My Favorite Hollywood Director is Fuloul
I was warned. A friend said the new Batman movie mocks the popular revolutions. But it’s directed by Christopher Nolan. His films, The Prestige, Memento and the previous installments in the Batman trilogy, are some of my all-time favorites.
As I watched The Dark Knight Rises, I understood what my friend meant. Revolutions, the plot suggested, are the work of destructive forces. Outsiders (or foreigners) delude the masses and dupe them into pursuing non-existent objectives of equality and justice. The fight against a despotic security force is merely the invention of these evil anarchic masterminds who want to vilify the police and open prison gates in their bid to push the society into chaos – chaos guised in false freedom. The former order, regardless of its injustice, is always better than so called revolutions.
It all sounds too familiar. I heard that plot too many times over the past 18 months. It was served by dictators in the region holding on to their seats in the face of popular revolts. It was reproduced and served in many forms by beneficiaries of these dying regimes during and after the fall of these dictators. In Egypt, we call them fuloul, or remnants of the former regime. The term was eventually proclaimed by those annoyed with the continuing fight for democracy and its disruptive and deadly consequences. Today, the term has become a badge of honor for some and a degrading description for others.
Egypt’s fuloul will be awash in satisfying vindication as they watch the film. It presents solid reasoning for ousted Hosni Mubarak’s last words: “It’s either me or chaos.” It quashes under unbearable oversimplification some of the core arguments troubling this nation post the 2011 revolt: that storming of police stations around the country wasn’t an act of thuggery, but the rise of the people against the iron arm of the regime, the symbols of tyranny within each neighborhood. Questions about the extent of using extrajudicial measures versus true justice are treated as givens. It mocks, with a smirk I’ve become too familiar with, the rise of the people against injustice, portraying them, just as the fuloul here condescendingly do, as misguided and uninformed.
Am I going too far by associating Nolan with the fuloul, sort of? Nolan warned against such conclusions. “It surprises me when people over read political interpretation of the film without taking into account that other people have the exact opposite interpretation,” he told the Guardian.
He was probably referring to the accusations of conservative and right wing messages allegedly embedded in the plot.
The film was welcomed by right wing commentators as a defense of the capitalist state, as a defiant challenge to a world they claimed was sympathetic to the mischievous – or misguided – left. Some of these commentators found an agreeable continuation of the trilogy’s second installment (The Dark Knight, 2008), which they claimed was supportive of George W. Bush’s policies at the time.
“Just as The Dark Knight was a touching tribute to an embattled George W. Bush who chose to be seen as a villain in order to be the hero, ‘Rises’ is a love letter to an imperfect America that in the end always does the right thing,” John Nolte wrote. He describes the first attack on Gotham as “‘Occupy’[movement] attempts to fulfill its horrific vision of what ‘equality’ really means.”
Christian Toto agrees, saying Nolan’s disdain for the “ragtag” Occupy Movement is palpable, lauding the director’s portrayal of the real life movement as “both incoherent and violent.” A jab at clean energy complements Toto’s starry eyed argument for the splendor of the movie.
The same logic and sometimes the same exact phrases could be used by the fuloul in discussions about the film in Egypt. Internationally, these views only provided proof to the angry critics on the other side of the debate. “It’s no exaggeration to say that the “Dark Knight” universe is fascistic (and I’m not name-calling or claiming that Nolan has Nazi sympathies). It’s simply a fact,” Andrew O’Hehir wrote, describing the film as an evil masterpiece.
Catherine Shoard wasn’t as intense but her review was equally reproachful of the film, which “indulges in much guttural talk of the gap between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, but it is the former who are demonized, whose revolting actions require curbing and mutinous squeals muting.”
Shoard’s criticism too isn’t much different from rebuttals made here in Cairo against screen productions that promote a version of misguided, manipulated and destructive revolts.
The film is “a quite audaciously capitalist vision, radically conservative, radically vigilante … Mitt Romney will be thrilled,” she added.
In the middle some are diligently calling for calm, like the New York Time’s Ross Douthat. “This is a conservative message, but not a triumphalist, chest-thumping, rah-rah-capitalism one,” he said.
The inspiration, as Nolan and other cast members noted, is the French Revolution. Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” is quoted at the end of the film. Notions of sacrifice and popular anger are derived from Dickens’ characters.
Preparations for the film started in 2008, long before the Occupy movement and the Arab revolts. Shooting took place is 2011. Yet, the film can’t be taken out from the context of its screening. The revolutions that kicked off in Tunisia late 2010 are still ongoing with varying successes and setbacks, some stuck in an excruciatingly long violent phase like Syria. On the other side of the ocean, the Occupy movement has drawn inspiration and thrived in varying degrees.
Actor Joseph Gordon Levitt said the film is “certainly reflective of our time.”
Like its 2008 predecessor, the film borrows references from current affairs – this time more forceful in their connotation. Many scenes of The Dark Knight Rises look awfully similar to scenes I’ve seen throughout 2011 and 2012 as part of coverage of the revolts in the region, or incidents I’ve lived myself. Clashes with the police and breaking into prisons were portrayed with overt good-versus-evil simplicity that contradicted with the real life scenes they resembled, and betrayed a legacy of questioning morality entrenched in the 2008 film.
It doesn’t matter what Nolan says about imposing political interpretations on his inspiration; whether intended or not the film is compelling in its evocations. Maybe it was intended solely for a different audience, but as I watched in Cairo, I couldn’t help but take it personally.
Towards the end, when Levitt tried to cross a bridge to safety as soldiers threatened to shoot, my heart pounded. Eighteen months ago, I joined thousands of Egyptians on Qasr El-Nil Bridge on our way to Tahrir Square. Under a non-stop influx of teargas, many were beaten up, critically injured and killed in the iconic demonstration on January 28. It remains one of the most emotional experiences in my life, especially as the symbolic nature of the bridge grew over time. If Nolan dared ridicule this specific incident as he did with many other battles, labeling him fuloul would have been the least of it.
Thankfully, he stopped short of giving this specific incident the same ridiculing treatment he gave others. Yet despite the grandeur of the other aspects of film-making, it’s difficult not to leave the movie theater without a bitter taste.