When the revolution comes to Israel

Do Israeli audiences see the parallels between ‘The Hunger Games’ Panem and the Palestinian struggle against apartheid?

Palestinians dressed as Avatar's Navi, protest against Israel's separation wall [Reuters]

Actor Donald Sutherland, who played President Snow in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games, believes that the franchise has the potential to spur a global millennial revolution.

He even reminisced in one interview about the “revolutionary” energy he felt as a young man, after watching a double-feature (Federico Fellini’s La Strada and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory) in Toronto in 1954. He was so outraged by the representation of social inequality in the double-bill that he felt compelled to throw gravels at the presumably empty street in protest against injustice.

While teaching at Bir Zeit University in Palestine this year, I could not suppress another image that is often played and replayed in the media: The image of young Palestinian children – some of whom could not be older than four or five years old – being arrested by the Israeli occupation army on a daily basis for throwing pebbles and stones on similarly empty streets.

Theatres for many of these children remain a luxury they cannot afford anyway, even if there were theatres in Ramallah. These children will also need special permits from the occupation authorities to exit the Occupied Territories to watch movies across the green line.

The Hunger Games franchise raises questions not only about the kind of revolution the franchise envisions and its ultimate goals, but more importantly, about the youth they have in mind and exactly where in the world they are. As I watched the second instalment of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in a state-of-the-art theatre in Haifa two weeks ago, I wondered whether the franchise can live up to its alleged revolutionary potential.

In Hollywood’s ideological universe, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek points out, a film’s romantic story line usually adds an ‘ideological surplus-enjoyment’ that diverts the spectators’ attention from its underlying revolutionary theme, if it is there in the first place.

Two things caught my attention during the film: First, the presence of several young Israeli soldiers in uniform, in the row in front of me, among the many young Israeli movie-goers. And second, the two rounds of applause that interrupted the movie – a spontaneous, intense and prolonged round of applause in response to the kiss that the two contestants-lovers, Katniss and Peeta, shared; and a more localised and weak round after Katniss shot an electrified arrow into the centre of the dome that short-circuited the hologram field, leading to its collapse and the rescue of the heroine.

The first round of applause that reverberated in the theatre foretold that any revolutionary content that might have presumably been encoded in the film has already been sapped and sacked. In Hollywood’s ideological universe, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek points out, a film’s romantic story line usually adds an “ideological surplus-enjoyment” that diverts the spectators’ attention from its underlying revolutionary theme, if it is there in the first place.

Panem as Palestine

On the surface, there might be no apparent parallels between the fictional dystopian world of Panem and Israel’s apartheid policies and Zionist settler-colonialism in Palestine, but the structural realities  are not that much different.

But how did these young Israeli spectators, both civilian and military, decode the images on the screen – could they have related the fragmentation of Panem into districts to the excruciating realities of the Palestinian cantons, or the brutalisation of the masses in the fictional and real world? On whom did they project these images as they witnessed these fictional realities?

Witnessing up close the escalating levels of youth racism and violence against Palestinians and African immigrants and other asylum seekers in Israel, I wondered how these spectators decode the images of oppression, injustice, and potential revolution, and relate to them. The romantic scene guarantees that these spectators reinvest their emotional and libidinal energies away from the revolutionary subtext, making it also possible for them to endure the boring details of the spectacle of mutual annihilation called the Quartet Quell.

The second round of applause, however weak it was, might indicate that some people do genuinely believe in the revolution and that such Hollywood franchises can, in fact, usher the global revolution to come. Not so fast. In this so-called post-ideological age, as Zizek surmises, people enjoy large doses of ideological cynicism, in that they know very well that in this case, the revolutionary messages and symbols that emerge out of Hollywood are mere ideological illusions. They know that these cultural commodities are nothing more than pop-culture escapist fantasies or “popcorn agitprops”, but they still believe in them.

Re-enforcing myths

This ideological cynicism is carried out on two conditions: That people still feel free to do whatever they want and that they continue to believe – in these revolutionary messages – in so far as someone else, some Other, really believes for them. Belief, for Zizek, is always belief through the Other – for example, in Israel, debunking the founding Zionist mythologies, especially the ones that draw on unsubstantiated biblical myths, is very common among academics and the public, but people continue to believe in them because there is a huge number of Christian Zionists in the West that continues to believe in these myths for them.

That neoliberal global capitalism has absorbed and co-opted the major symbols and iconic figures of revolutionary theory and practice through Hollywood is nothing new.

Hollywood today is that stand-in for the symbolic Other that believes for us, so that we avoid being involved and continue going about our lives doing whatever we like. Hollywood can thus go on believing for us in the social revolution, trivialising and mystifying it, while neoliberal global capitalism turns revolutionary theory and practice into profitable commodities and marketable brands in a culture that, not only defines citizenship and civic engagement by purchasing power and consumption practices, but also uses these same revolutionary ideas as a vehicle for legitimising exploitation. Indeed, one might say that we are willing to pay increasingly exorbitant admission fees at the theatre not simply to be entertained, but to be relieved of the act of believing. In many ways, we hire an Other, Hollywood to be precise, to believe for us.

Revolution as commodity

That neoliberal global capitalism has absorbed and co-opted the major symbols and iconic figures of revolutionary theory and practice through Hollywood is nothing new. More importantly, it ends up not only rationalising exploitation but also inadvertently erasing the name of the problem today, namely, capitalism itself. Indeed, the absence of any reasonable critique of capitalism in The Hunger Games franchise is not accidental; the choice of Francis Lawrence as a director for the second instalment of the film was thus deliberate. Like in his other films, especially I Am Legend, Lawrence naturalises and normalises capitalism and its social relations, by disavowing the need for recognising the horrific dimension of the class struggle underpinning the fictional narrative world in both films.

When James Cameron’s Avatar was released, Reuters circulated a photograph of Palestinian children, painted blue, brandishing arrows like the Navi tribe in that film, and wearing a keffiyeh around their waists, protesting the Israeli apartheid separation wall at Bilin. Many readers commented on the merits and faults of such images for the Palestinian liberation struggle, but one issue remained absent in this discussion: global capitalism itself, and how it delinks the commodification of such revolutionary images from the exploitation of the Palestinian struggle and identity, to conceal the logic of Israel’s apartheid policies and Zionist settler-colonialism.

Dr Jamil Khader, Professor of English at Stetson University, is completing a year-long Fulbright  Fellowship at Bir Zeit University, Palestine. He is the author of numerous publications on postcolonial feminism, popular culture, and literary theory. He is also the author of Cartographies of Transnationalism in Postcolonial Feminisms: Geography, Culture, Identity, Politics, and is the co-editor, with Molly Rothenberg, of a collection of essays on the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, Zizek Now: Current Perspectives in Zizek Studies .