I saw "Avatar" and loved it. Like many viewers, I was not so impressed with the film's plot, but more blown away by its stunning visual effects. So completely did it suspend my sense of reality that I was actually a bit confused when the credits rolled and I took my 3-D glasses off. How had I gone from defending the phosphorescent Mother Tree in Pandora to some dingy movie theater in an Aventura, Florida, shopping mall? I got into my car and drove slowly over speedbumps to get out of the five-story parking garage. Talk about buzzkill. All I wanted to do was move to Pandora, learn Na'vi and soar gracefully above the clouds.
Instead I flew back to another kind of fantasyland: the Middle East. Gliding over the Judean Hills (in an airplane), I found myself lost in thought. I contemplated what is arguably the world's greatest dramatic narrative, one so magical and original that millions of people actually believe it to be written by a God. Who else could have conjured up the unforgettable scenes of Moses splitting the sea, Jesus walking on water, and Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged steed. Certainly not James Cameron.
While it took Middle Eastern mythology centuries to spread across the globe, the "Avatar" story has been projected around the world faster than you can say "Pandora." The film tells a simple, generic story with universal appeal and an unambiguous moral message. The evidence of this is in how many different world cultures have identified with the plight of the persecuted Na'vis, the movie's do-no-wrong victims.
I have read reports of many peoples who think they were once, or currently are, the "real-life" Na'vis. From landless Native Americans, to homeless residents of Beijing, to treeless tribes of the Amazon - wherever there is exploitation, colonization or conflict, there is the possibility of taking ownership of and adopting the Na'vi narrative as your own.
Not surprisingly, this is also true of the Arab-Israeli struggle, where a century-old land dispute endures partly because both sides continue to believe in their own exclusive status as victims. The one-sided folklore that continues to indoctrinate the youth here is generally based on a true story, but falls short of presenting the whole picture. Now, inspired by "Avatar," we can exchange the trite "we're David, you're Goliath" analogy for a fresh 21st-century version of the same story. We may now have fighting space robots instead of slingshots, but essentially the same facile, black or white question will continue to be asked by both sides: Aren't we the real victims here?
Certainly this is the case with many Palestinians. The prevailing understanding of the Arab/Muslim-dominated Middle East, reiterated to me by a prominent Palestinian activist, paints Israel as the aggressive, Western-backed colonial power and his people as the innocent victims in an ongoing campaign of oppression. Although Israel hasn't uprooted their so-called Hometree, the "indigenous" Palestinians have lost plenty of lives, land and olive groves since the advent of the Zionist enterprise.
And although there are no valuable minerals in the West Bank or Gaza for Israelis/greedy earthlings to exploit, some Palestinian activists have embraced the Na'vi narrative so wholeheartedly that a half-dozen of them dressed up in Na'vi costumes last Friday at the weekly protest against the security fence in Bil'in. Just imagine how surreal it must have been for Israeli soldiers to shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at blue-skinned, pointy-eared aliens.
Two of the Na'vi impersonators were actually Israeli activists. One of them was quoted saying he felt like the real-life Jake Sully, the human hero of the "Avatar" story, who betrays his overly militant species in order to fight alongside the more righteous Na'vis. As part of a military experiment, he is able to morph back and forth from human to Na'vi, and eventually decides to morph into a Na'vi for good. To date, there have been no reports of liberal Israeli activists morphing into Palestinians.
An Israeli settler from Gush Etzion told me his wife initially refused to see "Avatar" because she heard it cloaked a pro-Palestinian message. To prove to her that the Na'vi narrative could only be about the Jews, he cited the three-headed monster of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, who all call for the annihilation of the Jewish state. And so begins the Zionist Na'vi narrative, which, he explained, actually originated 2,000 years ago when the "indigenous" Jews were first kicked out of the Land of Israel/Pandora by the evil Romans/humans who also destroyed the Hometree, which of course symbolizes Solomon's Temple. Then, in the Diaspora, the Jews/Na'vis were persecuted by the Muslims/Spaniards/Russians/Nazis until God/Hollywood finally allowed them to come back to Israel/Pandora to be redeemed, so that they can one day rebuild the Holy Temple/Mother Tree in the center of the Jewish spiritual universe: Jerusalem. His wife then agreed that, from this perspective, "Avatar" was indeed worth seeing.
The settler couple went to see the film together in a 3-D theater in Israel proper. Since it is not yet being screened in the territories, bootleg DVD versions have been smuggled into the West Bank for distribution. When I asked a Palestinian activist if he's upset that he can't watch the film in 3-D, he told me that the beauty of "Avatar" is not in its visual effects, but in its exceptional storyline.
Clearly, none of us are watching the same film.
Jaron Gilinsky is a freelance journalist and filmmaker working for the New York Times and Time Magazine. He blogs at www.jaronreport.com.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now