The fiction of history

The fiction of history

Hollywood movies inspired by real-life narratives are often the most interesting to watch. Perhaps this is the reason why dramatic enactments of true events and biographical accounts often receive critical acclaim and prestigious awards.

In 2012, two extraordinary movies— Argo and Zero Dark Thirty  — based on real-life events caused a massive stir.Touted as Ben Affleck’s finest directorial venture, Argo is the story of how CIA agent Tony Mendez — also played by Affleck— stewarded the escape of six Americans from Iran following the hostage crisis at the American embassy in 1979. While director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty narrates the story of CIA’s decade-long investigative mission that lead to the eventual killing of Osama Bin Laden.

Even though films have received rave reviews and prestigious awards and are set to shine at the forthcoming Academy Awards, they have also been vigorously criticised for misrepresenting facts. Article after article has been churned out  questioning the veracity of both the narratives. Regarding Argo, the criticism has been about overblowing the role of the CIA, reducing the role of Canadian diplomats in the whole rescue mission and the introducing fabrications in the movie’s finale — the diplomats’ escape to Tehran airport — to deliberately create an air of suspense in the movie.

The main contention regarding Bigelow’s film is its depiction of the rampant use of torture as an effective mechanism for eliciting testimonies about Bin Laden’s whereabouts. US senators, including former presidential candidate John McCain, have labelled the movie as “grossly inaccurate”. They have even written a letter to CIA acting director Michael Morell, expressing concern that the film’s portrayal of torture directly contradicts the Senate Intelligence Committee’s recently released report, which concludes that no information obtained through torture played a role in the operation that killed Bin Laden.

But as people complain of Hollywood deceit — the deliberate twisting of facts for the sake of attracting the audience — they imply that dramatic enactments of history fail to narrate an objective, truthful account. But the notion that historical accuracy is actually possible outside the cinematic world, where writers and directors take drastic liberties with their creative license, is a flawed one. The way we interpret the past is highly subjective; it is shaped by our personal beliefs, political circumstances, social position and even the language that gives expression to our historical narratives.

Our memory about upheavals and critical events is, therefore, highly selective and often rife with gaps intended to redeem ourselves in some way — for example, the victor’s tale of the war is very different from that relayed by the vanquished. So, when it comes to history, there’s as much fact as there as is fiction, as much lies as there is honesty, and as much inclusion as there is obliteration.For instance, Argo’s narrative aggrandises the role of the CIA because that the CIA’s involvement in the rescue mission is the most important aspect for the American filmmakers and audiences. For them, the heroic risks taken by Mendez are of prime importance, rather than the helpful role of the Canadian diplomats in the crisis.

And the selective showcasing of these important elements in Argo make its narrative rather linear— quite like any other Hollywood movie. The reenactment of the rescue mission is straightforward— a moment of crisis occurs, a game plan is devised by the protagonist and then is successfully executed by the latter. There is no digression from the main storyline — there’s little effort made to accommodate alternative voices or acknowledge the agency of others, like the Canadians, in the rescue plan.

But let’s not berate Hollywood for its simplistic dramatisation. Even the recounting of revolutions, wars and decolonisation in history text books is does in the same linear manner. For instance, the protagonists of critical historical events are usually elite leaders — it’s their actions that are shown as determining the course of events, while the agency of the masses in moving history is often marginalised or completely ignored.

And it’s this simplicity of how historical events are relayed that makes their supposed truthfulness vulnerable to challenge — and thus challenges the idea of there ever being a ‘true’ history. For example, the most upset about Argo are not the Canadians, who, in the words of former Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor — the man who provided safe sanctuary to the American diplomat in Tehran — have been reduced in the film to “innkeepers… waiting to be saved by the CIA”.

It’s the incensed Iranians, who are now making a movie to counter the “distorted movies such as Argo”, according to Iranian actor and filmmaker Ataollah Salmanian. The film will be about the handover of 20 hostages to the American embassy by Iranian revolutionaries just before the revolution. The Iranians surely see events differently — but can we really relegate their version to ‘propaganda’ just because they are attempting to construct a history that absolves them?

But forget the carefully crafted Hollywood tales, even ordinary people’s memoirs of critical events in history are imbued with similar subjectivities. During my undergraduate, I took a literature course on the sub-continent’s partition. I conducted interviews with people — mostly labourers and farmers — who had lived through Partition. I particularly wanted to investigate aspects of the communal conflict that characterised the mass exodus during Partition.

Interestingly, there were two themes that emerged dominantly from the historical narratives of the people whom I interviewed. They denied that sexual violence against women — a rampant phenomenon during the mass upheaval — ever took place in their communities and villages, asserting that such acts happened to “other people, in other communities.”Another theme that emerged was the denial of any act of transgression committed by their own community. The bandits, rapists, arsonists were always “the others”, people with no moral or religious connection to the self.

My findings corroborated a plethora of existing research by scholars of sub-altern history and postcolonialism. Partition was largely an unpleasant experience for the majority who witnessed it, but their memory of it was highly selective, and often the most unpleasant and damning aspects of Partition were either obliterated or ‘whitewashed’ from narration. Their memory of Partition was also a reflection of their social position— grounded firmly in the community-wide struggles and losses, oft-removed from the mainstream history that focuses on the grand Pakistan movement led by the Muslim League.

These interviews corroborate one fact for sure: that first-hand memoirs were no truer than the fiction of Hollywood. But should we abandon all hopes to ever properly know the past and relegate history to a work of imagination? If we actually stop thinking of history as the truthful recounting of past events, we can learn valuable lessons from it.

Just like a good Hollywood flick based on history, the articulations and gaps in how people recall the past are of critical importance. It helps us understand how communities view certain events—why are people comfortable in recalling some details of a bygone era, but are conspicuously silent regarding other. The ‘fiction’ of history is, then, a great lesson in human bias. – KahleejNews