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The West Spreading New Wave of Feel-Good Movies and False Hopes

by Andre Vltchek, first published at NEO

The real slums behind the Slumdog Millionaire. Copyright of © Alex Masi.

Watch blockbuster movies from the “south” and chances are you will start to believe that the world is not really such a desperate place. Perhaps you might even get convinced that under the present imperialist and turbo-capitalist global arrangement things can always get better. If you live in a gutter somewhere in Sub-Continent or Africa, you could simply try hard, you could “believe in yourself and love yourself”, you could “listen to your instincts”, and everything may eventually fall into the right places. You could get acknowledged, rewarded and even catapulted from your misery into some plush pastures that are covering the tall green hills of success.

Think twice! Or…don’t think at all – just bury your head in the sand.

There were always books written and films produced just in order to please the Western funding agencies and propaganda machine. I described the process, colorfully, in my recent political/revolutionary novel “Aurora”.

Just think about Kite Runner written by an Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini, or about all those bestsellers by Salman Rushdie or Elif Shafak, books about India or Turkey, but intended almost exclusively for a Western audience, and often despised in their native countries.

The works of Rushdie and Shafak can at least qualify as “literature”. But now both the Western markets and mainstream media are demanding more and more of ‘feel good’ rubbish books and movies from poor countries, more and more of those simple, picturesque and ‘positive’ stories that are actually confusing and give false hopes to the local population of many poor countries.

Do you still remember Slumdog Millionaire? How realistic a scenario was that? First of all, it was not even an Indian film; it was a 2008 British movie, directed by Danny Boyle, who also had directed Trainspotting. It took place in the Juhu slum of Mumbai.

In 2011, I filmed in the same Mumbai slum where the movie was produced. I asked many, how likely was such a ‘success scenario’ in that filthy and hopeless neighborhood? The dwellers of the Juhu slum just dismissed the entire charade with derogatory gestures; why even waste precious words?

Now more films are coming – more and more… and more! Feel good; feel very good about the world! Drop a few tears as you are departing from the cinema. Utter under your breath: “Everything is possible.” Collaborate with the establishment. Forget about the revolution, think ‘positively’ (the way the system wants you to think) and above all, think about yourself!

A film about a real Ugandan chess player Phiona Mutesi, created by the Indian director Mira Nair (Fire, Water among her other work), Queen of Katwe, is a tour-de-force of true individualism. And again, if you think you are actually watching a Ugandan or even Indian film, you are squarely wrong: it is supposed to feel like an African one, but it is a US movie, produced by Walt Disney Pictures. And it is actually intended and even proudly promoted as a “feel good movie”.

The plot is simple and predictable: a little girl grows up in total misery, in one of the toughest slums of Africa – Katwe, at the outskirts of Kampala. Her father has already died of AIDS, her mother is unable to pay the rent, and her older sister is barely surviving as a prostitute. Phiona, just 10-years old, is forced to drop from school.

Her life is approaching total collapse. But then, suddenly, a miracle! Hallelujah!

Phiona enrolls in a state-sponsored chess program. She is talented. She climbs and climbs, soon travelling to Sudan by a plane, and few months later, even to Russia.

It is supposed to be a ‘true story’. And yes, there was a poor girl, growing up in a Ugandan slum. She was talented although she never reached the zenith, and never won any gold medal. In the film, she wins tournaments, makes loads of cash, and buys a villa (looking like a palace), for her family.

Is this what young poor girls watching the film in the Katwe slum should be aiming at? Would such a dream be realistic, or is this an absolute mirage?

I also filmed in Katwe, for my damning documentary Rwanda Gambit. And when I was a young kid, I could pass for a talented chess player, taking part in several tournaments and competitions. Somehow, the film – Queen of Katwe – did not make any sense. To become chess champion takes much more than some luck and zeal. Like a concert pianist, a chess player has to spend years and years of hard training, literally killing himself or herself, to play at a certain level.

When I was a kid, my father, a scientist, was obsessed with turning me into a champ. Frankly, I was not too interested, although I worked hard, for years. I won a few medals, but never went further. Could Phiona, hungry, almost without a roof over her head, become a grand master, just after few months of unhurried coaching?

I wish she could. But I doubt it, knowing Uganda, knowing its slums, fully realizing how merciless their reality really is, and of course, knowing chess.

