Apr. 16th, 2015

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Putting a film on during a lesson is the universal code for two separate states of being. First, that the teacher has given up on trying to teach, and second, that the student has won the victory of avoiding having to learn for however many precious minutes the film or video or whatever is running. However the teacher cannot state openly that they have given up on teaching for the day, because they are employees of an organisation and organisations tend not to employ people who give up working before the time they should.

(Of course taking that attitude in a school, where the ability of teachers to do their job is at least halfway reliant on the co-operation of a gaggle of young idiots whose presence in said school is largely forced, either by government law, parental/societal expectation, or the desire to occupy a higher social rank/tax bracket post-school, is putting an unfair amount of responsibility on the teacher - though that said there needs to be at least some responsibility placed on the teacher because while they don't fully control the situation in a classroom, they do have extensive power within it.)

The way teachers tend to reconcile the truth of the situation with the need to pretend they are still educating is by touting the educational value of whatever film/video they put on. Usually they go about this the wrong way, because of a misunderstanding about what 'educational' art looks like.

(OK, here's the point of the article).

Narrative (whether non-fictional or fictional) is intelligent because it demonstrates the ability to be honest, not because it demonstrates accuracy.

Here, accuracy refers to the extent to which the narrative mimics real life, from whether the uniforms really look like that, to whether there were actually black people not being slaves in that time period.

Honesty on the other hand refers to the extent to which the narrative makes statements that feel true.

I realise that this latter trait relies heavily on the beholder, whereas the former is quantifiable. It is possible to express objectively whether or not a narrative is accurate. Whether or not it is honest can differ from audience member to audience member, depending on what reality each said audience member occupies.

(Here's another point - every human being occupies at once the same reality that everyone inhabits, and their own particular individual reality. So there are facts, which every human being has to deal with, and ideas, which differ between human beings and each human being assumes are shared by most other human beings. The greatest coup in an argument between two human beings is when one manages to demonstrate that the facts line up with their ideas.)

However, that said the ability of human beings to decide that certain films are better than others points to (in addition to the existence of guidelines for what constitutes good writing, camerawork, editing etc.) the idea that some films are more honest than others. And honestly, if you want to educate people through narrative art, you have to show them the films that are honest over the films that are accurate.

Which is why I think Three Kings is a really good movie to show people whom you wish to educate about war.

(Man it took us a little while to get here. OK, let's get substantiating).

Three Kings is a film available on US Netflix, if you're wondering. That means any one of you with a Netflix account should be able to watch it.

Three Kings does a couple very impressive things. First it manages to consistently occupy a tone between cynical comedy and serious drama, that causes every event that happens to be at once fun and also deadly serious. Like there's this point where a cow blows up because it stands on a landmine, and it's used to make a serious point about how dangerous travel in post-(1st Gulf)war Iraq was (and indeed has been in the many wars since, given the liking Iraqi rebel forces have for the booby trap and minefield). As in, it sets up a scene later in the movie where the characters encounter the lifethreatening danger of landmine-littered roads. But at that point the scene is played for laughs, and is referenced again for a gag a bit later when one Iraqi shouts about how terrifying the three Americans are, as they are 'covered in blood'. So an event happens, and there is both comedy and seriousness wrung from it. And these are wrung from most events in the film, which demonstrates just how impeccably this story has been told. Because the tone feels like a consistent whole even though it is composed of two competing influences, and the writing makes sure that events are not isolated, there-and-gone, but that what happens then is always used by what happens after. That way the story keeps building on itself and starts to feel substantive.

But beyond this the story is also totally honest.

There are two main stories that humans tell about war. We say war is hell. And we say that the people who support and fight the war - everyone that is, apart from the bastards who started the damn thing - are good. As a film that decided to be a comedy and a sad-drama at the same time, Three Kings unsurprisingly decides to say both these things at once. 

There is this interrogation sequence. Mark Wahlberg plays US soldier Troy Barlow. Barlow is a new father. He is a normal human being, apart from the fact that he occasionally shoots people, but in this war he hasn't had the opportunity to do that very often. He is captured by a group of Iraqi Republican Guards after an attempt to steal back some of the Kuwaiti gold the Iraqis themselves only just stole is derailed, because he and his fellow US soldiers witness Republican Guards imprisoning and killing unarmed Iraqi civilians and on instinct act to intervene. In response to that intervention he is captured and tortured by some Republican Guardsmen. One, a Captain Said played by Said Taghmaoui, takes Barlow through the tragedies the war has brought him. How American airstrikes killed his son and crippled his wife. How he only joined the Republican Guard for the pay, and now cannot leave for fear that Saddam will have him killed. And through all this, Barlow's only reaction is acceptance and empathy. Nor is this reaction torn from Barlow against his will. Barlow empathises instinctively. He accepts the tragedy of the Guard's life with sorrow. This I feel is a moment of pure honesty.

See, there is another way this scene could go. The torture scene could be struggle, the torturer Said forcing Barlow inch by inch to dispense with the patriotic lies that distort his ideas about reality. At the end of such a scene Barlow would experience an epiphany about the humanity he shares with his enemy. Some great point would be made about how empathy triumphs over the brainwashing of the militant nation-state. And it would be made dishonestly.

The honesty of this scene is that Barlow's empathy is not hard-won, but easy-won. All Said has to do is ask him what losing his child would be like, and Barlow can imagine it. The film does not portray empathy as lying at the end of an arc, but as a thing always in a human's possession and always able to rise to the surface.

Three Kings is honest because while it does tell a story about humans starting an adventure from base greed only to complete it struggling for the safety of people threatened with death, it does not tell it with character arcs where humans at first think bad things are good and then come to realise that bad things are bad and good things are good. It tells a story in which all characters know what is bad and what is good straight away, and their reactions to this knowledge are more determined by fear for their lives than their ideas about how the world is. George Clooney plays a character called Archie Gates, who states that the most important thing in life is necessity. It turns out though that altruism is necessary. That in the end humans have no choice but to be good.

Three Kings is probably accurate on the uniforms and the hardware. It's at least satirically accurate about the state of Iraq following the 1st Gulf War. But it is not this that makes it an intelligent film. That plaudit is earned when Gates, asked why he stopped the Republican Guardsman shooting an unarmed civilian, replies 'I had no choice.' Because human goodness does not lie at the end of some character-development rainbow. It is always within us. Accessible, and not to be ignored.


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January 2016


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