Friday, October 29, 2004

How French Festivals Highlight America-Bashing Themes

(…All in the name of the public interest, of course)

You know how it is: Since the French are so lucid as to recognize that the great dangers facing humanity come from Uncle Sam and Yankeedom in general, it is only naturel that they should use any and every occasion to show the true colors of the enemy, all the while wallowing in their own sense of sophistication.

As the Fête du livre d'Aix-en-Provence opened in mid-October, "Another America" was the main theme chosen by Les Ecritures croisées, the association in charge of the literary salon. (Needless to say, the festival is one that is "supported by the city and the region".) In its honor, Le Monde published an article that an American writer, Russell Banks, wrote specially for the independent newspaper, called Apocalyptic Gluttony.

Also this month, Vincennes hosted Festival America and the mairie of one of the Paris arrondissements held a public meeting "in honor of" Uncle Sam. It was filled with anti-American signs and literature, bashing everything from Bush to the bombing of Hiroshima. It was also attended by members of the US Embassy, which brings up the following thought…

It is the same anti-Americanism that is reflected by many Stateside (and State Department?) Americans, who take "criticism" of their leader(s), society, or policies at face value and who cannot, or will not, bother to go behind the façade to see the double standards at work? Across the Alantic, the exact same double standards are in operation, for instance, the selection of "atrocious photos" from Abu Ghraib that has been put on exhibit in New York and Pittsburgh and that will remain so until late November.

In this perspective, I will remind you that the amateur snapshots were the special focus of Perpignan's photo festival until mid-September. You may remember that after I read that "the most important photos of the year" would be displayed there, I wrote that it is a very odd photo festival where the most prominent photos from Iraq concern amateur snapshots taken of abuse under American auspices, and no photos, professional or otherwise, of the very real torture and terror victims of Saddam Hussein.

Subsequently, a couple of readers protested. Basing their arguments on a single website page, they said that I was obviously wrong, as there indeed would be photos of the mass graves at the festival, one of the critics going so far as to add that I needed to apologize to director Jean-François Leroy. After careful examination of the evidence, I came to the conclusion that everything pointed towards the (very few) mass graves photos that would be displayed serving only as "token" items and that on the whole, the festival would be heavily anti-American.

The best way to find out was to go see for myself, I figured. So I filled 'er up, got behind the wheel, and drove to Perpignan. There I walked around the city, visiting the various places set up to welcome the best news photos of the year. To make a long story short, my worst suspicions were confirmed. Concerning the Geert van Kesteren exhibit, the Perpignan festival had exhibited exactly four photos — four! — from Saddam's killing fields. These were on a wall of 30 or so photos in total, and basically, the four were pictures of groups — groups of fully-wrapped faceless corpses lying on the ground or groups of black-veiled women wailing over them. Compare this to the many more numerous photos, and the much more poignant photos, of individuals — individuals squaring off against individuals, i.e., "common Iraqi civilians" being "abused" by US soldiers.

Visiting the rest of the government-subsided festival, it became apparent that Saddam's torture centers and death camps were nowhere to be seen. As for exhibits devoted to Iraqi "resistants" to the American "occupation", they were all over the place, with plenty of material from the suffering in the Holy Land thrown in for good measure (strangely, it would be some 90 to 95% of photos showing Palestinians with the remainder showing Israelis, most of them in uniform). Back in the Iraqi section, there is an interesting note: Under a Ben Khelifa picture of Ayatollah Sistani, the caption reads, partially, "In the context of democratic rule in Iraq", but the French reads "Dans un Irak soumis à la démocratie". The verb soumettre has a negative connotation, meaning submitted to, or oppressed by.

In and of itself, it is but a detail, but of course, it is symbolic of the entire culture that is always ready to castigate Uncle Sam. As witnessed by the festival's description: "From targeted bomb attacks to murders committed in total impunity, from the scandal of Abu Ghraib to the difficult introduction of Iraqi rule: ever since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the situation has been getting worse and worse. These ten months out on the field … there alongside the Arabs, show us just how difficult it has been for a major power to conduct a preventive war to set up 'its democracy' there".

You will notice that the word democracy (like liberation) is in quotation marks… Mais bien sûr… Now compare this to the description of Benoît Gysembergh's Rwanda photos (see the poster on this post's top image): "In 1994, one of the largest genocide [sic] of the second half of the 20th century took place in Rwanda … the death toll is believed to be over than 800.000… this disaster, which shattered an entire country, leaving permanent scars." Note the tone of the piece, it is entirely passive, as if the blood-letting had been due to natural causes, and were the fault, fundamentally, of noone.

That is a main tenet of anti-Americanism: when Americans and/or capitalists are involved, present a situation as the result of their erroneous ways or their ineptitude or the intended result of their duplicity and malice. When a country opposed to Uncle Sam is involved, or if it is one which is not close to America and/or its capitalistic economy (like France itself, say), present disasters as some untoward and uncalled-for event that befell them largely by accident (calling them, for instance, "a long unspoken tragedy").

Walking around town, this is confirmed when we come upon the images from Chris Morris: the American photographer rails against America under Bush-43, calling "the ugly nation" fear-inspiring, full of hate and ignorance, and fascist. (Indeed: see an example of his blood-curdling pictures above…)

Moving away from wars and the situation in the Middle East, we are treated to Ken Light's photos of "a region forgotten by both government and media", the poor coal mine communities of West Virginia's Appalachia, replete with toothless hillbillies and members of the Ku Klux Klan… (Last year, James E. Bates treated us to… l'empire invisible du Ku Klux Klan. See how eager the helpful French are to disseminate knowledge and understanding about America to its citizens?)

By the way: Did I tell you? The government-sponsored festival that spotlights the Abu Ghraib photos and that scoffs at America's attempts at democracy-building also includes photos involving French army operations. How do you think they are presented? Under the same castigating terms used to describe the Americans and/or their actions, or more nonchalently, in a matter-of-fact way, even heroically?

Well, just listen to the caption under Henri Bureau's 1970s picture of Kowezi, Zaire

The massacre which triggered the French military operation
Le massacre qui a déclenché l'opération militaire française
And this caption from an early 1990s picture taken in Rwanda:
French forces, despite (and I still believe this today) not having any real understanding of what their mission was and what the true political situations was, were remarkably efficient in their humanitarian work
Les militaires français, malgré (je le pense encore aujourd'hui) l'incompréhension de leur mission et de la réalité politique, ont éte d'une remarquable efficicité dans l'humanitaire
Quite a different tone of voice, eh? Well, what do you expect? Those soldats, at least, are not des Américains!…

No comments: