Chimerical Cinema – The Mesh of Fact and Fiction

By Sonya Rehman

 “I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… you’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”

– Neo (from the movie, ‘The Matrix’)

A majority of films that have themes heavily crafted into the genre of fantasy (or science-fiction for that matter) usually wind up doing inexorably well at the box office.
But why is that? Why is the ratio (in terms of viewership) comparatively lesser for say, art films in relation to those which are chimerical in nature?
The answer is pretty simple: one is dislodged, almost ‘untwined’ from reality upon viewing a fantasy flick. But there’s more than meets the eye (regarding some storylines of fantasy films) than you may think.

While some may just be simple comic book/novel adaptations (Spiderman, Batman, X-men, Lord of the rings and a surfeit of others) – which perhaps do not require much contemplation vis-à-vis the storyline is concerned – others are found to have political views and historical facts, interwoven into grids of fantasy visuals and dialogue. This makes the movie’s ‘message’ more digestible, and perhaps more ‘subliminal’ in many more ways than one.

Take Superman for instance. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the comic book’s earliest influences (in the 30s) stem from the ‘Great Depression’ – where Superman represents a leftist, combating the despotism of the corrupt. And even till the present, the Superman comic books, movies and TV series (‘Smallville’), a similar theme follows pursuit.

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Interesting? Well it gets even better. It’s also been hypothesized that since both the creators, Siegel and Shuster, were Jewish and given that Superman’s ‘Kryptonian’ (Hebrew) name stands for ‘Kal-El’ (meaning ‘vessel of God), the character is thought to be influenced by Moses and/or Jesus. ‘Superman’ the ‘saviour’ of mankind – makes sense doesn’t it?

Another significant fantasy (yet animated) film was the 1988 Japanese sensation (which gave the word ‘anime’ a whole new name), called ‘Akira’. Revolving around a young boy and his psychokinetic abilities, Akira’s story delves slightly deeper. Highlighting government corruption, technological advancement (leading to social estrangement), politics, nuclear warfare and significant notions of Buddhist beliefs, Akira’s message is clear: that change, whether violent or otherwise, is inevitable.

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‘The Matrix’ too, written and directed by the Wachowski brothers, makes constant references to biblical mythology, Christianity, Buddhist and Existentialist schools of thought (among others). In an interview with ‘Time’ magazine, Larry Wachowski stated: “We’re interested in mythology, theology and, to a certain extent, higher-level mathematics. All are ways human beings try to answer bigger questions, as well as The Big Question. If you’re going to do epic stories, you should concern yourself with those issues. People might not understand all the allusions in the movie, but they understand the important ideas. We wanted to make people think, engage their minds a bit”. And weren’t our minds engaged. Sandwiching fact, myth, fiction and philosophy into one big juicy plot, The Matrix goes down in history as one of the most immaculate Sci-Fi fantasy feature films of the 21st century.

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One recent example of a film that fuses fact with fantasy is ‘300’. Released at a highly sensitive time in global politics, the film’s director, Zack Snyder stated that the film’s plot was “ninety percent accurate” and that the only difference lay in the film’s execution and treatment – which was shot to give it a ‘comic book effect’. The story of 300 (adapted from Frank Miller’s novel), stems from the ‘Battle of Thermopylae’ (in 480 BC) which took place between the Spartans and the Persians.

Thoroughly criticized by historians and movie critics for the film’s depiction of the Spartan’s as noble heroes and painting a fairly queer and monstrous image for the Persians, 300 seemed to have ruffled a feather far too many.
Condemned by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as psychological warfare, 300 managed to create quite a stir not only in Hollywood, but in the international political arena as well. It just goes to show how powerful an impact a sole film can have on global communities.

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Our very own Lollywood too decided to try its hand at sensationalizing fact into fiction via a movie known as ‘International Gorillay’ (which was released in 1990). Directed by Jan Mohammad, the film represents a deranged Salman Rushdie planning his ‘attack’ on the Muslim world through his work, a book called ‘Satanic Verses’. Sound familiar? You’re spot on. The movie was the first-ever Lollywood flick to be screened on British television surpassing a one month ban. Infact Rushdie himself sent a letter to the British screening authorities, requesting that the ban be lifted. And so it was.

‘International Gorillay’ has to be one of the most hilarious Lollywood vintage movies you could get your hands on. From shiny disco sequences, to ‘dishoon-dishoon’ laser beams, flying holy books and chubby guys running around in Batman costumes – the flick is quite a mad little tea-party of all things fun and Lollywood.
But given the farcical, side-splitting nature of the film, it conveys a sentiment that was felt very strongly after the publication of Rushdie’s ‘Satanic verses’ which (FYI) was published in 1988. And the film, ‘International Gorillay’ was released in 1990 almost as a protest against the sacrilegious nature of Salman Rushdie’s book.

Contemporary fantasy films (as well as those of the yesteryear) continue persisting in drawing the viewer’s attention to a certain theme – whether historical, political or socially driven. Remember ‘V for Vendetta’? That was in light of the current ‘war on terror’. And the sci-fi thriller ‘Children of men’ (released in 2006) focused on racial intolerance and propaganda.
‘The Chronicles of Narnia: The lion, the witch and the wardrobe’ (an adaptation of CS Lewis’ work) touches upon Greek and Norse mythology and ‘The Blitz’ (the bombing of the United Kingdom in World War II by Germany). Pan’s Labyrinth (a topical Spanish fantasy flick) features parallel stories – one that is of a little girl and her chilling adventures, and the other, an unsettling depiction of the Civil War in Spain. And even though both stories are very closely linked, the fantasy element of ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ harshly contrasts with the aspects of the war – making it all the more horrifying and gruesome.

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Filmmakers seemed to have realized the importance of balancing fact (whether accurate or not) with fiction because as stated earlier, it makes the film’s focal point much more digestible somehow. Art films present a picture that is very black and white, whereas fantasy-sci-fi feature films probe into grey areas that tend to leave a greater impact on the audience. And besides, let’s face it; fantasy films are so much more riveting!

Films have been and still very much are, the greatest sources of social and political commentary – making the film industry a government’s strongest tool for propaganda.
So next time you watch a fantasy film, learn to read between the lines, as amidst all the Spartans, flying unicorns and special effects…lies a bigger picture.

Instep, The News

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