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By Kalpana Sharma
THE MAVERICK American filmmaker, Michael Moore, should begin work on another film immediately. His feature-length documentary, "Bowling for Columbine'', just won an Oscar. It tells a tale that America desperately needs to hear. But it also explains to the rest of the world what drives America, and more specifically its leaders. At a time when the U.S. President, George W. Bush, is waving the big gun, a film on America's obsession with guns could not be more apt.
At the recent Oscar event, instead of delivering the usual emotional acceptance speech, Moore chose to do some plainspeaking. "We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons", he said. "Whether it is the fiction of duct tape or the fiction of orange alerts, we are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush!" Moore's film deals precisely with this the fictional fears that American leaders, and the American media, have used to manipulate the American people. Watching this film recently in London, when talk of war dominated the British Parliament and anti-war sentiments echoed in the streets, was a strange experience.
The take-off point for Moore's film is the April 20, 1999 shooting of 12 students and one teacher at the Columbine High School in Livingstone, Michigan, by two students. They entered the school armed with automatic weapons, fired 900 rounds, killed and injured scores of students and teachers and finally turned the guns on themselves.
America was shaken; for a passing moment it saw the consequences of a culture of fear and violence. Coincidentally, this was also the day American military planes dropped bombs on Kosovo. The film juxtaposes the love of the gun and the arguments justifying the possession of deadly weapons by ordinary people "it is the right of every American to bear arms'' with the American Government's justification for producing, using and supplying deadly weapons of war. We need guns to defend ourselves, say the gun-lovers. We need guns to defend our country, say the leaders. So American guns at home are killing children in schools, and ordinary people in their homes. An average of over 11,000 murders in a year are committed with the use of a gun. And American guns are killing children and ordinary people around the world.
The film records how within days of the horrific shootings in Columbine, the National Rifle Association (NRA) holds a rally in that town and its president, actor Charlton Heston, holds up a rifle and proclaims the god-given right of every true-blooded American to bear arms. While the members of the NRA cheer, the father of a nine-year-old, shot dead in the Columbine High School, protests. Some time later, in Buell, Michigan, a six-year old boy shoots a six-year-old girl in a primary school. Once again, Heston leads an NRA rally in the town. When Michael Moore finally confronts the actor on this, the latter turns around to him and says incredulously, "you are a liberal!'' Just the response one might expect from Donald Rumsfeld if someone went up to him and said his actions are directly contributing to the death of Iraqi children.
Moore also reveals that Livingstone is home to the Lockheed Martin factory, one of America's biggest weapons manufacturers, and also the company that produces the Cruise missiles now being dropped on Iraq. The link between the real "weapons of mass destruction", which the U.S. owns in numbers capable of destroying the world many times over, and the philosophy that supports a violent response to conflict and differences, is illustrated throughout the length of the film. You cannot miss the point, even if you disagree with it.
The televised war on Iraq certainly lends itself to a suitable subject for Moore's next film. For it contains many of the elements he has brought out so effectively in "Bowling for Columbine". Take the culture of fear. From day one of the bombing campaign, we have seen images of British soldiers wearing gas masks to protect themselves against an imminent Iraqi attack with chemical and biological weapons. The television reporters speak through the masks, as if they were already in the middle of such an attack. (One wonders if the cameraman shot the scene wearing a mask.)
Clearly, viewers are being asked to forget that no evidence of such weapons had been found by the U.N. weapons inspectors, that the couple of missiles that the Iraqis did fire contained only conventional war heads, and that even after a week of bombings and land aggression, the Anglo-American forces have not come across anything resembling chemical or biological weapons. But the power of television is such that the images remain even when the words are forgotten. Moore's film records scores of such instances, where American television has played up unsubstantiated fears of imminent attacks even by "Africanised" bees! Also, the strength of the anti-war sentiment in the West is being lost with all the war imagery that the Western TV channels telecast. The anti-war demonstrations that are now being shown are those in Muslim countries, such as Indonesia. This subtly reinforces the view that only Muslims oppose the war when, in fact, thousands of ordinary people in many countries across the world, including Britain and the U.S., continue to voice their opposition to the war.
In Britain, the media has failed to adequately project the cross-cultural broad base of the anti-war movement. People who have never joined street protests before are now out there. At the end of the week when the British Parliament had debated whether to go to war and then voted in its favour, when several Ministers from the Blair Government had resigned, when he faced the largest negative vote from within his own party, and when the Americans finally began raining bombs on Iraq, thousands of people came out on the streets and shouted their opposition to the war. The fact that "their boys", the British soldiers, were already in the war made no difference to their feelings. "Regardless of what our Government does, we have to voice our opposition to this illegal and immoral war'', a woman from one of the poorer districts of London told me. She had come on her own with her neighbour and their children. A typically English elderly gent sat on a park bench with the placard, "Not in Ted's name" with an arrow under "Ted" pointing to him! An occupational therapist from a local hospital said that she had listened to the debate in Parliament and decided that she must step out and join the demonstration. An Englishman said he never thought he would reach a point where he would be ashamed to say that he was British but he did now. There were thousands more like these people on Saturday, March 22, when England was already at war.
Most remarkable, perhaps, has been the extent to which young people have participated in the anti-war demonstrations. These children have never known war in their lifetime. Yet, they are clear that they do not want to be part of the war hysteria. The British public was startled when thousands of school children, still in uniform, took to the streets and demonstrated the day the bombs began to fall on Iraq.
Reflecting the views of these children, 15-year-old Amy Williams wrote in The Independent (March 23), "it seems so stupid that after all these generations there still isn't a way to keep peace in the world. It seems to me that some leaders are just too power-hungry they hold too much prejudice against people and don't give them a chance."
It is evident that neither the rhetoric of the leaders, nor the manipulative images on the media, is fooling ordinary people. As one of the cut-out paper hands made by children, stuck into the ground in the Hyde Park, stated so eloquently: "Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, Mr. Bush''.
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