With spectacular effects that transport audiences to the world of its characters, Avatar leads us to encounter our social and national trespasses in ways we’re often unable — or unwilling — to do in everyday life.
Now that director James Cameron’s Avatar has topped his 1997 blockbuster, Titanic, to become the target of critics from all sides. Conservatives, liberals, politicians, and religious leaders have all expressed suspicion regarding the film’s perceived agendas, and the movie has been called racist, anti-capitalist, anti-military, and pro-smoking, among other things. Avatar certainly gives you plenty to think about, and Cameron clearly has something to say. But whatever underlying messages you take from it, I think there’s one that rises to the top. Avatar offers an important but probably undesired gift to Westerners: the ability to feel sorry., there’s not much critics can say to squelch the movie’s fire. With his groundbreaking 3-D epic, Cameron has created a marvelously entertaining experience for moviegoers. But while making billions of dollars, Avatar also has become
Put another way: the movie gives Western viewers an opportunity to do emotionally what the movie’s main characters do physically — to experience the clash of civilizations from the point of view of the indigenous peoples being invaded.
In the film, earthlings take on genetically manufactured bodies of the indigenous Na’vi race found on Pandora, a flourishing moon of the Alpha Centauri galaxy. Likewise, Western moviegoers get the metaphorical opportunity to enter into the skin of the indigenous peoples around the world who have been so damaged by their encounters with Western civilization over the past 600 years.
By creating a vivid otherworld and plunging moviegoers into it in three dimensions, Cameron gives viewers a chance to set aside their defense mechanisms and preconceived notions about justice and history, taking them on the type of experience that I believe is a necessary part of the process of reconciling the West with the Rest.
In studying and teaching ideas on reconciliation over the past several years, I’ve learned that both forgiveness and repentance are necessary if reconciliation is to take place.
Forgiveness, quickly stated, means to not require of the guilty party the payment due for an injustice that has been committed. Repentance, on the other hand, means to renounce not only the injustice that was committed but also the core thinking (“I deserve this more than you,” “I am better than you”) that enabled the injustice in the first place.
Both forgiveness and repentance must first take place within the individual, but the process takes on social meaning when it moves on to an encounter between offending or offended others in the form of a pronouncement of forgiveness or an apology. It can also involve gestures to repair the wrongs that were done.
But, I Don’t Feel Sorry
Problems is, the descendants and heirs of those responsible for past injustice often simply do not feel sorry about what was done in the past, because they don’t feel connected to it.
How can one be expected to repent and to apologize or repair injustice when one does not feel sorry?
It is only when people see and feel the harm of what was done, even in past generations, that they can begin to reject the wrong thinking they have often unknowingly inherited from their progenitors.
To make matters more complicated, the guilt and pain and resentment between the groups in question make it difficult for them to get close enough to begin to see into each other’s experiences. It is generally only those who develop intimate relationships with peoples who were negatively impacted by injustice who begin to understand the lasting impact of the past on current generations.
These people who get close (through marriage, close friendship, or living among the “others”) enter into the skin of the people in question, they feel their pain and begin to grasp the implications of what was done, particularly to the victim group’s souls and psyches.
Those who develop these intimate relationships are the people who feel sorry. They are the people who repent. These are the people who, in my own experience, helped me to forgive.
But few European Americans get the chance to live closely and intimately with Native American or Black American culture. Few Europeans experience intimately African cultures that were impacted so negatively by colonization. Few Australians get the chance to enter into the experience of the aboriginal people there.
Few Westerners get the chance to live among Arabs, developing the relationships necessary to understand what the humiliating colonial past meant to Arabs across the Middle East and how that continues to affect the world today … how that colonial past is deeply tied to the perception and reaction to Israel’s existence today, for example.
Shortcuts to Intimacy
So it’s invaluable to find ways for people to experience intimacy that normal life is unlikely to produce any time soon. We need intimacy shortcuts for people groups.
Cameron provides us with just that in Avatar.
When you experience the devastation of the Na’vi in Avatar, you have a chance to taste for a moment the pain that so many peoples around the world have felt.
Few, if any, experiences before Avatar have caused my spirit to grieve for what was done in the name of my country and of my faith, in particular to the Native Americans.
As the film reached its climax I felt deeply saddened, humbled, and sorrowful. For some reason, I thought of Mt. Rushmore and felt profound shame as I imagined the Lakota people standing by as dynamite blasts blasphemed the majestic mountain scape they had known as Six Grandfathers, carving out of this holy site the giant busts of men that, in their eyes, had overseen the ethnic cleansing and genocide of their people.
One scene, in which the stunned Na’vi walk through the devastated center of their culture, with ash falling and floating around them, is eerily reminiscent of Ground Zero in New York, as stunned Americans tried to make sense of the destruction of the World Trade Center towers.
Cameron thus gives viewers the opportunity to connect their own recent trauma with the trauma that others have felt. “Have we caused others to feel the horror of what we felt on Sept. 11, 2001?”
From the Head to Heart
This film experience caused my heart to follow what my head had long since understood. I had known in my head that what was done to Native Americans was horrible. But it had been too easy for me to dismiss this as one of those facts of history that every people on earth has endured.
“Kingdoms and peoples rise and fall,” I might have been tempted to think. “That’s the way the world goes.” And plus, as an African-American, I had felt exonerated from the need to deal with this issue. It wasn’t my problem. My people had nothing to do with it.
But Avatar did not allow me to come to the film as a Black American. It pulled me into the skin of a Na’vi living on Pandora. It built a new world around me that allowed me to forget, to a large degree, the realities of my own.
I was able to process the experience without the natural defenses and devices we use to deflect the discomfort of guilt and responsibility.
And so just as the Na’vi in the film found themselves defenseless against the selfishness and ignorance of their intruders, so was my soul without a weapon to beat back the ugliness of what I was witnessing. I felt what it feels like to have everything that matters to me, the very essence of my identity and my reality, ripped up at the roots, as if it meant nothing.
I felt what it was like to realize that nothing about me and my identity mattered. It was a horrible feeling that I knew all too well. But Avatar helped me feel it for others, rather than having it be about me.
Not So Exaggerated
Some might argue the villains in the film were cartoonishly simple in their greed, ignorance, and sense of superiority. Others might feel a need to defend their forefathers as being much less ignorant and cruel than those represented in the film. But it is important to note that their perception in the eyes of their victims is often very much as the movie portrays.
In the reconciliation seminars that we present as part of the peace and community development organization that I help lead, we encourage people to confront the ugliness and heaviness of the past rather than seeking to avoid it, rationalize it, and push it off on others. We encourage people to face the discomfort, guilt, and sorrow head-on.
If we don’t understand the reality and impact of our past, we can’t feel sorry. We won’t reject and turn from the thoughts and practices that led to injustice.
We won’t work to repair the injustices of the past and seek justice in the present.
We will never understand why people like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab are willing to blow up airplanes filled with people. We will just look at people like him and decide that they are the only problem. And so, the cycle of misunderstanding and vengeance will continue.
Of course Avatar cannot cause us to think or act differently. But for a moment, at least, this movie gives us a chance to feel something different. Perhaps for some of us these feelings will be the beginning of a new journey.