Who benefits from such films? Definitely not the poorest of the poor, and definitely not Indians or Africans!

It appears that the only beneficiaries are those people who are trying to uphold the status quo, in the West and in the colonies. They don’t want people to realize: that there is almost no hope left, and only some radical change, a revolution, can reverse and improve things in their plundered countries.

A revolution is a ‘communal’ event. It is never about one person suddenly advancing, or getting ‘rescued’ or ‘saved’. It is not about one person or one family ‘making it’. It is about an entire nation fighting for its rights, for progress, and it is about social justice for all.

Little ‘success stories’ actually divide communities, offering false hopes.

Phiona’s story coming from pro-Western, turbo-capitalist Uganda, has nothing in common with the great communal projects in Venezuelan slums: like the classical Youth Orchestras, or cable cars, childcare centers, public libraries, community learning centers, and free medical posts.

No matter how ‘lovely’ is Mira Nair’s cinematography, winning the lottery, or getting lucky here and there, is not going to change the entire country. That is exactly why those small individualist acts and triumphs are being celebrated and glorified in the centers of Western imperialism. There, no real change is ever welcomed, whether it takes place at home or in the colonies. On the other hand, all selfish little victories are treated as sacred. One should live for himself or herself, disregarding the context.

How many other deeply ‘positive-thinking’/ unrealistic/ ‘feel-good’/ ‘false-hope’ films have I seen, lately? Many. For instance Lion, a 2016 Australian/UK co-production, about a poor Indian boy who jumps on a train, loses his hometown, and eventually gets adopted by a loving and dedicated Australian family.

It looks like a downpour, an avalanche of similar films and books and news stories. It looks like some kind of new wave of ‘positive thinking’, or ‘there is nothing really too wrong with our world that couldn’t be fixed by some personal luck and individualism’ dogma. Most of the stuff is somehow connected to the epicenter of Western ideological indoctrination – the United Kingdom (a country, which is successfully nullifying all revolutionary zeal of its own citizens, of the immigrants arriving from desperate and colonized countries, and even those people who live in despair in various far away places).

The West is busy manufacturing ‘pseudo reality’. And in this grotesque pseudo-reality, several deprived individuals like starving chess players, street vendors and slum dwellers are suddenly becoming rich, successful and fulfilled. Millions of others, all around them, continue to suffer. But somehow, they don’t seem to matter much.

There is a new celebrity group in making – let’s call them the ‘glamorous poor’. Those ‘exceptional individuals’, the glamorous poor, are easy to digest, and even to celebrate in the West. They are swiftly and cheerfully integrating into the ‘mainstream’ club of the global ‘go getters’ and narcissist rich.

Andre Vltchek is a philosopher, novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. Three of his latest books are revolutionary novel “Aurora” and two bestselling works of political non-fiction: “Exposing Lies Of The Empire” and “Fighting Against Western Imperialism”. View his other books here. Andre is making films for teleSUR and Al-Mayadeen. Watch Rwanda Gambit, his groundbreaking documentary about Rwanda and DRCongo. After having lived in Latin America, Africa and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides in East Asia and the Middle East, and continues to work around the world. He can be reached through his website and his Twitter.

22 Comments

  1. Paolo says

    Life as a lottery ticket. So governments can renege on all social responsibility because “hey, that guy made it, why can’t you, whats wrong with you?….”

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  2. Alan says

    Fair enough article although few insights. Mainstream films appear to reflect the desire to make money for the investors or press home the ideology of those able to exert pressure. American films are by far the worst, if they aren’t obsessing about threats, they’re attempting to re-write history or teach their audience how to behave. Personally I prefer books.

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  3. George says

    This is what I’d like to see: At the end of every one of those “feel good” movies when we see the lucky one or two basking in their newly found affluence, the camera then pans out over a blasted heath of corpses and the near-dead. You could keep the jolly music as a sarcastic counterpoint.

