Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) struck me deeply in many aspects. Eleven years after its release, I finally decided to watch Children of Men for leisure. It was neither entertaining nor relaxing. As I attempted to pick a movie for my leisure of temporarily fleeing from the cruel reality I am experiencing, Children of Men forced me back to the dimension from which I tried so hard to escape.
The dark and absurd world of Children of Men strikingly depicts the current world today. It only takes the first few seconds at the beginning of the movie that one immediately forms this unshakeable idea when the newscaster’s voice is heard: “Day 1000 in the siege of Seattle,” “The Muslim community demands an end to military occupation,” “British borders remain closed, the deportation of illegal immigrants will continue” and finally, the tragic incident of the murder of the youngest person on Earth. Without accompanying images, Children of Men already depicts a sense of hopelessness and sadness. There, the protagonist Theo enters a cafe shop full of people attentively listening to the tragic news. Some start to mourn the death of this youngest-18-year-old human on Earth. Theo is different. He does not seem to care. Theo is a bureaucrat working for the Ministry of Energy, and he feels annoyed because surrounding people express too much grief about this death. Later on, he agrees to a deal that he would escort an undocumented African girl to the coast in exchange for money. The idea that Theo is a part of the system and he intends to keep it that way: he tries to suppress his emotion and ignore the unpleasant reality around him stunts me. He is me, and he could be any of us. We have been immersing ourselves into the “system” (and as “system,” I mean, not just the government but, the social structure, the individual role in this structure) that we force ourselves to ignore the background – what is happening around us. To some extent, our entire life is summed up in Theo’s conversation with Jasper:
Jasper: What did you do for your birthday?
Jasper: Oh come on, you must have done something.
Theo: Nope. Woke up, felt like shit. Went to work, felt like shit.
Jasper: That’s called a hangover, Amigo.
I chuckled but soon realized the painful meaning behind his humor. We ignore the “state of things.” In Children of Men, Theo ignores the state of things that suppose to have prompted some questions about world affairs such as: What happened to the world? What happened in Seattle? Why does the military oppress the Muslims? Theo shows no sign he cares about humanity. Cuarón, director of Children of Men, never reveals the protagonist’s mental state either. Instead, Cuarón portrays the world in Children of Men through the eyes of Theo. What we see is also what Theo perceives. This implies, again, that we are Theo, and his behavior in Children of Men somewhat reflects ours in reality. Nevertheless, I do not believe Theo is a sad example of our images. The world in Children of Men is chaotic, but Theo is simply too insignificant to make a difference. The two principal problems presented in Children of Men (and also our real world) are the contemporary politics of institutional discrimination against minorities and infertility.
First, I want to address the issues of immigration and discrimination. The dystopian theme in Children of Men is not rare. The first thing that came to my mind when watching this movie is Orwell’s 1984, but besides the massive surveillance of British government, a heavy presence of police and armed forces and brainwashing propaganda, Children of Men portrays a darker version than 1984. In fact, I rather say this fictional reality does not deviate from the characteristics of contemporary society. In the short period from 2016 to early 2017, the liberal world order begins to fall apart with Brexit – Britain leaving the EU, the election of Donald Trump and some more right-winged parties start to emerge; Meanwhile, the refugee crisis continues to be the problem involving borders, nations, and terrorism. This is what is shown in Children of Men. Released in 2006, Cuarón’s vision for the movie did not take a long time to surface. 2006 is only five years after 9/11. It was when terrorism, the U.S war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamophobia were the trending topics. No one would imagine that 11 years later, humans would be much more divided and that all of a sudden, everyone rushed to grab their national identity as if it was a low-hanging fruit about to be stolen by a Middle Eastern refugee; all of a sudden, country leaders decide to put up walls and embrace protectionism and institutionalize policies that bring up the notion “us vs. them”. Children of Men, thus, anticipated this. Something happens to the world, assumingly a nuclear war, that leaves nations in chaos and disorder and only Britain, assumingly declaring martial law, stands. The massive influxes of immigrants who speak all kinds of languages also affirm this theory.
[Cuarón’s art of storytelling is that he never explicitly reveals what is going on except that the audience, me, has to actively investigate the background. It could be some pieces of newspapers; it could be a brief mention in a conversation; it could be a form of classical arts.]
Children of Men depicts the very fundamental nature of humanity in the event of a crisis: fleeing from danger and selfishness. If Britain is the last safe country with a functioning government on Earth, it would naturally attract refugees and immigrants. The scarcity of land and resources hence becomes a major problem. There are never enough for everyone. It is then that the institutional discrimination policies are enacted. Immigration police (who are white British males) actively search for illegal immigrants, evict them from their shelters, humiliate and strip-search them in public before sending them to concentration camps for deportation. The police verbally and physically harass these illegal immigrants as if they are the scums of the earth while a TV announcer consistently reminds people that protecting, hiding and feeding illegal immigrants is a crime.
