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Zen Peacekeeper goes to the Oscars (not literally, sorry)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010 by Marianne Elliott

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That's me, on the red carpet at Wellington's hottest Oscar party – the Weta Digital party where hundreds of Weta staff celebrated their win for best Visual Effects for 'Avatar'. The dude next to me is not a VFX, he really did stand there all afternoon posing for photos with people like me. Good people, the Weta people. Good, hard-working people.

Spoiler alert: This post reveals significant plot points of the film 'Avatar'

Yesterday I watched the entire Academy Awards presentation.

First up, can I just say, there were enough war movies in that show to almost give me nasty flash backs. I understand that the United State of America is at war, therefore people want to watch war movies. But can I just speak for myself and say – I don't really want to watch war movies. Alright, thanks for hearing me out on that.

Apart from the award for best visual effects, which went to Weta Digital for 'Avatar', I had no stake at all in any of the awards. I was watching the ceremony with hundreds of Weta Digital staff and I wanted them all to be happy, so I was thrilled that they got the credit they deserved.

Other than that, I had no strong views. I had seen very few of the films nominated and I'm generally a little wary of the whole Hollywood scene.

But I have been thinking lately about the power of cinema as a medium for telling stories in today's world. I’ve always thought that telling stories is a most powerful way to communicate. So after watching 'Avatar', I wondered whether it had the power to inspire viewers to take action to address the very real, current issues alluded to so clearly in the film. 

Despite not doing well at the Oscars, 'Avatar' has been a huge success at the box office and is on it's way to being one of the most widely viewed films in history. So, is it likely to inspire positive action for change?

With 'Avatar', James Cameron chose to tell one of the oldest stories on the planet, the story of a terrible threat to the survival of the very eco-system. In his telling of that story he did a great job of revealing much of what is going on in our own world today.

Scientists going undercover into a ‘hostile’ community and then being pressured to reveal their findings to the military has haunting echoes of psychiatrists, anthropologists and sociologists being sent into villages in Iraq and Afghanistan to gather information which is then also passed to the military for use as ‘intelligence’.

I know at least one civilian social scientist in Afghanistan who was killed under those very circumstances. As far as she was concerned she was doing anthropological research, as far as the local community was concerned she was gathering intelligence for the US military.

So ‘Avatar’ cuts close to the bone. I could have done without the stereotypical portrayal of the ex-military gun for hire. By portraying them as thugs, films like 'Avatar' underplay the intelligence and therefore the power of those men and women. But the parallels to the operations of Blackwater and other private ‘security’ contractors were clear.

The real-life relevance of the excavation for “Unobtainium” and the corporation's willingness to destroy Home tree and even the lives of those who lived within it don't need any explanation. James Cameron was laying the analogy on thick and fast.

But will it motivate people? Or will it simple depress people into hopeless apathy?

The answer to that question may lie in another aspect of the narrative: the myth of the single hero.

I’ve seen plenty of critics slate ‘Avatar’ for the use of the classic ‘Great White Saviour’ story line.

To summarise – the Nav’i, indigenous to Pandora, need an outsider (who just happens to be white and American) to rally them to action to save themselves.


It’s not only a tired cliché it’s also a dangerous one.

But it is one of our most beloved myths. Even when we get past the racism and accept the reality that the indigenous and non-white people of the world don’t need a white saviour, we still look for the one great hero to arise.

Think about Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. I don’t want to detract from the significant roles each of these men played as leaders in their respective liberation movements. They were charismatic and committed men who knew how to motivate action in others.  But none of them was a singular hero who saved the day by conquering a mythical opponent.

In great mythic narratives, however, that is exactly what happens. I have no problem with that as a myth, it's an excellent allegory for the journey each of us must take to slay (or better, learn to ride) our own dragons and find our authentic path to service in the world.

But I do have a problem with it as a means to motivate ordinary folks like you and I to action.

As long as we take the myth literally and hope that a hero will arise from amongst our ranks (or, even more unlikely, will arrive from somewhere else) and save us, we won’t feel very inclined to take the reins of our own lives and make changes to save our own world.

What do you think? Do films like 'Avatar' motivate you to take action to preserve the planet? Or do they leave you feeling hopeless and helpless?

Did any of the Oscar nominated films this year motivate you or others you know to make positive changes in your life or your community? How about films not nominated for any Oscars?

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12 Responses to "Zen Peacekeeper goes to the Oscars (not literally, sorry)"

  1. elizabeth says:

    You look lovely!
    I have not seen Avatar yet; I missed it in the theatre and am waiting for the DVD. In general, though, I think that that myth makes it very hard to remember the power that we have – and easy to forget that small steps (the ones we ourselves can take) are just as important as big steps. Goodness knows I can get caught up in the .. well, nothing I do makes a discernable difference, so maybe I should give up. Which doesn’t serve anyone. That being said, I am motivated by things like films and books – myth or no – because they remind me how much I care, and when I remember how much I care, I am more likely to do what I can actually do, even if it seems small.

