The Sum of All Fears


There’s a classroom “education film” included in the automobile-safety compilation Hell’s Highway (see below) that boldly telegraphs its intent to “stimulate-educate-motivate.” Would that things were so simple. Motivation is more or less the intent of the other movies reviewed here this week, although the irrationality they document might reasonably create a form of paralysis.

First and foremost, the bluntly titled War and Peace—a two-and-a-half-hour documentary written, directed, and narrated by Indian activist-filmmaker Anand Patwardhan—addresses the standoff between nuclear-armed neighbors India and Pakistan. The movie opens with 1948 footage of Gandhi’s assassination by a Hindu extremist and briefly tracks India’s evolution from the ideals of Gandhian nonviolence through wars with China and Pakistan to what Patwardhan terms the current “nuclear nationalism.” Whereas the organized pacifism that routed the British Empire seems to enjoy little currency, India’s A-bomb is shown as a kind of deity—celebrated in folk pageants, worshiped in the contaminated village closest to the Pokhran test site, extolled in cheesily patriotic music videos, praised by self-proclaimed holy men, and credited with having “ignited every atom of [Indian] manhood.”

India’s current prime minister is cheered as “Atom Bomb” Vajpayee and the weapon is brandished in the chilling rhetoric of his ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In one of the 21 cuts demanded by India’s Central Board of Film Certification—all successfully challenged by Patwardhan in the Indian Supreme Court—ecstatic BJP partisans are shown signing messages of post-nuclear-test congratulation with their own blood. (Patwardhan’s problems with censors have not been confined to India. In March 2002, New York-based Hindu groups succeeded in canceling a Museum of Natural History screening of his 1992 documentary on the rise of Hindu nationalism, In the Name of God.)

Where India’s successful nuclear test was announced with the code phrase “the Buddha smiled,” Patwardhan’s film gives doomsday a human face. Immersed in popular culture, War and Peace makes it clear that India’s nuclear mania appeals not only to religious chauvinism, primitive nationalism, and a desire for modernity but, even more dangerously, to a festering sense of inferiority. “Now no Indian has to show his passport,” one official boasts. “The whole world knows where India is.” Or at least, Pakistan does—it followed the four successful Indian tests with five of its own.

After marching with the Indian peace movement, Patwardhan crosses the border into the fraternal “enemy nation” to discover that, despite ongoing tensions over Kashmir, the man-in-the-street friendly feelings of Pakistanis toward Indians might be the “silver lining in the mushroom cloud.” Pakistani schoolgirls read essays in praise of their nation’s nuclear program. But then, questioned by the filmmaker (who makes his views known), they admit that their bellicose attitudes do not express their own opinions but were adopted for show. Just like Indian politicians, he points out. Given the filmmaker’s idealism, it seems almost churlish to observe that, unlike Pakistan, India has a democratically elected government.

Although War and Peace has been criticized for devoting too much time to the memory of Hiroshima, the historical application of nuclear weapons is an essential part of Patwardhan’s argument. Indeed, the various Hiroshima commemorations that he records make a painful contrast to the blandly triumphalist account of atomic warfare found at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. (not to mention the censorship of an exhibition dealing with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). After the warmth of South Asia, America’s capital exudes a certain imperial coldness; soon, however, Patwardhan finds the local equivalent of India’s nuclear nationalism, complete with televised Christian fundamentalists waxing as belligerently patriotic as any partisan of the BJP.

War and Peace is showing, along with many of Patwardhan’s earlier docs (In the Name of God among them) as well as a number of other political features (including a run of Peter Watkins’s epic La Commune, to be reviewed next week), as part of Anthology’s three-week tribute to First Run/Icarus Films. Meanwhile, Icarus founder Ilan Ziv has his latest film, Human Weapon, showing at Film Forum.

