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The myth machine
5 April 2002
What about Hollywood making a film called Operation Cyclone, telling how the CIA trained Islamic terrorists and starring Bruce Willis as Bush?
I sat down the other night to watch Mai Masri's film Frontiers of Dreams and Fears. It was on videotape; like most of her remarkable work about the Palestinians, ten films in all, it has not been shown in the cinema or on television in this country. From Shatila refugee camp in Beirut and Dheisha camp in Bethlehem, the film tells the story of two refugee girls and their journey to the chain-link fence that divides their homeland and separates them from each other. It is a rare glimpse of the truth behind the relentless news from Palestine.
I watched it on the night the Oscars were shown, and during pauses in the video, images of Hollywood intervened: unctuous and jingoistic actors, and clips from blockbusting money machines that are the exact opposite of Mai Masri's truth. Perhaps the Oscars seem a harmless circus: until you stop and think of what they represent. David Puttnam, the Oscar-winning producer, raised this question in the Guardian recently. He described the failure of popular cinema to reach out to the "millions of young people [who] are growing up in refugee camps" and "the potential for a devastating explosion". He added: "If we [in the west] simply become manufacturers of films which rely on technology, special effects, emotional simplicity and so on to portray the world, then I fear that the dislocation between mainstream cinema and any perceptible reality will simply become too great - with consequences which will affect us all."
The dislocation is now so great that the cultural propaganda that was always Hollywood accounts for more than 80 per cent of the films seen in Britain and many other countries. The power of their message about "the American way of life" is such that it seems we are back to the post-Second World War era when the American business establishment promoted a paranoia about enemies within and abroad.
Foreigners fell neatly into categories of worthy or unworthy: for America or against America. In Hollywood, history was reduced to screen "epics" such as Exodus, in which worthy (Jewish) refugees settled in the Holy Land and unworthy Palestinians, made refugees in their own land, were invisible. These dispossessed people are now portrayed in American action movies, along with other Muslims, as terrorists. Following the Vietnam war, in which around five million Vietnamese were killed during the American invasion, and their land was destroyed and poisoned by American weapons of mass destruction, Hollywood came to the rescue with a string of Rambo-and-angst films that invited the audience to pity the invader. These films provided a cultural purgative that helped clear the way for America to mount other Vietnams - in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Somalia and elsewhere. The current "war on terrorism" is underpinned by the same Hollywood caricatures. Films like Black Hawk Down, which promotes a mendacious version of America's killing spree in Somalia, act as cultural "softeners" before the bombing starts again for real.
Even in finely crafted films like The Deer Hunter and Platoon that look as if they might break ranks, there is an implicit oath of loyalty to imperial culture. This was true of Three Kings, a movie that seemed to take issue with the Gulf war, but instead produced a familiar "bad apple" tale, exonerating the militarism that is now rampant. So dominant is Hollywood in our lives, and so collusive are its camp-following critics, that the films that ought to have been made are unmentionable. Name the mainstream movies that have shone light on to the vast shadow thrown by the American secret state, and the mayhem for which it is responsible. I can think of only a few: Costa-Gavras's Missing, which was about the destruction of the elected government in Chile by General Pinochet's puppet masters in Washington, and Oliver Stone's Salvador, which made the connection between Reagan's Washington and El Salvador's death squads. Both these films were quirks of the system, funded with great difficulty and, in the case of Missing, dogged by vengeful court actions.
The slaughter of up to 8,000 urban poor in George Bush Sr's attack on Panama in 1990 would make a fine action movie. And why not a sequel to Black Hawk Down, this time with the 8,000-10,000 Somali dead (a CIA estimate) who were airbrushed from the original? Or how about a David and Goliath epic set in modern Palestine, with young Palestinians facing down American tanks and warplanes operated by Israelis?
"The appalling images of [11 September] had all the resonance of a contemporary Hollywood movie . . ." wrote David Puttnam. "The temptation to try to comprehend these images in cinematic terms was a testament to the power of film. But the analogy felt entirely inadequate . . ." That may be true if you rule out film-making that allows us to comprehend why 11 September happened. The title of such a movie could be Operation Cyclone, the code name the CIA used when it set up an Islamic terrorist organisation in 1979 on the secret order of President Jimmy Carter. Funded by $4bn of American taxpayers' money, the tutors of Operation Cyclone trained terrorists at camps in Pakistan and in Virginia, and recruited them at an Islamic college in Brooklyn, New York, within sight of the fated twin towers. Indeed, the terrible spectacle of 11 September could be the final sequence, with the patriotic Bruce Willis playing George W Bush.
John Pilger © John Pilger