There was a news story which caught my attention earlier in the week. Basically it reported that Roland Emmerich – renowned demolitions expert behind Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and a whole host of other disaster-themed pictures (and the pseudo-historical documentary 10,000 B.C.) – had decided that there was something specifically that he wasn’t going to blow up. Since, judging by his filmography, it seems rare that the man’s thoughts should settle on an object he doesn’t intend to blow up in a ridiculously incredibly over-the-top fireworks display, I was naturally intrigued. Could he be making a statement about what is most important for the survival of the human race at the end of his new flick, 2012? Or had he finally found a human soul which he wished to prove indestructable against all odds? No. He had decided that he owed it to certain religions not to offend them. Not because being respectful to other cultures is a good thing of itself, but because he was worried that they might kill him.
I am, of course, talking about a Fatwa. Roland Emmerich decided not to destroy a digital representation of Mecca on screen, because he was afraid of the death threats he would receive:
I wanted to do that, I have to admit. But my co-writer Harald [Kloser] said I will not have a fatwa on my head because of a movie. And he was right.
I can understand his reasoning. I’m not going to make a cheap joke about nevver being able to ask what Roland Emmerich and Salman Rushdie have in common. I honestly think it would be heard to justify not backing down when presented with such a stark ultimatum: do anything that displeases us and we will kill you.
Being honest – and this comes from a guy who thinks Emmerich peaked with Independence Day – but I honestly respect that Emmerich has at least the courage to point out what that situation actually says about political correctness:
We have to all, in the western world, think about this. You can actually let Christian symbols fall apart, but if you would do this with [an] Arab symbol, you would have … a fatwa, and that sounds a little bit like what the state of this world is.
It is crazy. I can understand the argument that we should respect other cultures and treat them with dignity and respect but… c’mon, it’s a disaster movie. It isn’t as if Emmerich is revealing that a secret religious order is behind all the carnage and death and destruction – though experience tells us it would be okay if he used any other religion. He just wants to blow stuff up good.
And sure, he could just blow up nondescript objects in the hopes of not offending anyone. A strange cottage here, a small village there. The truth is that that doesn’t really give us a sense of scale that’s essential for a disaster film to work dramatically. I can’t believe that I just suggested that a disaster film needs to work dramatically. The scenes of destruction need to emotionally and viscerally strike us and, to do that, they need to be almost symbolic and monolithic in their imagery. Independence Day would be nothing without the White House exploding, for example. The climax of Superman requires the bursting of the Hoover Dam (or its stand-in). Cloverfield had its entire marketing campaign based around the destruction of the Statue of Liberty. The demolition of the Eiffel Tower is so common that both Mars Attacks! and Team America spoofed it.
And it isn’t as if we are particularly sensitive about religion. The poster I pass every morning for the movie in question has a Tibetan monk overlooking the destruction of the Himalayas. Apparently it’s fair to pick on his beliefs because he won’t attempt to kill you for daring to use symbols and images associated with his faith.
That’s what bothers me about this. There’s no reason for the scene not to be in the film except for the fact that somebody will target the filmmakers for vengeance. It feels like capitulation. It feels like an acknowledgment that if a minority raises their voice angrily enough, we will pull back and cower. I don’t believe that the use of Mecca would be an insult to Islam, but it wouldn’t bother me if that was the reason that the footage wasn’t included. I will acknowledge that other religious minorities can get equally tetchy – take fundamentalist Christians over The DaVinci Code, for example – but we ignore them, because they haven’t murdered anyone. And yes, this comes with a very large caveat that not all of the Islamic faith condone these actions (the incredibly vast majority join us in abhorring them), but the move was not made as a concession to the rational majority, instead to the irrational minority.
I would welcome a debate and discussion about the use of the religious site on film, and value the contributions of those of the faith to the discussions. I’d engage with them and listen to them. The fact that we can’t even have that sort of discussion without fear of violence or death disturbs me greatly.
Is it an appropriate message to send to anyone with an agenda which they hope to use to shape our popular culture that we will not engage in discourse, but we will coil back in horror once you prove that you will take a life? Surely we should entertain the notion that we might offend the more moderate and considerate and rational organisations before we pander to the loudest and most obnoxious kid in the room.
I realise that discussions along this line tend to focus around Islam, and thus are used to label authors as Islamophic or xenophobic, and I think it is unfair that such discussions are grounded in words like fatwa. In reality, that any artist should have to fear death threats for making a disaster movie is something which disturbs me greatly. I would be no less offended had Ron Howard announced he wasn’t filming The Lost Symbol because Christian fundamentalists would murder him. Or if Michael Moore had to put his latest documentary on hold because he was being pursued by a rogue military commando squad.
The fact of the matter is that, as much as pundits and bloggers and opinionated individuals such as myself may claim we get inspiration off the top of our heads, we really don’t – our discussions and thoughts and tangents are grounded in news and events which have occurred. Our ideas are provoked by something. We don’t discuss these ideas in a vacuum or in the abstract – we are not philosophers, much as we may aspire to be. As such, unfortunately, the debate is framed through the more extreme adherents of Islam.
On the other hand, I accept the bind that Emmerich finds himself in. I wouldn’t want to put my neck on the chopping board to prove a point. I’d probably delete this post if somebody threatened to kill me over it.
That doesn’t mean I’d have to like it. Perfect time for the announcement that the guys behind The Matrix are making a Mohammad biopic?