Apocalypse Now and Then: The Crazy Irish-American Catholic Male as a Trope in “War for the Planet of the Apes”

CRAZY IRISH-AMERICAN CATHOLICS:

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From Al Smith’s failed bid to be the first Catholic to run for President to Mel Gibson, well, being Mel Gibson… the Irish-American Catholic man has always occupied a special place in the American psyche which is shorthand for social anxiety, angst, violence and instability.  Holding a unique place within the American political landscape which is treated with equal levels of wariness from the political left and right, it is no wonder that author Philip Jenkins of Baylor University has referred to anti-Catholicism as “the last acceptable prejudice“.

*Before reading on, spoiler alert for War for the Planet of the Apes*

As with any group seen of as alien and foreign though, American Catholics can often view their religion in both high and pop-culture through an exotisized, fetishized and romanticized lens which oscillates between the noble savage and the exotic other.  Jesuit James Martin has written of this phenomena being for two reasons:

First, more than any other Christian denomination, the Catholic Church is supremely visual, and therefore attractive to producers and directors concerned with the visual image. Vestments, monstrances, statues, crucifixes-to say nothing of the symbols of the sacraments-are all things that more “word oriented” Christian denominations have foregone. The Catholic Church, therefore, lends itself perfectly to the visual media of film and television. You can be sure that any movie about the Second Coming or Satan or demonic possession or, for that matter, any sort of irruption of the transcendent into everyday life, will choose the Catholic Church as its venue. (See, for example, “End of Days,” “Dogma” or “Stigmata.”)

Second, the Catholic Church is still seen as profoundly “other” in modern culture and is therefore an object of continuing fascination. As already noted, it is ancient in a culture that celebrates the new, professes truths in a postmodern culture that looks skeptically on any claim to truth and speaks of mystery in a rational, post Enlightenment world. It is therefore the perfect context for scriptwriters searching for the “conflict” required in any story.

The War for the Planet of the Apes, in its presentation of antagonist Colonel McCullough played by Woody Harrelson, captures both the exotic and the terrifying with Catholic imagery somehow still tainted with Irish ethnic undertones.

First, before I go on, I’d like to say I’m a huge fan of this reboot, and also was very impressed with something the movie got right.  As a combat veteran (which, as we all know makes me a qualified critic of every historical, political and cultural debate in contemporary society) I watched the previous film, thinking, “Oh, they vaguely referred to a military base ‘up North’… if this film is set in San Francisco, that’s obviously Fort Lewis, not that any of those Hollywood phonies would bother doing research for that!”.  But, lo and behold, the soldiers throughout the film were wearing unit insignia for 2nd Infantry Division and 17th FIRES Brigade, as well as 1st Special Forces Group, all based in Washington State’s Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM).  So… good job Hollywood, you got something right.

Now, moving on, the most obvious allegory that I could draw in comparing the treatment of the apes to historical racist depictions of the Irish as people with simian features, or as this gem from Punch magazine below did, full blown damn dirty apes:

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The above cartoon  was written in the context of dismissing the notion of Irish Home Rule or independence (because it would have been silly to assume that the ‘lower races’ were capable of self-governance).  It shows with their pithy pun of Mr. G. O’Rilla, one of the easiest things for Anglo-Saxons to poke fun at Irish people about were their strange names, with funny prefixes.  While this British cartoon used the “O” prefix, a far more common observation in America was the “Mac” or “Mc” prefix, leading to “Mick” becoming a shorthand slur for an Irish or Irish-American.  This was why Woody Harrelson’s character, whose name is not mentioned in the film once, but whose nametape says “McCullough” was so significant.

But the scientific racism of the 19th & early 20th century, largely a result of rapid colonization, in many ways only modified the source of existing prejudices held by those with power.  As Luke Gibbons has pointed out in his wonderful novel Gaelic Gothic, as the British explored further and further continents and encountered cultures more and more different from their own, they did not begin to think of the Irish as more similar to them.  Rather, it heightened their awareness of their continued differences.  And so, with the advent of modern, biologically-based racism, there was finally a scientific answer to one of the most jarring and anxiety-inducing aspects of Irish culture to the British and Anglo-Americans… It was inferior biology which had made them cling to the superstitious and unreformed Catholicism.  Alas!  Their drunkeness, their superstitious rituals and treatment of the dead, their Tamany Hall-style graft, and political violence, it had nothing to do with the Pope, and everything to do with progeny!  But just as scientific racism merely built on old prejudices with new understandings, many of our contemporary prejudices have been handed down from old ones.  This cartoon from America demonstrates the social fears widely held in America that Anglo-Protestants associated with Irish-Catholics.

