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01 March 2008

Talking about... propaganda

Talking about... propaganda

Whether we are talking from a pulpit or over a garden fence, Fiona Stewart helps us to give relevant answers to the big issues raised by contemporary popular culture...

The phrase "truth is the first casualty of war" has been attributed to the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, whose work drew on his firsthand experience of warfare. Although it has become a cliché, the sentiment is as apt today as during the Greco-Persian wars. Whether Aeschylus viewed himself as a propagandist for the Athenians is not recorded.

The term "propaganda film" brings to mind 20th century conflicts - monolithic ideologies battling against others with artistic warriors seeking to persuade the populace that theirs is the winning side.

Examples include Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin, an emotional hymn to the Bolshevik cause, and the work of Leni Riefenstahl, whose Triumph of the Will chronicled the 1934 Nazi conference in Nuremburg. These films, like Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, are significant for their artistic merit as well as their cultural and political impact.

The line between truth and opinion is often difficult to spot

New landscape

Warfare in the 21st century is more complex, and the nature of propaganda-making has adapted to the new political landscape. The technological advances in filmmaking and editing can leave the discerning viewer uncertain of where the truth lies.

Two new films about the conflict in Iraq have caused controversy for this reason. The first, Battle for Haditha, is directed by the British documentary maker Nick Broomfield. The film attempts to reconstruct events surrounding the shooting of 24 Iraqis by US marines in November 2005.

Although official reports stated that the Iraqi civilians died as a result of a roadside bomb and a ­subsequent gunfight, it later emerged that the civilians, including six children, were shot in their homes. Eyewitness accounts suggested that the marines had killed them as an act of revenge for the death of their colleague in the roadside attack.

The film follows the stories of three groups: the marine platoon, an Iraqi family and the Sunni insurgents. The characters are not played by professional actors. Rather, Broomfield has employed Iraqi refugees now living in exile in Jordan and former marines to recreate the events through improvisation, drawing on their own memories and experience. This gives the film a powerful, raw feel as though we are observing the situation for ourselves.

Yet the events in Haditha are not yet resolved. A criminal investigation into the massacre is ongoing, and four marines stand accused of murder. To believe that what we are witnessing is a truthful account, we must trust the filmmaker to present an unbiased, unedited version.

Is it propaganda? Certainly Broomfield draws heavily on the 1966 propaganda film The Battle of Algiers, which depicted events during the Franco-Algerian war. But the underlying message of Battle for Haditha seems to be an anti-war one. In an interview with Time Out, the director observed, "The deeper I dug into the whole story, the harder I realised it was to take a side."

Taking sides

Another new film, Redacted, directed by Brian De Palma, is more confrontational in its message and more direct in its style. This is a documentary-style drama that clearly wants to be seen to be taking sides. The story is fictional, but based on a real event: the gang rape, shooting and burning of a 14-year-old Iraqi schoolgirl by American soldiers in March 2006.

The story is told through home video, webcam blog, surveillance cameras and a documentary crew. The effect is that the viewer experiences an unsettling sense of observing events as they unfold.

We have become accustomed to the 24-hour news cycle and the accessibility of footage on the internet. We expect to be able to view and judge events as they happen. The footage shown in Redacted is brutal, and the film has been heavily criticised in the USA because it sets out to portray American soldiers as inhuman killing machines. Some critics have even accused De Palma of treason, claiming that by choosing this one event, he has ignored the good work being done by many hard-pressed US soldiers in a difficult situation.

De Palma himself has made no attempt to disguise his intention to try to stop the war. So are we viewing a truthful replaying of events or one man's attempt, however brave, to influence our political and moral reaction?

Awareness of the power of the moving image is not new. Audiences have become increasingly sophisticated in their ability to question and interpret the messages contained within the media. Yet the line between truth and opinion is often difficult to spot. A blog or a video posted on YouTube is as true a reflection of one individual's view of events as an autobiography or magazine interview.

The history of war has always been written using the letters, reports and recollections of those involved. The historian takes the primary sources and interprets them. However, with the ever-increasing speed of communication, we find that that interpretation is taking place before the dust has settled. The moving image tricks us into believing that we are witnessing the situation as it unfolds whereas we are actually viewing the subjective work of the artist.

An artist always has an opinion about his or her subject matter. In that sense all art is propaganda. As Mark Twain pointed out, "A historian who would convey the truth must lie. Often he must enlarge the truth by diameters, otherwise his reader would not be able to see it."

Fiona StewartIn judging the artistic propaganda of our current political times, perhaps we would do well to heed Jesus advice to be "as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves", making sure that truth is given a fighting chance of survival.

  • www.ToolsForTalks.com provides a one-stop shop to help teach the Bible in the language of contemporary culture. The site contains quotes and illustrations taken from the latest films, music, magazines and TV - updated weekly.
  •  Fiona Stewart is a managing editor for Damaris Trust

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