Whenever scenes like this present, I immediately think of the Nazis and images of the Holocaust. Immigrants are hunted like cockroaches, treated inhumanely and exterminated, just like what happened to the Jews. To justify such action, by asserting that they do not belong to the country, they are here illegally, therefore, they deserve to be treated this way, is as moronic as the Nazis extirpating the Jews: because they choose to be Jews so they must die. I shudder to think about this kind of mentality is so common nowaday.
There are several movie scenes in which Theo walks past the disturbing views where immigrants are held in cages, stripped off personal belongings and begging in their languages, yet Theo shows no remorse or shame. It is until that he has to act like an immigrant to escort Kee, an undocumented African, and become a victim of the abuse himself that he starts expressing his sympathy. As I mention, Children of Men does not try to teach the audience a moral lesson. Instead, Cuarón’s art of storytelling brings the audience a fictional world of Theo, only to end up seeing the real world they (the audience) have been living in. The self-conscious and preoccupied camera movement also plays a significant role. As it directs the audience toward the background where immigrants are being humiliated and held in animal cages, it is as if these observations that matter the most, not the movie plot. In a blink of an eye, these images of abused immigrants made me think of Trump’s America. At the moment when I am writing this post, the U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is conducting operations to round up and deport undocumented and illegal immigrants in America. The hatred toward the unwelcomed guests, the ones who do not bear the “American-ness” grows stronger days after days. Who would have thought in the near future, the world in Children of Men would become a reality in America, if not in the entire world?
Cuarón wanted to emphasize on our struggle and hunger for an identity, an abstract concept that is worth dying for. Children of Men skillfully illustrates how our possibly final conflict would be the conflicts between cultures. In 1996, the well-known political scientist Samuel Huntington proposed his thesis “Class of Civilization?” claiming that the primary sources of conflict in the post-Cold War era would be about cultural and religious identities. Cuarón proves how Huntington was right and wrong at the same time. Huntington is right because the conflict between nations would eventually come to an end; if world leaders come up with a global peace resolution, it would not be permanent, and another crisis would take place; another form of rivalry will emerge: the struggle for identity. In Children of Men, the world is in disarray, and Britain remains to be the only country with a functional government. Moreover, indeed, within Britain, the seeds of instability start to grow out of the regime’s oppression against other minority groups. Society becomes a cultural frontline where there can only be one “fittest” culture to survive; others would perish. The oppressed, who speak perfect British accent and are possibly born and raised in Britain, rebel against the discrimination. This is where Huntington is wrong. He failed to recognize the overlapping cultural values that are formed within a civilization. The “cultural fault lines separating civilizations,” therefore, become extremely blurry. Civilizations had been shaped by one dominant ethnocultural/religious group while the minor ones had been insignificant and suppressed. However, the global movement of people, thanks to globalization, market economy, and technology, resulted in the establishments of different cultural identities within one civilization (with the word “civilization” being used in accordance with Huntington’s thesis). Huntington’s classification of civilizations (Western, Orthodox, Islamic, African, Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Latin American and Buddhist) became a vague (if not ignorant) technique to divide civilizations distinctly.
Throughout the movie, it is seen that under the British authoritarian regime one must always carry a passport in case being questioned by immigration police. The identity, the very abstract concept that everyone can die for, is manifested in the form of this tiny booklet. I find it the most ridiculous and ironic thing that happens to mankind: our identity relies on a piece of paper while others, history, philosophy, tradition, language, technically, everything that defines one’s culture, do not matter. Then what is the point of our struggle for identity?
In Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012), which was inspired by the real event happening in 1979 when Iranian activists took over the United States embassy in Tehran as a response to President Carter granting asylum to the Shah. Six American diplomats avoided the raid but got stuck in Tehran. A CIA agent traveled to rescue them, using a Canadian passport. Together, they successfully escaped from Iran on fake Canadian passports. Huntington’s thesis is clearly presented in this movie/event, as the root of the conflict was not of political nature but of cultural/religious background: the Islamic culture against its western counterpart. Coincidentally, this movie/event also involves using passports, the piece of identification paper that could alter one’s identity. Should the Americans travel to Iran during that time and present the U.S passport, they would have been detained and possibly executed. However, the same group of people, presenting Canadian passports, would end up with a more plausible outcome. This is the absurdity of humanity.