So I saw this movie on Friday night with A.H., my Korean language partner. We went to the Guild 45th to see Caché, starring Daniel Auteil and Juliette Binoche. I was excited, because I’d heard rave reviews. And I also wanted to see how much of those 5 years of French studies I’d retained. A.H. is currently in French 101 . . . so it seemed like a perfect way to combine our Korean/French weekly get-togethers.
I walked out of the film seething, which is not a usual reaction for me. It’s difficult for me to describe coherently . . .
Firstly, the movie is entirely about W.G.–White Guilt. I went in with the impression that it was going to be a cool, Hitchcock-style psychological thriller. In a sense, it was. But the political overtones are heavy-handed and obvious–and impossible to ignore, contrary to what my companion, A.H. thought.
I don’t want to give away too many details, in case you want to see the movie yourself. If you do, read no further. **Warning** Spoilers to follow.
Basically, this upper-middle-class, affluent, educated, white French family is getting terrorized by an anonymous person who sends them surveillance tapes of their own house. The tapes are wrapped in crude, violent drawings. It turns out that the main character suspects a person from his past . . . an Algerian that his family once tried to adopt years and years ago. Basically, the main character manipulated the Algerian boy, told lies about him, and got the boy kicked out of the house into an institution. He grows up to live in one of those Parisian ghettos that somehow aren’t on tourist bus routes.
The movie is supposed to be an allegory (and eerily prophetic, given that it was released in France last November) regarding French-Algerian relations, colonialism, and “chickens coming home to roost.” BUT I have a big problem with how the film so blatantly plays on all the fears associated with white guilt . . . that the ominous other is lurking in the shadows, in nightmares, waiting to strike. The Algerians in the film are completely one-dimensional . . . they only exist as plot devices. They are the background in front of which the white characters can play out their bourgeois existence. And there is a scene of shocking, sad violence–the Algerian man, grown, slits his own throat. It reminded me very much of the “tragic mulatto” myth often found in American literature . . . the tortured, oppressed minority can only find peace in death. So what does this say about white guilt? That the white people may experience a few marital squabbles and sleepless nights, while the Algerians grow up in poverty, are falsely arrested, and slit their own throats? I suppose that might be a reflection of reality . . . . But the movie in making this analogy, is comparing a 6-year-old (the main character as a child)’s transgressions to the French government’s brutal oppression of millions of people.
What . . . a . . . crock . . . of . . . SHIT.
As I was seething, post-film, A.H. was bewildered as to why the movie had gotten under my skin so deeply. This led into another one of our many arguments regarding the concept of white privilege (globally and within an American context). He again made the remark that I “always make everything about race.” This set me off even worse, and I was sitting in my Saturn, gesticulating wildly and yelling (well, speaking loudly). I reminded him that he grew up in a homogenous society (Korea, hello), and so perhaps he’s not as sensitive to such blatant displays of white privilege. Somehow, this led into discussing international adoption policy, and me explaining how one of the big reasons that twice as many Korean babies are adopted internationally as domestically is because many Koreans have this ill-conceived, idol-worship of western culture. And I referenced the article that’s been circulating about Koreans sending their teenaged children to be adopted by elderly Americans (giving up ALL of their legal rights as parents), as if the U.S. was a glorified boarding school (I’m quoting Ji-in).
To which A.H. said, “Oh, I don’t believe that’s really true . . . . ”
In poor A.H.’s defense, I do admit that sometimes upon reflection, I realize that when he says things like that . . . . It’s like I feel like I’m having a disagreement with an entire country’s ideology. So when I yell at A.H., sometimes it’s as if I’m yelling at Korea.
Which is a lot for one person to handle.
Ultimately, A.H. is a good sport. Regardless of whatever awkward, romantic feelings he might have had towards me last fall, I think we’ve managed to establish a good friendship. I later apologized for yelling at him, and he likewise apologized for being thick-headed. He’s going through a lot right now, waiting to see if the Korean military is going to pluck him out of graduate school . . .
I think I might have also been extra-sensitive that day, because I’d gotten into a discussion at work with a grad student from the Ed School about whether or not Seinfeld was ever racist & offensive.
Me & Anthro grad student: Oh, hell yes. Seinfeld–brilliant show, but at times racist.
Earnest Education grad student (Whitman grad, yeesh): No, I don’t think so . . . I think as long as the intent’s not malicious, then it’s harmless.
WTF??? As calmly as I could, I explained how the media is chock-full of all kinds of examples where the creators weren’t intending to be offensive–but that doesn’t mean it isn’t! Just look at Adam-fucking-Corolla. Need I go on??