayal of Arabs and Easterners.
Namely, the encounter between the colonized and colonizer and the setting of the indigenous tribe, whose society is a function of inherent flaws and hence void of organization and coherency until the white man intervenes to reorganize it, holding the torch of salvation and civilization in both hands.
Perhaps one way to look at “Avatar” is to see at as a simple version of Dances with Wolves, Glory, Seven Years in Tibet, Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, The Children of Huang Shi.
All revolve around the same white man’s fantasy. “Let us educate and teach the innocent natives how to save themselves, not only from our fellow bad people, but also from themselves.”
“Avatar” is perhaps one of the worst Orientalist fantasies in modern memory, from Rudyard Kipling to Joseph Conrad. It does not even rise to the level of a lofty parody of District 9, which features aliens forced to live in shanty towns, an echo of the now defunct apartheid regime.
In “Avatar” there is no place for heroes of color. There are no heroes but the ex-Marine Jake, while the noble savages, the Na’vi, are computer generated motion figures evoking an amalgamation of noble savage clichés in history.
Their beliefs are meaningless until they are proven and endorsed by the white scientist, Dr. Grace. The movie seems more ironic when the promising native leader of the Na’vi becomes a personal translator for the outsider leader Jake, when the role of the native woman is reduced to servicing his ambition and when the entire native society is devoted to proving his heroism. “Avatar” is about peace. Yet it is punctuated by a series of bloody wars. “Avatar” does not fully repair the suffering and losses of the natives, although it does promise them that perhaps someday they will be sent a savior who will never be native.
It’s Barack Obama’s speech defending the policy of perpetual wars in the Middle East, while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize at the same time. It’s the United States leading the campaign against climate change, while taking a step away from the crisis. Finally, and to put it more simply, “Avatar” was made in Hollywood, where only money and happy endings can talk, while the subaltern, as the Indian critic Gayatri Spivak puts it, can never speak.
Yet “Avatar” has a promising message. There is no reason to worry, since the brave-hearted white man will fix the destruction of all the “Pandoras”, such as the Caribbean and Middle East. He will never feel guilty, even when he is directly responsible for the destruction. 
“Avatar” is rather void of any subversive gestures. Its narrative is overloaded with naive ideology and lack of sophisticated plot and inner consistency. “Avatar”, despite its allegedly good intentions, is totally trapped in Hollywood traditions and old formulas. And while it does open Pandora’s Box in 3-D, it does not launch a new stage in Hollywood’s vision.
For Palestinians, “Avatar” is rather a reaffirmation and confirmation of the claims about their incapability to lead themselves and build their own future. And for all ‘natives’ who are still hoping to see Hollywood atoning for a history of humiliations and biases, “Avatar” is not the right movie. You will need to wait patiently.
(Seraj Assi, a Palestinian academic living in Jaffa, Israel, has done his Master’s in Arabic and Islamic studies from Tel Aviv University)
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