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While it would be easy to dismiss Colonel McCullough as a once off oddity, he represents a long and continuing tradition of American popular culture portraying Irish-Americans with what Diane Negra calls a, “broad consensus in the US that Irishness is available to speak a precariously classed, highly unstable whiteness”.  From Denis Leary to Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, (and I would add Mel Gibson, born in New York to an Irish mother) Negra has written extensively on the perception of Irish masculinity in American culture.
In many way Colonel McCullough was an extension of this.  By normalizing the notion of post-traumatic stress, violence and callousness so often used to depict the Irish-American man in film, his Irishness was reinforced.  And from the crucifix he wore around his neck shirtless, to the name of his unit, Alpha-Omega, with its Greek symbols branded onto his minions,  to his making the sign of the cross over those same minions with his straight razor mid-head-shave, the film constantly uses Catholic imagery to simultaneously portray his masculinity and terrifying exoticism.

war-apes-woody-harrelson-2
in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti…

But then, as Woody Harrelson himself has said before….

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I’m happy that Hollywood got the unit insignia right on the soldiers from JBLM in Washington State.  I also really liked the homage paid to Apocalypse Now, from the Colonel’s monologue on sacrificing one’s humanity, to his rogue status having to be exterminated by his former superiors with extreme prejudice.  But in a time when veterans across America are battling against constant Hollywood portrayals as two-dimensional psychopathic poster children for post-traumatic stress and walking, talking stereotypes with Southern accents, I wasn’t thrilled to see the portrayal of soldiers as mindless killing machines.  And having been raised with my Aunt Margaret’s oil lamp and rosary beads she brought through Ellis Island on the hutch…a constant reminder my parents would point to  of how easy I had had it as a third generation Irish-American, I wasn’t thrilled to see the angry Irish-American Catholic man used as shorthand for mental instability either.

 

Textualities 2017 Reflections

I recently did the *drum roll please…… TEXTUALITIES MINI-CONFERENCE!!!  I ended up having to give my presentation a bit early because I’d bought tickets to fly back to America last year.  I’d wanted to surprise my dad, having found out that he would be the grand marshal for my hometown’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, which we always hold on the Saturday prior to the holiday itself.  Having to go a few days before the conference ended up feeling like kind of a double edged blade.  On the one hand, I felt sort of nervous not having anyone else to watch and sort of go off of, but on the other hand, I was able to get it over with sooner than anyone else, and have a video record of it.  I was really nervous, even though this course so far has given me an opportunity to write about what I love.  And capturing it on video gave me both halves of that: I would notice how some things I said evoked laughter, just as quickly as the times I misspoke, or my voice cracked.

If you haven’t already seen it, here is a video of my presentation:

https://ucc.hosted.panopto.com/Panopto/Pages/Viewer.aspx?id=e330e566-df25-4bcd-9f5a-3d230475bcb0

So big shout out to everyone who made it out that day to ask questions, thank you! I would like to answer some of those questions now, as well as delving into a few things I have thought of since giving the presentation.

1: Dr. Heather Laird asked me what the Irish diaspora in America was assimilating in to, and what that meant.

