By Roger Diamond

A few nights ago I went out with a friend to the Labia Theatre, the only independent cinema in Cape Town, where we typically watch depressing environmental documentaries, the seats filled with liberal, erudite and pensive types. A few nights ago, however, my friend Rob suggested we see Avatar, which I keenly agreed to, thinking we were in for a good old-fashioned sci-fi blast with lots of special effects, great sets and a limited plot. We got all of that, but in amidst the arm-rest gripping scenes and even in the thick of the action I found an overwhelming sense of sadness.

For the story of Avatar is one of losing the connection. The protagonist starts off as one of the antagonists — the people who are mining, exploiting and actively, consciously causing immense environmental and social destruction. When questioned or challenged on this issue, the excuses are that they are merely obeying orders or are serving some greater cause, but that yes, they are trying their best to be nice, within the overall paradigm of destruction. The antagonists will provide schools and medical care in exchange for land. The parallels with globalised “Western” civilisation are so clear. Unlike Lord of the Rings — which has a similar good-and-evil message but is cloaked in mysticism — here the scriptwriters haven’t tried to conceal the simile with real life.

Without giving the story away, the protagonist goes from a state of wanting to serve the antagonists, to one of confusion, where he feels both a commitment to his past and upbringing as well as a sense of despair at what his culture actually stands for. He gets to see the world from the other side; he goes from coloniser to victim. But it is not so much his desire to side with the underdog but rather his realisation that the possibility of a more meaningful and rich life lies not in the military-industrial complex, gaining rank, monetary and material wealth but rather with people whose connection to nature is strong, complex and fulfilling.

Many of the film’s characters are a bit flat, with so much action allowing little time for character development but the protagonist amply reveals the difficult position many of us find ourselves in — particularly younger people and those in privileged positions with access to information, money and means. At some point in our lives, we realise a little bit of how the world works — what it takes to make a wedding ring or a motor car — and we then have to choose how to live our lives. There is a broad spectrum of choices for us, but in Avatar it has been cut down to the two extremes — give in to the antagonists and forever live in comfort, but emotionally dead and chasing distraction from the reality of what it takes to provide that personal comfort — or risk your life to save what you know is worth saving.

In the case of Avatar, with the happy Hollywood ending, the connection is restored and diversity, respect and nature win the day. But for reality, the destruction of our planet is continuing as before. The mass extinction is under way and we are causing it. Was I the only person who walked out of that movie feeling depressed? Did anybody else see the parallels? Surely! And hopefully it will shove people a step closer to making major changes in their lives to stop the destruction and restore the connection.

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