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  4. billyBakke says

    How many times in an a small article can you mention your own achievements? Is it your recent revolutionary/political novel, in which you described everything that is being discussed so ‘colourfully’. Or is it your ‘damning documentary’, blah blah what-the-fuck-ever? What are you saying Andre? Everything that comes form the West is complete fucking bollocks but hey look I’ve done a few things, look at them here, here and here! Shout, shout, scream, scream. The relevance of your arguments is drowned in narcissism and a banal dichotomy of stupefying simplicity in which one is left feeling that the only thing you hold dear is the sound of your own fucking voice. I mean you filmed in the slums of India and the slums of Rwanda didn’t you, you could have been a contender as a chess champion, but you weren’t interested. You ask who benefits from all the films you denounce. It definitely isn’t the Africans or Indians (yeah they be one big thing dem Africans and Indians). Seems to me you are doing very nicely writing about their poverty mate. You talk about a revolution and radical change that is not about one person ‘making it’. Fuck me, do you not see the irony of you promoting and advertising your own work within this article?

    Listen OffGuardian, behove that i have to point out a fucking narcissist who complains about everything but says nothing, when i see one but…

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    • Anna Zimmerman says

      What a bizarre rant. Three slight references to the author’s life hardly constitute a narcissistic tirade. You are entitled to disagree with him of course, but even if your criticism was accurate and the author was, in fact, entirely self-obsessed and self-serving, it would not necessarily invalidate his arguments. Do you have a proper criticism to make, about his actual point?

      Liked by 1 person

      • billyBakke says

        You call it a bizarre rant? Explain yourself. Who are you to set a behavioural standard? Do you have some specific points that you disagree with? I was under the impression this was just the kind of no holds, straight talking that Andrea so calls for. I respect him for this. Although i disagree with almost every thing he ever says. So lets asses what his main points are in this article shall we.

        Hollywood/western blockbusters movies are on the whole just fairytale, money making machines, pushing Western propaganda to those poor Africans and Indians and, us as well obviously. They just keep the down trodden… down trodden etc etc. Well thats a breathtakingly original point. We will skirt over the fact, as Andrea does, that Africa (Nigeria, South Africa. Egypt specifically) and India have there own massive indigenous film industries.

        But more specifically Andrea focuses on the Western portrayal of non -Western cultures, hence the mention of slum dog millionaires, which he helpfully tells us, shock horror, isn’t even and Indian film! Of course its not an Indian film. Its was a small budget British film aimed at British/Western audiences. He then goes on to state that the dwellers of the slum where the film was set, ‘dismissed the whole charade with derogatory gestures’. Did they Andre. wheres the evidence for that then. You have taken it upon yourself to be the voice for an entire Indian slum? The reaction to Slumdog millionaire in India was mixed, unfortunately the voices of those slums dwellers is hardly ever heard, but thanks to Andrea we now know how they feel.

        I have not seen the other films he mentioned, so can not comment. But i think we have established the focus of his argument.

        Not really very original. But this rich, Western author still had enough time while empathising for all those ‘poor people’ to tell us about his latest book. His latest documentary. A few places around the world where he was lucky enough to have jetted off to and filmed, and how he really could have been a fucking chess grand master if only he could have been bothered to put his mind to it.

        Then with a further staggering blindness to the level of irony involved, he makes perhaps his only interesting point as he writes,
        There is a new celebrity group in the making-lets call them the ‘glamorous poor’. Those ‘exceptional individuals’, the glamorous poor, are easy to digest, and even to celebrate in the West. They are swiftly and cheerfully integrating into the ‘mainstream’ club of the global ‘go getters’ and narcissist rich.

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        • billyBakke says

          Small correction. I don’t disagree with most of what Andre Vltcheck says i just disagree with the way in which he says it.

          Like

  5. Jen says

    Unfortunately there are too many of these kinds of movies – not only movies set in Third World countries but closer to home – being directed by people like Danny Boyle who made their names years ago with cult films but who are now way past their creative peak.

    The British film industry has lately been pumping out historical dramas like “Viceroy’s House” (which I haven’t seen admittedly) which I suspect whitewash British colonial history and British treatment even of their own working class people. I’ve seen “Suffragette” (featuring Meryl Streep and Helena Bonham Carter) and I thought the idea of a working class woman joining a middle class women’s movement and being made to pay dearly for their scheming with the loss of her job, home and family was extremely bizarre.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Brutally Remastered says

      The funny thing is – British productions are all retrograde. They have nothing else, except what I call Town Hall Television, Bake-off and X-factor etc etc that are hugely cheap to make, bottom barrel tripe. It is a shame, television once had promise to be a most exciting media, but then the mumsy middle classes took over.