  • Part of the difficulty, in fact I think the biggest difficulty of my thesis, will be establishing the language of my research, and I think this was a great example.  Having minored in History during my undergrad, I have always been wary of using contemporary language and paradigms in understanding the way that people of the past thought.  I’ve always felt that this is similar to holding a pre-conceived notion, then molding the world and its events to reach that conclusion, like the exact opposite of the scientific process.  I feel that this is becoming more and more prevalent nowadays, especially in the Humanities.  And because I will be writing about changing perceptions which were taking place in America in the 1940s to 1960s, this will be something I have to be careful of.
  • So, the question remains, what were Irish immigrants assimilating in to?  This speaks to the idea of ethnicity, which is neither racial nor wholly socially constructed.  Ethnicity is not as widely recognized in today’s society, and in an increasingly diverse world, the chasms between different subcultures of the same skin color seem at times to be rapidly disappearing.  The idea of a white American holding an ethnic identity nowadays has largely become something of easily dismissed comedic fodder, see below.
  • But this was not always the case.  As I’ve written before, I grew up feeling a strong sense of ethnic identity, but an identity in a sort of twilight.  As a kid I saw the last of the generation of immigrants in my family die, leaving in their wake heirlooms, mass cards, and stories at the dining room table.  The idea of ethnicity in previous generations was very tangible.  In conjunction with the early 20th century’s scientific racism, most people believed that if you were an American whose ‘blood’ was Irish Catholic then, it didn’t matter if your great grandparents had arrived in America in a previous century, you were Irish.  Or Polish.  Or Italian.  Any of these ‘ethnic’ nations, typically poor peasants, and almost always Catholic, had a type of ethnic difference which only in the last 50 years has been largely transcended by the whiteness of their skin.  It will be very important for me to cite the many resources I’ve come across in the past year in the library which demonstrate that ethnicity did not have in previous generations the same fluidity or ambiguity that we in the postmodern world can apply to our understanding of things.
  • One of those resources I came across earlier this year is the Dale T. Knobel book Paddy and the Republic: Ethnicity and Nationality in Antebellum America.  Dr. Laird asked about the idea of America already being mixed, and while there have always been Catholics and Irish people in America, prior to the challenges of mass migration due to the Famine, America unquestionably saw itself as an Anglo Protestant nation.  In quoting a prominent Presbyterian evangelist of the Antebellum Period of American history, Knobel observed, “‘Puritanism, Protestantism, and True Americanism are only different terms to designate the same set of principles” (5).  I hope to find more material which corroborates this strongly held notion of American identity.

2: Performing Irishness.

  • One of the most surprising things I came across was Kerouac’s fascination with Irish culture.  But as with all great paradoxes, it was surprising, but shouldn’t have been.  In several of Kerouac novels I’ve read, (notably, On the Road and Tristessa) Kerouac’s protagonists were the sons or grandsons of Italian rather than French immigrants.  White immigrants practicing a folksy type of Catholicism and somehow regarded even up until the 1950s as racially ambiguous white people…
  • And Salinger is no different!  Holden Caulfield complains about people assuming he is Catholic because of his Irish sounding last name, and draws alienation from their sense of solidarity, a relic from their time of secret societies and agrarian discontent, carried into the upper middle class of America…. I can’t be the only one who sees this!!!

    Mugatu
    I can’t be the only one who sees this!!!
  • As I mentioned in the presentation, in doing research for the film module, Diane Negra from UCD has written extensively on Irishness being used as a visual shorthand in contemporary American culture to communicate a toxic form of whiteness, often masculine, angry, violent and besieged.  No one questions the Irishness of Denis Leary, who grew up in Massachusetts with parents from Kerry, and sings songs about being an angry lapsed Catholic, boldly daring cancer to come for him for enjoying chain smoking and binge drinking.
  • But Jack Kerouac using the same sense of ethnic fatalism so often ascribed to the Irish race to drink himself into an early grave, having a lifelong attachment to the working class, white immigrant, ethnic Catholicism of his mother is often overlooked.  Why did he change Neal Cassady’s name in On the Road, his most iconic work, to Dean Moriarty?  I find it hard to believe that Kerouac, famous for his obsession with words and ideas from other languages he found esoteric or incommunicable, was unaware of the name Moriarty, which, according to Ancestry.com is, “shortened Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Muircheartaigh ‘descendant of Muircheartach’, a personal name composed of the elements muir ‘sea’ + ceardach ‘skilled’, i.e. ‘skilled navigator’”.  All of this is a performance, and one which is difficult today I think for us to grasp.  It’s what I want to make sense of.

3: Doctor Donna Marie Alexander asked if I will I be examining the role of gender in my research?

