Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Whitewashing the documentary

Whitewashing is a metaphor used to describe the practice of glossing over facts to create an overly skewed perspective craftily engineered to misrepresent the facts. Its quite understandable that western media’s dominance is bound to create stories that tend to resonate with their target audience, after all, as the old African proverb goes: “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter”.  Filmmakers of documentary style genre, like docudramas however, should at least exercise restraint in their use of dramatic license to at least maintain documentaries to serve its true purpose - a reliable historical record.  Even though docudramas are dramatized re-enactments of actual events, sometimes even filling in gaps, they still need to adhere to the basic facts.

This year, two documentary style movies, The Impossible and Searching for Sugarman, have taken whitewashing to extremes. Here the collective experience of our diverse world is hijacked by telling stories exclusively through the lens of white privilege - a middle class British family in The Impossible and two  middle aged white South African men in Searching for Sugarman. Even though these movies are technically well made, the dangers of whitewashing are brought into into sharp focus.  

After watching “The Impossible”, a recent docudrama about the devastating Boxing Day tsunami that killed almost a quarter million Asians, one can’t help but wonder at the chutzpah of the filmmaker to totally ignore the magnitude of death and destruction suffered by the Asian majority. Asians that do appear in the movie are relegated to insignificant roles, almost voiceless, lurking, almost cowering, in the background. This flies in the face of reality,  where many Thai who were  instrumental to the survival of many white tourists that survived the calamity, were totally ignored. Furthermore, the magnitude of the calamity was barely mentioned, if at all! Years from now, many who see this movie will certainly have a warped perspective of this cataclysmic tsunami. The Guardian’s review and to a lesser extent the New York Times, raises this egregious social injustice while the rest of mainstream media pretends it does not exist. Even the lead characters Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, in that article, offer disingenuous excuses to justify their complicity in this whitewashing of a tragedy of this magnitude. Seems like the desire for fame and fortune once again trumps the truth.

Searching for Sugarman is another recent documentary that brings to life beautifully, but oh so woefully inaccurately, the nostalgia of growing up during the 70s and 80s under apartheid. At  time when the ANC was rapidly achieving their goal of making the apartheid state ungovernable, it was the relentless waves of student protests in the 80s that opened the eyes of the world to  the brutality of apartheid regime in its final throes. The movie glosses over the fact that it was really the black (African, Coloured and Indian) school kids that initiated, persevered in the long march to freedom. The majority of black kids sacrificed their education and in many cases, their lives, when they rose up against the might of the apartheid military state. The fact that white schools never participated in these protests is totally ignored in this movie which seemed dead set on whitewashing the liberation struggle.

The movie hypes the strange paradox of Rodriguez’s popularity confined to a South African fan base but unknown in his hometown of Detroit. The fact totally omitted in the movie was that Rodriguez was actually immensely popular in Australia and New Zealand as well and even toured these countries with big name bands e.g. Mignight Oil. Conjuring up an “unexplainable phenomenon” by disregarding obvious facts is just plain dishonesty.  

The far-fetched explanation that "the first opposition to apartheid" among white youth was influenced by Rodriguez's  anti-establishment message or the provocative lyrics in a conservative white Christian society like South Africa also makes little sense. In reality, the first opposition to apartheid from high school students were brutally crushed by live ammunition as seen in the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Furthermore, the mass student uprisings of the 80s drew incredible inspiration from freedom songs from all over the world, the likes of Pink Floyd, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Marley etc., and many African struggle songs.

Ironically, this documentary fixates exclusively on the white audience in concerts staged in Cape Town - now seen by many as the last bastion of apartheid. The reality of course, was that the Rodriquez phenomenon was catalyzed by black university students and was only later embraced by a few sympathetic white university students - a small minority of their overall student population who were trying to make sense of these school uprisings that they only heard about through the news filtering in from their relatives overseas, since the apartheid state had total control over mainstream media.

The Rodriguez effect touched all young South Africans not just privileged white youth since his music carried universal themes that transcended race and class. The conspicuous absence of people of colour in a movie that supposedly focuses on the effect of music on a black liberation struggle, is strange indeed. This is yet another example of how reality is whitewashed by moviemakers bent on peddling the “white saviour” theme - that old Hollywood prescription that seems to guarantee box-office success!

The “white saviour” theme, is yet another form of whitewashing, peddled by western media since the dawn of the movie industry. However, its now metastasized to all genres, even documentaries! A cursory analysis of early Disney movies shows how people of color and foreign accents are routinely stereotyped . From the gilded days of Hollywood, to today’s corporate dominance of mainstream media, the white experience has become normative in spite of our world that’s rapidly becoming a huge melting pot. This perplexing paradox reveals the giant blind spots that have now calcified in western culture. Heck, even India’s Bollywood prefers casting light-skinned Indians in leading roles - another twisted, yet predictable, manifestation of the “white saviour” phenomenon given its own centuries old domination by British Imperialism.

The winds of change, however, are blowing. Independent filmmakers are breaking the stranglehold of Hollywood’s big studios and technology weakening the entrenched outdated business model of the entire media industry. Quentin Tarantino is one of the lone moviemakers that has courageously broken the mold with black actors, largely marginalized by Hollywood, by casting them into powerful leading roles in movies like “Pulp Fiction”, “Jackie Brown” and “Django Unchained”.  Similarly, Ang Lee’s recent movies, e.g. “Life of Pi”  attempts to reverse the age old stereotyping of Asian actors by western media. Here in SA, Gillian Schutte’s recent eye-opening article on the SA film industry highlights the danger of the hegemony of our local film industry by the old guard and the difficulty of breaking into exclusive club dominated by old white males. More black movie producers, directors, writers etc. are needed to create a diversity that reflects the real world.

Whitewashing propagates an insidious form of cultural imperialism, that gives rise to stereotypes and prejudices that ultimately feeds the false ideology of white supremacy. The cumulative effect of whitewashing results in hundreds of thousands of Asians that lost their lives through the tsunami or the millions of blacks that lived, struggled and died under apartheid, to become the voiceless, the unseen, the non-existent. History has shown us that propaganda is invariably a precursor to the greatest evils unleashed on humankind and these documentaries that usurp ownership of the facts, is tantamount to a brazen invasion and occupation of our collective consciousness.

As someone wisely said, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." At a minimum, we are duty bound to guard against the abhorrent practice of whitewashing documentaries by speaking out and fingering the perpetrators.

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