This is a transcription of filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s keynote address at the European Conference, International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, on November 14.
I’m not sure what qualifies me to speak on Earth, War and Cinema other than the fact that I have said in the past that the best disseminated films today are not often about issues that we desperately need to think about.
It may sound like I’m advocating a prescriptive mode of filmmaking, but this is not what I mean. Cinema is, after all, an intervention. It can at times make a huge difference to the world. This pre-supposes two things. One, that a film is the outcome of an urgently felt need at ground level. Two, that there are ears and eyes to receive it and gatekeepers who allow its passage.
Earth and war are intimately related issues. We know that 50% of the world’s fossil fuels accumulated over millions of years have been used up in less than 150 years after the industrial revolution. We know that the burning of this fuel is causing what is probably irreversible climate change – with melting ice caps, flooding, drought, destruction of forests, to name just a few of the present and impending disasters. The reliance on chemical agriculture, the reliance on plastics, which are, after all, an oil product, are just a few of the corollaries.
While these are man-made disasters, they are not always intentional disasters but by-products of our hubristic attempt to improve lifestyle through a supposed mastery over nature.
War on the other hand is an intentional disaster. Human beings pre-plan the destruction of other humans by manufacturing ever more sophisticated weapons of destruction and then market these, to clients ever willing to buy and use them.
In 1945, Dwight Eisenhower was a US Naval commander when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic weapons. He rose to be president. In 1961, just before he left office, he made a startling speech that described his darkest fears of where the USA and the world were headed. He coined the term “Military Industrial Complex” to describe the ever-growing power of a conglomerate of public and private forces and politicians connected to the defence industry who exert a stranglehold on the political economy of the world. In the 62 years after this speech, apart from hundreds of small and medium wars in Latin America, Asia and Africa, the world has seen protracted war in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine and now, in Gaza.
The rationale for war varies from fighting communism to containing Islamic fundamentalism, but clearly an all-powerful arms industry needs perpetual war to maintain profits. Perpetual war needs perpetual enemies or renewable and serially created enemies. When enemies don’t exist, they can be created. James Bond movies almost perfectly map the routinely changing nature of the world’s arch enemies from Communists to Islamists. In fact, for a while, James Bond befriended Islamists during an interlude when Islamists had become allies against Communists. When no other enemies exist there are always “rogue elements” ready to oblige.
The USA alone manufactures over 40% of the world’s armaments, often selling to both sides of a given conflict. Its market is internal as well as external. No matter how many school children are slaughtered by mentally disturbed men bearing assault rifles, the National Rifle Association ensures that guns remain easy to acquire and the right to bear arms remains enshrined in the US Constitution.
This international war and violence industry could not have continued its manic growth if it was not accompanied by an ideological superstructure. For centuries, literature and art did the job. Today, it is done by cinema and TV. Human beings will perhaps always be morbidly fascinated by violence and death just as they are ever fascinated by sexuality. But the equation of sex with violence is a cultural legacy that needs deconstruction as urgently as ideas of a “just” war and of “revenge”.
Let us examine these two ideas. Most humans only get up the nerve to go into battle when convinced that their cause is just or necessary. Religion is the most common method of conviction and most wars in history have been fought in the name of God. After the dawn of the nation-State, wars came to be fought in the name of country, but God still fortified both sides of the war. For the combatants on the ground, every war has to be seen as a just war. Mercenaries are an exception. They have no cause to fight for, but like the arms dealers at the top of the ladder, they do it for the money. The Military Industrial Complex has already ensured that jobs are hard to find except in the industry that promotes death and destruction.
Even when a particular war is actually just, or necessary, as World War 2 became after the emergence of [German dictator Adolf] Hitler, the need for vengeance ensures greater destruction than is necessary to end war. The obliteration of [the German city] Dresden was revenge for the bombing of London. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were payback for Pearl Harbor. Today in Gaza we are witnessing the completely disproportionate massacre of Palestinians as payback for the actions of Hamas on October 7.
No one wants to know who created Hamas. Just as they don’t want to know who created Osama Bin Laden or ISIS [the Islamic State].
This is my beef with the film and TV industry. It is mostly a willing or unwitting part of the dominant economic and political force in the world – the Military Industrial Complex. If a few people speak out, they are either silenced by overt censorship as in the case of [whistleblowers] Julian Assange and [Edward] Snowden or assassinated, as was the weapons inspector David Kelly, the man who in 2003 dared to tell Tony Blair’s UK that the need to invade Iraq was “sexed up”. Not only was Kelly killed for blowing the whistle on Blair and Bush, but we are asked to believe that a man would walk all the way to a public park to slit his arteries rather than do it in the privacy of his own home.
I’m not saying that no-one has ever made documentaries or fiction films about these issues but their stories are rarely disseminated widely enough to impact the consciousness of the world. Occasionally a story that critiques destruction does become a blockbuster like Oppenheimer did. But even here you can see the censors at play, either official or commercial. We learn that [JR] Oppenheimer, a Jewish scientist who was lionised for creating the first atom bomb, then fell from grace when he had a change of heart and opposed the making of the hydrogen bomb. The film revolves around the tragic figure of Oppenheimer without emphasising the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki whose obliteration was undeniably unnecessary.
