Culture Guides

Avatar – the Story of Our World, Not Pandora

The subjugation of alien races is part of our past and present.

Avatar has become the biggest grossing film in history based on its stunning 3D effects, gripping storyline and the exotic imagination of James Cameron. Who wouldn’t book a one way ticket to Pandora tomorrow?

But the real reason that the film has done so well is that it’s the story of the human race, past and present. The Spanish wiped out hundreds of millions of natives in Central and South America with disease, slavery and outright massacre to get their hands on the gold and cultivate cash crops. The settlers of the New World followed suit soon after, cheating, slaughtering and spreading smallpox among the Native American tribes. The English considered the Aboriginals in Australia to be animals with the ability to speak and the entire colonisation and rape of Africa was run under the flag of the White Man’s Burden, bringing civilisation to the savages in return for their labour and resources.

But while everyone knows that our history has a lot to answer for, it’s still going on today.

No one is allowed to live outside of the global economic system. Whereas it was once missionaries who arrived on far flung shores to cure the natives of their heathen ways, now the same mission is being accomplished via consumer goods and the mass media, all bundled in the Trojan Horse of Free Choice.

But what does a villager from a conservative Muslim tradition make of pornography on his cell phone? How does indigenous Peruvian storytelling passed down through the ages compete with WWF wrestling via a satellite dish. Why should Indians go to the local Ayurvedic healer to understand the processes that have made them ill when they can just pop a pill and not feel the pain any more?

These are choices being made every day in the developing world but they’re not free, any more than if you mixed sugar in with cocaine and offered it to a child. Business has a vested interest in cultivating new markets no matter what their cultural sophistication. Loss of identity, traditional knowledge, peace of mind – none of that features on the quarterly earnings sheet.

Perhaps the encouraging thing about Avatar at least was that, contrary to the training of a million westerns, the audience actually sides with the Na’vi. The story of the human race isn’t a pretty one but maybe we now at least give a damn.

At least when it’s up on the screen.