  • Short answer, absolutely.  My dilemma is this, and I am still trying to articulate it, but here’s a simplistic explanation: I don’t want it to devolve into a rehashing of my most recent essay on our Gender and Sexuality module, in which I examine the role of Marian devotion, and the pressure mothers historically have put on sons to become priests.  I focused on the sexual otherness priests were historically (and still sometimes to this day) portrayed as by historically anti-Catholic movements.
  • Nor do I want to turn my research into yet another in vogue heap of abuse thrown at a Catholic Church which isn’t exactly popular these days in Ireland, or America.  Since the recent Tuam Babies scandal, I’ve noticed a dearth of denunciation for the society at large which sent unmarried women to the horrible conditions of these homes, other than a few minor opinion pieces here and there.  Similarly, I feel like there has been very little acknowledgement of the fact that these homes were not operated solely by Catholic institutions but also by Protestant organizations, and that these double standards seemingly go completely unchecked.  I find it fascinating that there are so many parallels between the moral panics of the 19th century which led to widespread anti-Catholic violence and the current atmosphere of anti-Catholic thought in the Western world.  A good example is the 1836 Ursuline Convent riots in Massachusetts, in which wholly unsubstantiated accusations of macabre sex rituals and infanticide of babies born to nuns and fathered by priests led to violence on a scale requiring the state militia to intervene.

    ursuline convent
    Photo courtesy Jay Griffin.
  • So… what’s the role of gender in all of this?
  • Glad you asked!  Essentially, I will be examining the way that this deep seated anti-Catholic prejudice cemented a BESIEGED MENTALITY among Catholic Americans in America from the 19th century on.  Due to the history of anti-Catholicism in Ireland, and the link between it and a foreign nation occupying and marginalizing the majority of the population, this was perhaps felt more intensely in the Irish American community than perhaps Italian American immigrants coming from a society where the majority of the population both peasant and politician, were Catholic.  But then, I don’t know, and I want to examine that.  I will be attempting to reach a conclusion I do not already know, and answer questions I don’t already have formed in my mind.
  • Going off of that assumption, what was the role of gender in MOBILIZING this community?  As is often the case of Romantic Nationalism of the 19th Century, young patriotic men are often seen to be coming to the defense of their Motherland.  Look at this: 9460447.0003.205-00000003
  • The role that mothers often played in the formation of Catholic diasporic communities is something I feel is all too often overlooked.  I know that J.D. Salinger’s mother was born Catholic, and that he didn’t discover this until his adolescence, which had a profound affect on him (Gluck).  How did this affect his outlook of the Irish diaspora, with their long association with family feuding, and tribalism?
  • Kerouac’s Catholicism was heavily influenced by his own mother, yet he grew up with a strongly anti-clerical father…. he mentions many times in On The Road, for example, “I took a straight picture that made me look like a thirty-year-old Italian who’d kill anybody who said anything against his mother”(5).  Later, he writes of meeting a woman in New York and, “It suddenly occurred to me this was my mother of about two hundred years ago in England, and that I was her footpad son, returning from gaol to haunt her honest labors in the hashery”(161-162).  In addition to the tribal Catholic Italian trope used, I find it interesting that he used the term ‘gaol’ rather than jail, so strongly evocative of Ireland, yet have found little analysis of either of these to date.
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Catholic mother with young Don Corleone in The Godfather.  Photo courtesy of The Niles Files.
  • And for an ethno-religious subculture so linked to the notions of family often besieged, what role did Flannery O’Connor’s vocation to the single life play in her writing?
  • Was O’Connor’s work then affected by her being the only one of the three writers from the heavily Protestant American South?’

Irish American Map

  • Did her Catholic isolation affect the women of her short stories?

All in all, I am happy to report that, much like the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, this mini-conference left me with more new questions than answers.  I was afraid at first that I’d not have enough questions to ask, or material to use to cover 15,000 to 17,000 words for my final thesis, but I no longer have that fear.