      Also – what is up with your avatar?

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      • George says

        Britain has always been the land of nostalgia – at least in my own lifetime. I was raised on programmes mourning the past. The best example was the aptly named “Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?” The theme song has lyrics that are almost chilling since time has seemingly gone into reverse:

        Tomorrow’s almost over
        Today went by so fast
        Is the only thing to look forward to the past?

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  6. Bailed says

    Slumdog I avoided for 9 years but recently watched for a research project.

    Colonialist, racist tripe. Unbelievable that the inteligentny from London to Los Angeles fawned over it.
    They couldn’t see the problem with dancing pic*********s.

    It was far worse than any minstrelsy turned out in the past 100 years because we are better informed. We have no excuse.

    Danny Boyle can’t hide behind cultural ignorance and feign the polishing of his class-misted glasses. But nor can his audience.

    The organs directly influence this manipulative nonsense. I’m sure Hollywood moguls struck a deal with the CIA during the HUAC hearings in order to hold on to their businesses.

    There’s tangential stuff in these books:
    Wilford’s 2009 book, “The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America”
    Whitney’s “Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers,” 2017
    Modern art was CIA Weapon, by Frances Stonor Saunders, 1995

    Liked by 4 people

  7. JJA says

    I remember all the hype about similar kind of film – The Killing Fields in the mid 80s about Cambodia. It struck me as a Hollywood Disney update on ‘Lassie Comes Hope’.

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  8. Funny this article came along right in the middle of the filming of a new Tubularsock film about a small Orange-Child that came from a totally different planet and communicated is short cryptic signals to his minions.

    The opening scene has the camera slowly pan a huge skyscraper as it lifts off toward a planet far far away. Only to show the small Orange-Child left behind to fend for himself in this quagmire called earth.

    Will he succeed? Will the earth go up in smoke? Is there REALLY intelligent life on earth at all? Relax, there are no exits to the theater.

    Pass the popcorn.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Willem says

    I remember when I watched the Kite Runner it in the cinema in 2008 and that the scenes were just ridiculous. A man (the kite Runner) from Afghanistan who fled to the the US but who re-entered Afghanistan wearing a false beard, who watched a stoning, and was so happy to return to the US where his son was free to kite. Although the feeling that we should thank the US for bombing, I mean democratizing, Afghanistan, may have been imprinted in some at the time, I think it will be easy for many to see through the propaganda now if the film is shown on tv.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Yes. This gets to the heart of it. Every time I have an argument with some smugly-smiling Liberal who admonishes me that “Things are not quite as dire as you seem to think they are,” I know I’m dealing with someone who’s been watching too many of the Feel Good flicks (or reading too many of Bill Gates’ press releases) targeted in this article. Their catchy slogan should be: “Propaganda! Because we can’t shoot all of you!”

    Liked by 1 person

  11. All these “feel good” stories are escapism at it’s worst. The plight of the many hundreds of thousands in countries and communities living in abject misery in ghettos and slums, can conveniently be brushed under the carpet whilst applauding the victory(never a reality in the first place)of one individual, so we can all sit back and believe in Cinderella’s fairy godmother.
    For the millions across the globe, victims of war and corruption, there will be no respite, just a lifetime of more of the same. Vltchek is astute in his observances and his interpretation cannot be overstated. There is enough wealth in the world amassed by the minority to make poverty obsolete, but that obsession to accumulate wealth and that next rung up the ladder, at the expense of others, is the all pervasive culture which far too many adhere to.
    Nearly all poverty is the result of others who have achieved, looking the other way and turning a blind eye to the plight of those who have nothing, and endorsing, by tacit consent, this greed driven agenda. The only solution is for those who are able, to rise up and denounce this long held status quo and demand justice for all. Unfortunately that requires many individuals to put their own interests in jeopardy, abandon their apathy and promote radical change in favour of others. Given the chance, the majority will not make the effort.
    Britain will have a General Election on June 8th and despite nearly one third of the country living in either poverty or a life of living on credit, many of these will vote for some abstract reality which does not exist and a Tory government – the reason for their situation – will likely scrape through. What chance, the rest of the world?

    Liked by 2 people

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