Thursday, 29 August 2013

The representation of religious extremism in contemporary film: Does it have its uses?

 For my dissertation  I researched religious extremism in the films RedState and Four Lions. I would like to share with you my introduction and conclusion, it was a very laborious few months but I really enjoyed the research and in the end found the films useful and thought provoking anyway here is what I found:

In July 2012 a fourteen minute video entitled Innocence of Muslims (Nakoula:2012) was uploaded to YouTube. The relatively low-budget film was poorly dubbed in Arabic with what were regarded as anti-Islamic slurs, causing a global controversy resulting in the death of 75 people. It also prompted a wide variety of responses from different governments; Pakistani minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilour offered a reward for the death of the film’s producer and the American Government requested YouTube assess whether the video could be removed from their site. Critics noted that the video was constructed to be inflammatory that it emphasised that films are ‘still associated with an idea- the idea of America’s global power and prestige’ (Guardian, 2010). Ironically, across the Atlantic the Westboro Baptist church continued to use the funerals (and subsequent news coverage) of soldiers that died fighting in wars against a religiously motivated force in the Middle East as a platform to promote homophobia and their fundamentalist beliefs. What I found interesting was it appeared that an ideological war was being waged using the media and it had a lot to do with religion.

The rebuttal to this cross media warfare came in the form of film. In particular Four Lions (Chris Morris, 2010) presented a refreshing break from the constant barrage of anti-Islamic rhetoric (Labidi,2010) this proved a controversial film because of its light-hearted approach to home grown terrorism and its aims of deconstructing fear. Kevin Smiths appeared to do the opposite, exploring the evolution of American Christian Fundamentalism to extremism in Red State (Kevin Smith, 2011). As social commentary these films express a need to engage in discourse about religious extremism that might otherwise be left to the one dimensional news portrayal.

This thesis uses a semiotic analysis of the two previously mentioned films to argue that religious extremism is represented in film with relation to factual media representations and as such provides a varied portrayal that has multiple uses.

When I first developed my research question I was concerned that I would find a one dimensional answer that would offer very little insight into the representation of religious extremism in film. I felt certain that outside of the catacomb of religious fundamentalist propaganda, religious extremism will be represented negatively in main stream film. However, the more I researched the films Four Lions and Red State the more it became apparent the films were suggesting that religious extremism is more than just a black and white subject. Although, religion in film was a relatively new research area for me as soon as I became aware of its presence religion became entangled in film everywhere I looked. Whether ideologically or ironically, its spans genres both subconsciously and stylistically engaging in theological discourse in the most unlikely of places.
A semiotic analysis has a wide and layered theoretical background with the like of Barthes, Metz and Hall all combining the methodology in order to understand representation. Therefore in light of my research I felt from an interpretive point of view it has been ideal for film analysis. However to take this further I would use qualitative audience research as I feel just from the general virtual ethnographic research undertaken regarding these films during their selection process that there are multiple ways that they have been viewed from an audiences perspective. In particularly as they are satirical there is as highlighted by Jordon (2010) and Ciacco (2004) a misreading that can mean an audience is not aware of the duality of the texts reading.
In relation, Four Lions could be seen as a blatantly exploitative film done in bad taste with little regard for the victim of the 7/7 bombings in London: that however is not what the analysis suggests. It suggests that Four Lions opens up a dialogue that the news media seem reluctant to have. Home-grown terrorism is hard for us to understand because we cannot easily identify ‘the enemy’, the news continues to reinforce its links with al-Qaeda and a grander scheme yet as Said suggests this only reinforces this ‘supreme narrative’ and does not address the reality that ‘terrorist’ does not automatically eradicate the ‘human’. Humanising should not be confused with agreeing with or making light of yet a deconstruction of fear makes way for answers. This is what Four Lions attempts and in my opinion succeeds at doing, it humanises extremism so that we might better understand it, critique it and fight it as film increasing has the power to make a difference (LeBeouf, 2007).
Red State takes on a wholly different approach than Four Lions. Yet again my research suggests it is done so as to have purpose. The films exaggeration of a type of fundamentalism that occurs in America seeks to highlight the possibilities of what people can do when their actions are backed by the infallible word of god and a charismatic patriarch, a risk seen all too often to come to fruition such as Waco, Heaven’s Gate and Jones Town.
Theorists suggest that film has replaced religion (Walsh-Pasulka, 2005) and that it embodies it virtues while disregarding its legends to make it marketable (Koslovic, 2005).They also suggest it skews the perception of its practitioners with representative falsehoods (Ramji, 2005) or develop our understanding of scriptures role within society (Wallis&Aston,2011). While all of these aspects are evident in research I would argue that further to this, these film attempt to answer the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ asked by the public after religious extremism leaves its many causalities.

While writing up my findings, a ‘terrorist act’ occurred in America that closely mirrored the plot of Four Lions; two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon. I contemplated its integration in this work and initially felt it would hold little purpose, however in the days that followed the attacks the news media was inundated with stories regarding who these two people were. Despite their Cheynen origins from all the first hand reports they appeared so American so ‘us’ and not ‘other’. It was this desperation to comprehend how an ‘extremist’ or a ‘terrorist’ didn’t fit an assumed representation that exemplified the deconstruction of the myth. It became evident that within the public sphere extremism has to have a face, a religion, an accent, a way of life and it must fit in order for us to feel comfortable, in order to uphold the supreme narrative. That is what these films undo, they undo previously held representations and suggest that extremism is not a predictable, or conventional re-presentation of previously held assertions that are maintained in part by a continuing rhetoric of segregation perpetuated by the news media. They are flexible, current and constantly shaped by real world situations and events.

(Whitaker, R 2013)

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