Works Cited:

“Euro Americans…Reflections on European Ethnicity in America.”  26 November 2010.  http://euro-americans.blogspot.ie/2010/11/where-irish-americans-live.html.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

Folley, Nick.  “Catholic Church is Not to Blame Entirely for Tuam Babies.”  Cork Independent, 19 June 2014.  http://www.corkindependent.com/20140619/news/catholic-church-is-not-to-blame-entirely-for-tuam-babies-S85780.html.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

Griffin, Jay.  ps09jgriffin.  Medford High School.               http://becomingamerica.wikispaces.com/ps09jgriffin.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

Gluck, Robert.  “J.D. Salinger and the Holocaust.”  The Algemeiner, 27 April 2014, http://www.algemeiner.com/2014/04/27/j-d-salinger-and-the-holocaust/.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

“I Feel Like I’m Taking Crazy Pills! – Will Ferrell In Zoolander GIF” https://www.tenor.co/view/willferrell-crazypills-zoolander-crazy-insane-gif-3547413.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road (Penguin Classics) (p. 5-6 & 161). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Knobel, Dale T.  Paddy and the Republic: Ethnicity and Nationality in Antebellum America.  Wesleyan University Press, 1986.

MacLise, Daniel.  “Illustration to Thomas Moore’s song, ‘Erin, the Tear and the Smile in Thine Eyes.'”  O’Shea, Helen.  http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mp/9460447.0003.205/–defining-the-nation-confining-the-musician-the-case-of-irish?rgn=main;view=fulltext.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

“Moriarty Family History.”  Ancestry.com.  http://www.ancestry.com/name-origin?surname=moriarty.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

@nilesfiles, The Niles Files.  “The Godfather Part II: Fruit of Thy Womb”, The Niles Files, http://nilesfilmfiles.blogspot.ie/2012/03/godfather-part-ii-fruit-of-thy-womb.html.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

White, Victoria.  “Protestant Bethany Homes Babies Ignored Despite Tuam Revelations.”  Irish Examiner, 12 June 2014, http://www.irishexaminer.com/viewpoints/columnists/victoria-white/protestant-bethany-homes-babies-ignored-despite-tuam-revelations-271739.html.  Accessed 28 March 2017.

Saint Mel Gibson of the Masochists, pray for me.

So I recently watched Martin Scorcese’s latest film, Silence, about two Jesuit priests who go to Japan to find and rescue their mentor during a period of Christian persecution there.

First off, spoiler alert for the films The Mission and Silence.

Also, on a personal note, having lived in Japan for nearly two years, where I actually started to get back into going to Mass, I had to try my hardest not to swoon over the nostalgia it induced in me which possibly coloured my view of the film.  Below is a trailer for it off of Youtube.

That being said, I found it interesting that I left the theater with really different impressions of the film than my girlfriend who wasn’t raised Catholic like I was.  Being the New York-Irish Mel Gibsonesque Masochistic Catholic that I am, I was going on and on about how beautiful it was, seeing people’s faith tested, and being martyred, and how it should remind us of all of the suffering and people being killed for being Christians, or Druze, or Shia now by ISIS, or the many Islamic nations with anti-apostasy laws even in the 21st century.

I thought about the 1986 film The Mission directed by Roland Joffe.  Besides the fact that both films feature Liam Neeson and several other Irish and Irish-American actors, they are both also about two Jesuits attempting to proselytize to non-western people.  One of the biggest differences between the situations of the two groups of Jesuits was that Japan was never colonized, whereas Brazil and Paraguay were.  Japan in fact, besides having the notable distinction of being one of the few nations of East Asia to not be colonized by Western powers, held the further honour of being the only major colonial power of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which was not Western.  This came after widespread reforms across he country known as the Meiji Restoration throughout the mid 19th century.  However due to the short lived nature of this imperialism, compared to Western colonialism “It is thus far less complicated and ambiguous a phenomenon than western colonialism: historians do not have to stretch their imaginations over four centuries and worry about the continuities and discontinuities between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ colonialism, as they would with European history” (Iriye, 142).  Part of the implication I think, is that this puts Japan’s colonial conquest and administration further to the fringe of the historical Western canon, for better or worse, in much the same way as conquered European cultures like Ireland, Poland, Lapland, or the Basque country.