Religious fanaticism gets even scarier in this hour-long doc. The precursors of suicide bombing are found in 1983 Beirut and the Iranian cult of martyrdom that was fostered during the Iran-Iraq War. (As one veteran recalls, Iranian soldiers competed with each other for the honor of serving as human minesweepers.) Suicide bombers affiliated with the Iranian-funded Hezbollah were used in southern Lebanon during the Israeli occupation. These operations were videotaped; Ziv shows the widow and children of one such bomber proudly watching his fiery demise, perhaps for the zillionth time, on their VCR.

Ziv asserts that the human weapon came of age in Sri Lanka. But the Tamil Tigers did not target civilians. That refinement is credited to the Palestinian group Hamas, acting in response to Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein’s gruesome 1994 massacre of 30 unarmed Muslim worshipers in Hebron. Since then, Israeli cities have been subject to more or less continuous terror—as made clear by the abundance of nightmarish footage. Indeed, the day before I screened Human Weapon, some two dozen Israelis were killed when a suicide bomber blew up a bus in downtown Jerusalem.

The so-called road map to peace passes through a seemingly intractable cycle. At one point in Human Weapon, a Gaza-based Palestinian psychiatrist points out that the suicide bombers are typically the traumatized children of the first, pre-Oslo intifada. Yulie Cohen Gerstel’s My Terrorist, showing with Human Weapon, represents an attempt to break the pattern. The filmmaker was a member of an El Al crew ambushed in London in 1978 by a pro-Palestinian shooter. Gerstel was wounded; another stewardess was killed. Twenty-odd years later, as an Israeli peace activist during the hopeful moment that preceded the 2000 Camp David summit, Gerstel established contact with the shooter in his British prison. As he appeared to have repudiated violence, she decided to support his bid for freedom as a means of promoting Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.

In her film Gerstel—who is a sixth-generation sabra, the product of a military family (cousin to former Israeli president Ezer Weizman), and a participant in the successful raid on Entebbe—documents her appearances on Israeli TV and at various rallies. The response is generally hostile. Her apparent marginalization in Israeli society renders this political psychodrama all the more depressing.

An unfunny comedy and somewhat murky exposé, Bret Wood’s weirdly nostalgic, mildly exploitative Hell’s Highway—showing as projected DV at Cinema Village—resurrects the gory driver’s-education scare movies of the ’60s, particularly those produced by the Mansfield, Ohio, firm Highway Safety Films, Inc.

Wood interviews two surviving Highway Safety principals. Archivist Rick Prelinger, whose redeployment of vintage industrial and classroom films is more thoughtful than that of Hell’s Highway, is also on hand to provide some context on the genre, which was created by insurance companies in the mid 1930s. Where early driver’s-ed films like the 1950 Last Date (which starred the future husband of Samantha the Witch and introduced the concept of “teen-a-cide”) were relatively restrained in their scare tactics, Highway Safety’s movies were based on unstaged accident footage of bloody, mangled bodies augmented, as in a Coney Island spook ride, with taped screams, and narrated with a detached, dramatizing voice-over.

Some credit Highway Safety with the automobile reforms of the mid ’60s—although it’s likely that Congress was influenced more by Ralph Nader’s muckraking Unsafe at Any Speed. In any case, the firm branched out into police training films. In one, a professional shoplifter demonstrates her skill at slipping a dozen steaks beneath her copious skirt and coolly exiting with the meat firmly between her thighs. Another, so explicit that it fed rumors the folks at Highway Safety were moonlighting as pornographers, turned a hidden camera on the doings in a Mansfield public toilet. Highway Safety also produced a classroom traumatizer called The Child Molester (1964) before going under in the wake of a bungled, money-losing telethon, hosted by Sammy Davis Jr.

Like the movies it samples, Hell’s Highway is viscerally unsettling. Unlike those cautionary horrors, however, it doesn’t have much of a point—unless it’s the remark by one of the comfy old codgers that Highway Safety’s films were less shocking than contemporary video games. It’s a pity that Wood didn’t ask them to comment on David Cronenberg’s Crash.

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