  2. Charles Cameron says:

    Hi Marianne:
    You might be interested in this piece by JD Lasica on Jeff Skoll’s Participant Productions:
    best wishes

  3. jacqui says:

    Hi there,
    I really wish that movies like Avatar could inspire change in people and make a difference to the world.
    I would be really interested to hear if the film had had that effect on any viewer..
    I am afraid though that i have a very synical reaction to this though, that comes from working with James Cameron on the film set of Avatar.
    That guy doesn’t care one bit about the planet, all he cares about is money and power. To actually fall for the idea that James Cameron is trying to give the world a message seems really naive and like he has managed to suck us all in…for his personal gain.
    The amount of resources that went into making that film, and the amount of waste on a big budget film is staggering to see.
    The director, and all the producers make huge money when that film does well. A small percentage of the Avatar budget or of their cut could have made a 3rd World country rich…
    Working for James Cameron was an intensely negative experience. It is amazing that his film and vision has done so well..thanks to so many talented people!
    I hope good does come out of the Avatar experience!

  4. Emily says:

    Thanks for airing your views on this. When I saw the movie I did and did not like it. Sure, it was pretty and it touched on how good and beautiful life can / could be, but we still had to go to war. We still fought violence with more violence. For me it was a movie with much potential but it just didn’t nail it for me. Instead of feeling inspired, I felt as frustrated as I did watching any other war movie really. I’m also more likely to be inspired by something beautiful in the real world, I guess.

  5. Bea says:

    Marianne, this was fabulous. You’ve articulated everything I felt when I walked out of the cinema after seeing ‘Avatar’, except you’ve done it with more grace and eloquence than I ever could.
    I agree that it’s essentially the same ‘Great White Saviour’ myth wrapped in a shiny (and truly very award-worthy) blue 3D package. Not really my thing, and I’m not sure just how much it will affect people’s everyday choices. But I am optimistic that at least the film may have broadened some viewers’ perspectives.
    And you look incredibly dishy in your awards frock, lovely lady.

  6. Barefoot Liz says:

    I haven’t been inspired or motivated by a movie yet. Books yes, movies no.

  7. et says:

    “a singular hero who saved the day by conquering a mythical opponent.” Sounds a lot like the story of Gandhi and the English empire to me. Not that the story is the truth…
    Haven’t seen any of these movies and will likely not.

  8. Imohena says:

    Love the dress! You look great!
    I don’t want to watch war movies either. I haven’t seen Avatar and won’t probably – not that I really have the option living in Congo… I feel very turned off by the obscene amount of money and resources pumped into movies like this.

  9. Jen Chandler says:

    Hi Marianne,
    I’m not big on war movies either. I don’t mind sci fi and I’m a sucker for anything fantasy, but old fashioned war movies leave a mad taste in my mouth. I know it’s real, and that’s what hurts.
    I haven’t seen Avatar. I’m not big into hype. I did see “Blind Side” and I loved it. I don’t normally watch sports movies, not my thing, but this one was very inspiring.
    Sure I’ve heard conflicting views on the true story behind the movie, but what I saw inspired me. I think more people should do good where they are with what they have.
    It can get very overwhelming when we see the hurt and the pain all over the world. Spending two weeks in India profoundly affected me in terms of world poverty and hunger. And it can drive one to think, “I can’t do all that much, why bother?”
    However, to paraphrase Mother Teresa, you can’t do it all but you can do something. Start where you are , do what you can and make a difference there. It will branch out, you will branch out and the effects of your kindness and love will reach further than you may have ever imagined.
    Thanks for this wonderful post,

  10. Rachael King says:

    Great post, Marianne. You’ve set me thinking. I plan to try and write some thoughtful blog posts one of these days!

  11. I followed a comment of yours at A Design So Vast to your blog and really like your spirit, voice and point of view. As a psychologist and former filmmaker, my take on “Avatar” is that it is a reflection of a growing consciousness of our collective situation—a continuation of “Matrix” in that it challenges us to awaken to the collective dream that we are in.
    Just as Michaelangelo was apparently a bit of a sociopath, violent and cruel, it may be hard to separate the work from the artist with “Avatar”… however, I think the film, and its success, comes from a deeper place than one director’s personal psyche… What intrigues me, ultimately, is not the quality of the movie, but the notion of consciousness being in ultimate control of the physical realm being a widely watched, and vaguely absorbed, paradigm.
    In my mind the end of Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” and the shouted words, “Wake Up” relate to the final eye opening in “Avatar.” In a way I sense that the movie is ultimately smarter than its maker.
    If you want to compare notes, my take on Avatar is at:

  12. Hannah says:

    Your post was both eloquent and honest. I think Avatar has a broadly positive message on a superficial level but that this was greatly outweighed by the ‘white saviour’ undertones which in my opinion are both negative and dangerous in their insidiousness.
    As a result Avatar made me feel both disempowered and irritated. Nevertheless, despite my cynicism, WETA did a wonderful job; aesthetically the movie was stunning and this certainly allayed my distress at the plot’s content.

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