Anyway, both Silence and The Mission took place during the period sometimes referred to as ‘old colonialism’, with Silence taking place during the zenith of the Portuguese empire, and The Mission taking place towards its nadir, in the mid 18th century.  However, director Roland Joffe did acknowledge that he was attempting to draw parallels to contemporary conflicts across the world.  He has said that the Mission was:

Absolutely a contemporary metaphor. It’s a metaphor for South Africa, where exactly the same thing is happening, where priests are standing up against the Church. It’s absolutely a metaphor for Central America and the problem of commitment. What I wanted the story to be was two things: in one sense, as a modern metaphor for what is going on in Central America where the forces are exactly the same – a certain element of racism, commercial pressure, ideological struggle, the imperitives [sic] of commerce (Bird 40)

One of the biggest concerns I have with a lot of contemporary post-colonial analyses of literature and film are the dangers of arriving at racially Manichean conclusions.  The danger I think is that those black and white definitions of oppression and marginalization further reinforce an ethnocentric worldview, in which all oppression is viewed through

Political cartoon in a French newspaper depicting Britain, Germany, Russia, France and Japan dividing China shortly before the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion

the narrow lens as part of the Western canon, as if non Western cultures were somehow ‘incapable’ of the same avarice as Europeans.  The Opium War of the early 19th century was an obscene waste of human life, which saw grossly disproportionate numbers of Chinese killed by the Europeans of mostly France and England, and I am by no means attempting to refute that or act as an apologist to it.  My dilemma is that this can not speak for European nations which never colonized foreign lands like Ireland, Poland, or Lithuania, which were themselves occupied by other, far more powerful European nations.  Nor do most analyses of imperialism account for the fact that Japan, a non European, non Western, non white, non Christian nation, deployed troops to brutally repress the Boxer Rising and subsequently continue colonizing China later in the 19th century, alongside mostly European and American forces.

It’s easy to lose sight of the forest focusing on the tree, as the old adage goes, and I think that many (though not all) post-colonial paradigms throughout the humanities of Academia are guilty of this, by often forgetting that the violence and trauma of the past as universal tragedies of human nature.  Below is a piece of artwork by Italian artist Milo Minara which I think captures the sentiment of universality in the violence depicted in Silence and The Mission.

Bericht van @DesideriaSB.

milo-manara-man-hi

It is in this archetypal experience which I find the most hauntingly beautiful aspects of spiritual expression, of seeking the better angels of our natures and intangible virtues like love and compassion.  And that is what I loved about Silence, and The Mission.  They both depict some of the weakest foibles of human nature as Jungian style archetypes, which transcend any political, racial, or religious identity.  The beauty within these depictions of pain, suffering, torture, murder, mayhem, malice and martyrdom, was the will of characters to believe in things beyond their own world of misery, and the love displayed therein.

Above: Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) marches forward holding the Eucharistic adoration towards certain death alongside native converts.

Works Cited:

Bird, Thomas.  Interview with Roland Joffe.  Bomb, no. 18, 1987, pp. 36-41.

En Chine.  1898/01/16, no. 374, Le Petit Journal, National Library of France.

Iriye, Akira. “Reviewed Work(s): The Japanese Colonial Empire, 1895-1945 by Ramon H. Myers and Mark R. Peattie.” Taylor & Francis, Ltd. 8.No. 1 (1986): 142–144. Print.

The Mission.  Directed by Roland Joffe, perfromances by Jeremy Irons and Robert DeNiro, Warner Brothers, 1986.

Silence.  Directed by Martin Scorcese, performances by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, Paramount Pictures, 2016.

The Eagle Huntress

Over the weekend I went to see two films at the Cork Film Festival.  First I watched “The Eagle Huntress” at the Everyman on MacCurtain Street.  It was a story about Aisholpan, a young Kazakh girl in Western Mongolia who wanted to become the first female eagle hunter in over 12 generations.  I think that part of the reason that I enjoyed the film so much was due to experiences in my own personal life.  I commented afterwards that the landscapes in it reminded me so much of Afghanistan, which had me leaving the theater in a fit of nostalgia.  Indeed, it wasn’t until the end of the film when one of the hunters mentions that the people are ethnic Kazakhs rather than Mongolians, and it instantly clicked, how I had recognized some of the words used over subtitles, which bore so much resemblance to the Dari of Northern and Central Afghanistan.  The people in the film looked and interacted much like the Hazara and Tajiks I had used to work with in Afghanistan, who had been a hated and oppressed minority under Taliban rule, suffering several waves of ethnic cleansing in the 1990s.  They had been quite fond of the American presence in the country.  It was often said to us over tea, and biscuits and cucumber and raisins and rice, spread out across massive Persian rugs, that the Hazara were direct descendants of the Mongolian hordes which had stayed on and never left Afghanistan.

