Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Turkish action flicks and freedom of speech

A recent news article talks about how Turks are cheering a new anti-American action film that depicts American soldiers in Iraq as bloodthirsty barbarians. The movie's premise comes from a real-life event in which American Marines inadvertently captured a group of Turkish soldiers, having mistaken them for insurgents. Turks were, it appears, quite angered by the 2003 incident. I don't recall reading about it, and I don't know whether the gaffe got wide play in US news sources. It could be that the capture was dismissed by the US as a simple mistake-- one that could have cost lives, but a mistake all the same. Many Turks apparently viewed the incident as a blot on Turkish soldiers' honor. I can understand this somewhat: most modern militaries subscribe to an honor code.

The outrage now forms the emotional background of the Turkish action flick in question, "Valley of the Wolves: Iraq." Cool title. I like it. But here's what the article says about how Americans and Jews are portrayed:

Sam William Marshall, played by Billy Zane, is portrayed as a sociopath, killing people without a second thought and claiming that he is doing God's will, a thinly veiled reference to statements by President George W. Bush about America's "crusade" for democracy in Iraq and the Middle East.


Other scenes show ruthless marines killing Iraqis and soldiers mistreating inmates at Abu Ghraib prison. A Jewish-American doctor, played by Gary Busey, is shown as shipping inmates' organs to New York, London and Israel. All these, according to the screenwriter, Bahadir Ozdener, were inspired by real events.

Turkish audiences are cheering the film, in which evil Americans get their comeuppance. The article explores the possible roots of a burgeoning Turkish anti-Americanism, and I invite you to read the rest. But my concern is in a different area: freedom of expression.

Personally, I'm not motivated to see the film, though I'll be curious to see whether Korea decides to run it.* But I have no problem with Turkey producing such a film and allowing it to enjoy a wide audience. I trust that Americans will not be pouring out into the streets by the thousands, firing rifles in the air and screaming about defending their honor against insults by infidel dogs.

I also think we have no leg to stand on when it comes to filmic propaganda. I'm proud of our flag, but having lived overseas for several years, I've heard people from different countries observe that many American films and TV shows find some excuse to sneak the flag into a scene somewhere, even if only peripherally. I agree that we do export our patriotism.

And look at beefalo** Sly Stallone's contributions to cinematic jingoism: "Rocky IV" featured a heavily anti-Soviet message; "Rambo II" was anti-Soviet and anti-North Vietnam; "Rambo III" was thoroughly anti-Soviet (but also seemed pro-Muslim to me). I remember quite a few Vietnam vets-- people who'd actually seen war-- complaining about the draft-dodging Stallone's posturing. While I have nothing against an anti-Soviet or anti-communist message per se, I look back on those films-- especially our Vietnam prisoner of war extraction fantasies (Chuck Norris's "Missing in Action" films also come to mind) and cringe. In part, I cringe for the same reason that those vets were angry: Stallone seemed to be portraying himself as a hero. But I also cringe because, well... look at those films! They went far beyond the merely anti-communist to the heavily jingoistic. The 80s were, among other things, a time for Vietnam War catharsis and anti-Soviet rhetoric. A lot of flag-waving was going on.

In an earlier post, I said that a certain journalist was naive not to realize that a given country will have a country-centric perspective. The same insight applies here: why shouldn't Turkey make a pro-Turkey film? Sure, I might think the film is the collective product of assholes, but then I remember that hilarious slow-mo shot of Rambo firing an explosive-tipped arrow into the Vietnamese camp commander in "Rambo II"-- a reminder that asshole filmmakers are everywhere. It's entertainment, folks. If I uphold free expression as a universal right, then self-consistency demands I do the same for Turks as I do for the Jyllands-Posten cartoonists.

And there's a reason why I'm sure Westerners won't be rioting over this Turkish flick. Classicist blogger Michael Gilleland at Laudator Temporis Acti provides the reason, courtesy of Hugh Lloyd-Jones:

The occasional fun poked at the gods in comedy is no evidence against the religious conservatism of the common man; it is when religion is sure of itself that such amusement is permitted.

And so it goes with culture, too. Read the news about "Valley of the Wolves" and have a good chuckle.

*Foreign films in Korea tend to come mostly from the US, the UK, and France (oh, and Italy on occasion). I don't think I've ever seen ads for any films from Scandinavia or Russia-- or from any part of Africa, for that matter. This isn't a critique of Korea: such films are hard to find in America.

**Don't get me wrong: I like Stallone in general. His performance in films like "F*I*S*T" and "Copland" show he can be as talented an actor as he is a writer. He does seem to have a thing for playing inarticulate morons, though.

***Getting behind Eastern European nations is something I can understand. These folks, at least for now, still appreciate America's role in abetting the Soviet Union's collapse and removing the yoke of communism.


1 comment:

kwandongbrian said...

Didn't the Turks, when they were fighting under the UN flag in Korea, smash a force of 'attacking Koreans' and later learn that they were fleeing South Koreans? That was described briefly in a book by Bradley or something like that - one of the many about the winter campaign (The Marines of Winter, or some such).