Kai Bird, who co-wrote the book on which the Oppenheimer film is based, had been categorical about this needless mayhem 24 years ago when I interviewed him while making our anti-nuclear documentary, War and Peace. Kai pointed out that before the atom bombs were dropped, the USA had decoded Japanese telegrams and learnt that Japan was about to surrender. Many Jewish and other scientists who had joined the race to make the atom bomb before Hitler could, petitioned the US president to rethink the idea of bombing Japan. The petition never reached [FD] Roosevelt before he died.
Kai Bird also pointed out that Americans were never shown close ups of what the atom bomb had done to people on the ground but were merely shown the mushroom cloud from afar and long shots of the city in ruins. Indeed, footage from ground zero shot by a Japanese camera crew in 1945 was kept secretly in American vaults for decades before being rediscovered.
Kai Bird was part of a research team that was preparing to mount an exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum, tasked with commemorating 50 years of the bomb. This exhibition was censored and sanitised and neither Republicans nor Democrats on Capitol Hill stood up for free speech.
The strategy of sanitising war has always been followed. The two Gulf Wars, Afghanistan and the present war on Palestine all come to our screens primarily as video games. Needless to add that video games around the world specialise in war games.
If well-meaning fiction films like Oppenheimer tell half-truths it does not mean that well-intentioned documentarists always tell the full truth. I remember seeing Meeting Gorbachev by Werner Herzog at IDFA [International Documentary Festival Amsterdam] five years ago. Herzog obviously deeply admired Gorby [Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union] and the film is testimony to how Gorby helped end the Cold War by making deep cuts in the Soviet military and nuclear arsenal.
What the film fails to tell us is that President Ronald Reagan never met Gorby half-way. Even as the Berlin Wall came down and peace treaties were signed bringing widespread hope for a new era of peace, the USA opened up a new frontier with Star Wars, taking the arms race into outer space. Gorby was toppled by a drunken Boris Yeltsin supported by the West, and then replaced by a [Vladimir] Putin who in time revived Russian belligerence. As long as the Military Industrial Complex rules the world no one is allowed to stop the war machine.
The link between Earth and War is often hidden from public discourse. Is it not possible if not probable that the ethnic cleansing of Gaza has something to do with the discovery of oil and natural gas there and the billions of dollars waiting to be made? An Indian billionaire, PM Narendra Modi’s close friend Gautam Adani, is already building a port in Israel and Israel plans to build a sea passage, a hugely lucrative rival to the Suez Canal.
War apart, no one is allowed to stop the “development” machine that is eating up the planet’s resources in the name of “speed” and “comfort”. One man who tilted against the machine by calling for organic, decentralised, and artisanal development rather than unbridled urbanisation and industrialisation was Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi is perhaps synonymous with the very idea of peace and non-violence but Gandhi, unlike war mongers like [US presidents] Henry Kissinger and a hapless Barack Obama, never won the Nobel Peace Prize.
One reason may lie in what Gandhi said in 1938 even as Western powers brainstormed to create Israel, driven by the guilt of allowing Hitler’s genocide, but also by the need to have a super ally to police the oil-rich Middle East.
I quote from Gandhi writing in his mouthpiece, The Harijan, in 1938
“My sympathies are all with the Jews. They have been the untouchables of Christianity. The parallel between their treatment by Christians and the treatment of untouchables by Hindus is very close. Religious sanction has been invoked in both cases for the justification of the inhuman treatment meted out to them.
But my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice.
The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me. The sanction for it is sought in the Bible and the tenacity with which the Jews have hankered after return to Palestine.
Why should they not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood?
Palestine belongs to the Arabs in the same sense that England belongs to the English or France to the French. It is wrong and inhuman to impose the Jews on the Arabs. What is going on in Palestine today cannot be justified by any moral code of conduct. The mandates have no sanction but that of the last war. Surely it would be a crime against humanity to reduce the proud Arabs so that Palestine can be restored to the Jews partly or wholly as their national home. The nobler course would be to insist on a just treatment of the Jews wherever they are born and bred.”
I will not end with this Gandhi quote from 85 years ago.
It is more realistic to conclude with a recent report by arms industry executives from Raytheon Corp and General Dynamics, two of America’s largest defence contractors who told their investors that Israel’s war on Gaza will be good for business – one executive predicting that its recent four-fold increase in artillery production would not be enough to meet additional demand.
Let me not be misunderstood. Today, Israel exists and so does Palestine. It is unrealistic to wish either away until such time as people learn to accept each other as human beings with equal rights. But in the interim, the world must not sit back and watch an ongoing genocide as it did during the years of Hitler’s rise to power.
We must act collectively to not only end global bloodshed but to find equitable peaceful solutions. Peace we need now but justice must follow, as without it, peace cannot sustain.
For this to begin to happen, all those who make and sell weapons and promote the hatred that makes them profitable, must be defanged physically and ideologically. Such a cultural revolution can begin only when cinema and TV break free from the ideological and physical shackles of the military industrial complex.
Anand Patwardhan is a filmmaker.