A big part of why I so readily identified with the film was probably due to my own sense of frustration with cultural attitudes the West often has with regards to progressive values.  While on the one hand the promotion of individual liberties and progressive values is understood to be universally and unquestionably virtuous, it often belies its own aversion to colonialism and imperialism.  Take for example feminism and gay rights.  Though these are causes widely taken up in affluent democracies, Western progressives stress the importance of multi-culturalism of non-Western cultures.  An inevitable dilemma occurs when non-Western cultures hold on to materialist values which may seem to be antithetical towards feminism and gay rights  How could one watch the film and not recognize the utilitarian value of large families in the setting of a society wholly dependent on subsistence farming and hunting?  How can one criticize this division of labor without looking like a cultural bully, ignorant and unemphatic to the harsher realities of others?  I have witnessed this myself first hand in Afghanistan.  If we in the West can all look back at the Bush era neo-conservative, democratic nation building paradigm as ethnocentric and culturally naive, than I think it is impossible not to place the same cultural standard upon progressive activists.  “The Eagle Huntress” did what the US couldn’t in central Asia: it entered into a foreign world, and with precision observed a social change magnificently and artfully without getting bogged down.

I cynically feel at times like much of the Western world is attempting to recreate the colonial scramble for global influence of the 19th century, under the banner of self-proclaimed progressive values.  A cursory look at the rise of conservativism in Russia contrasted with the widely liberal United Kingdom alongside military adventurism by both nations in central Asia hearkens back to the 19th century’s “Great Game”.great-game  But “The Eagle Huntress” remarkably didn’t have the tone of Western moral denunciation for something deemed sexist.  Instead of coming across as this sort of culturally imperialist hatchet job that liberals in developed nations like to watch in order to hoist themselves above the plebeian masses, it very objectively, and very humorously showed a cultural collision, in a microcosm of the human tale, in plainly human terms.  Any local indignation and conservative voices opposing Aisholpan’s decision to follow her dreamss were humorously depicted as something akin to little boys huddled in tree houses with signs above them reading ‘no girls allowed’.  And they were proven wrong.  Aisholpan’s victory at the Eagle Hunting competition (against dozens of far more experienced men) is roundly summed up as ‘not a true test of an Eagle hunter’.  Until she can go out into the cold of the frozen steppes and actually catch a fox, she is not a true eagle hunter, they assert.  She then goes out into the frozen steppes and catches a fox with her father, as he did with his father.  And they show a remarkably human reaction to Aisholpan’s dream.  Though initially finding it odd for a young girl to want to do, they simply shrug, and agree that if it’s what she wants to do, then why not give her their blessing?

 

 

In further avoiding the Ghost of Colonial Empires Past (sorry, it’s near Christmas time, I’ve Charles Dickens on the mind) the film’s narrator had a distinctly British accent, but spoke seldom.  This helped to convey a very objective portrayal of Aisholpan as she attempted to do something so incredible.  There was no grand statement made by her; she was simply a 13 year old girl who enjoyed what all the other 13 year old girls in her village did.  From Monday to Friday she lived in a dormitory with her classmates at school; they laughed, and told stories, and studied, and played ball.  They painted their nails, and braided their hair.  And they asked her, amazed, and intrigued, how it felt to train eagles to hunt.  And she told them, shrugging, it was fun.  They laughed, in shock while she was in training, and then clapped, inspired when she won in competition.  The film was a snapshot of a world most of us are completely unfamiliar with.  And it was told on Aisholpan’s terms, and on her culture’s terms, in a universal language, which everyone in the theater could laugh along with.  That was nice.

Works cited:
Grantham, Andrew.  “Railways of Afghanistan: Afghan Railroads, Past, Present and Future.” http://www.andrewgrantham.co.uk/afghanistan/railways/the-great-game/

The Eagle Huntress.  Directed by Otto Bell, performances by Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Nurgaiv Rys, Almagul Kuksyegyen, Dalaikhan.  2016.