Hollywood's prescient take on current horrors

From Westworld to The People Under the Stairs: Hollywood's prescient take on Middle East horrors
5 min read
27 Jul, 2017
Blog: Does life imitate art? Scenes from the Middle East remind Hadani Ditmars of a Hollywood movie, albeit one with a particularly twisted director.
Israeli tourists acting out fantasies of shooting Palestinians isn't far from 'Westworld' [Getty]
As I watched online footage of the bloodied corpse of 17-year-old Muhammad Mahmoud Sharaf - shot in the back of the head by a settler during protests in the Ras al-Amoud district of East Jerusalem Friday - being taken away from hospital by friends and family to avoid detainment by Israeli authorities, my reaction was one of horror. Literally.
The scene was like some kind of Hollywood zombie flick, grafted onto a Holy Land backdrop.
And in some ways, the whole situation is just that: a Hollywood horror narrative imposed on an increasingly captive population, who, unlike most of the settlers, don't even have a single passport to escape with, let alone two.
Now that horror is so casually available on Facebook timelines - competing with cat videos for our distracted attention spans - it seems that reality has finally matched the dystopian films of the 1970s and 1980s.
The prescient 1973 Soylent Green's vision of a world with mass homelessness, unemployment, violence, environmental destruction and food scarcity hardly feels like science fiction today
In addition to the horrific scenes from East Jerusalem, consider recent footage of the Iraqi army throwing young men over cliffs in Mosul before shooting them in a city recently "liberated", where thousands of people became collateral damage and everything was destroyed. It's like something from Planet of the Apes meets Zardoz.
The People Under The Stairs is a particularly creepy take
on the 'haunted house' theme [Alive Films]

Or starving Yemeni children trapped between murderous Saudi bombings and Western indifference, dying of cholera, in perhaps a real-life modern Middle Eastern version of 1971's Omega Man.
The prescient 1973 Soylent Green's vision of a world with mass homelessness, unemployment, violence, environmental destruction and food scarcity hardly feels like science fiction today. Even Wes Craven's The People Under the Stairs, about cannibalistic caged children saved by a tenant of ruthless landlords, steeped as it was in Reagan-era class and race divisions, seems resonant with today's hyper-capitalist real estate wars.
And John Carpenter's Escape from LA with its execution-prone theocratic dictator and island prison city eerily recalls any number of current horror-zones from Raqqa to Riyadh.
In fact, in an American media landscape often devoid of the terrors visited upon the rest of the world - and more often than not initiated by US foreign policies - horror and science fiction films, genres that came of age as the dark days of Vietnam clouded post-war optimism, have often been some of the most politically charged cultural vehicles.
Palestinians dressed as Na'vi from Avatar
get tear-gassed in Bilin
Palestinian protesters against the wall in Bilin picked up on this, when they broadcast videos of themselves on YouTube where they were painted blue and dressed as Na'vi - the oppressed indigenous untermensch humanoids colonised by humans in Avatar.
But with two news stories this past week offering fresh new horrors - one about an "anti-terror" fantasy camp run by a former Israeli military commander in the occupied West Bank, where whole families can have a go at killing a "mock" Palestinian - as well as a story about a new sex robot programmed for male rape fantasies - it was Westworld that sprang to mind.
Not so much the current HBO series, but the original 1973 directorial debut of Michael Crichton about a high-tech Western-themed amusement park ["the vacation of the future, today!"] where human guests act out sadistic fantasies on captive androids, who eventually turn on them in a murderous revenge rampage.
The Western of course, is rooted in the original horror of massacres and displacement of indigenous populations and the enslavement of Africans
The award-winning Westworld was the first feature film to use digital image processing, facilitating pixelation photography to simulate an android point of view, with Yul Brynner starring as the leader of the rebellion.
While the robot rebellion theme is not new in science fiction, it often has racial overtones. And the Western of course, is rooted in the original horror of massacres and displacement of indigenous populations and the enslavement of Africans.
As I watched Westworld again, the scene where the dead and injured robots go back to the factory to get re-built and then sent back out as objects of sadistic settler fantasies somehow recalled my memories of Palestinian workers returning to Bethlehem from their jobs as labourers and cleaners in Jerusalem, passing through metal cages to get back to their homes in the birthplace of Christ.
Even Israeli writer Gideon Levy employed a horror film image in a recent satirical column calling for the end of the occupation.
In response to opposition leader Isaac Herzog's proposal for a "ten-year plan for peace" that would in effect perpetuate the status quo, Levy makes the following modest proposal:
"The parties should announce a 10-year period during which Isaac Herzog will remain in a cage… During this time, they will move towards realizing the two-state vision… Pieces of bread will be thrown into Herzog's cage from time to time… If his behavior conforms to expectations, Herzog will be entitled to declare his cage a state with temporary borders. At the end of the 10-year period (if Herzog is still alive), and on condition that he has behaved properly, the jailors will begin direct negotiations with the cage's occupant…"
How long can you keep people in cages before they turn on you? This is a question addressed in many dystopian films and one that may be very pertinent to ongoing days of rage, embodying a cinema vérité that eclipses even celluloid horror.

Follow Hadani Ditmars on Twitter: @HadaniDitmars