Saturday, 22 October 2011

21: The Age of Extremes

The Age of Extremes is a documentary by the independent film-maker Ishmahil Blagrove. It was released in 2010. I was asked to introduce a showing as part of Cambridge Black History Month. These were my opening remarks.

The Age of Extremes does not have a narrator. It does not offer a neat set of conclusions or provide easy answers. On the contrary, much of its value is that it allows a variety of voices to speak and just when you think you know where it is heading (and it verges on polemic) it will take an unexpected turn or make a startling connection. Never-the-less for all its complexity, the film has some unifying themes that are worth highlighting. 

The starting point of the film is the impact on Muslims in Britain of 9/11 and the consequent war on terror and of the invasions of Iraq and war in Afghanistan.  Here the film is on familiar territory by exploring the ‘othering’ of Muslims and their demonization as a group outside of and somehow threatening to mainstream British life. But the film then defies liberal convention. Most retorts to Islamophobia will emphasise the ‘moderation’ of the majority of Britain’s two million or so Muslims, their patriotism, their opposition to terrorism, and their distance from a tiny unrepresentative group of extremists.  Blagrove has instead made a film that often focuses on the very people who are labelled extremists: wannabe taxi-drivers putting their lives back together after a spell on remand on terrorism charges, young women arguing for their right to wear the veil in public, ex-gang members who won’t hear a bad word about Abu Hanza, the boss of a Muslim TV station, a man smiling as he tell us about his two wives and his anti-Semitism and so on.

One of the contributions of the film is then to humanise these people and to show them in a very different light from the usual media portrayal of ‘the extremist’. A question running through the film is ‘what is the truth’?  A recurring theme is the way people featured in it feel strongly that they and other Muslims have been misrepresented by the media. We are left in little doubt that Blagrove believes that the threat of Islamic terrorism has been exaggerated by the powerful for geopolitical purposes. Whether you accept this argument wholesale or not, the film does a good job of showing that to be Muslim in Britain today is to live with a heavy burden of State and media attention.

Another theme of the film is the interplay of the global and the local. People in the film have lives and identities shaped by international events and transnational relationships. This is a film about Bosnia, Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It tells us about the influence of the idea of ‘the Ummah’ – that Muslims of all different backgrounds and nationalities are part of the same community. 

But this is also a film about Britain and about what it does or should mean to live in a multicultural society.  It is striking how often people in the film will appeal to their rights as British citizens, the right to self-expression, to wear what they want, to express uncomfortable or unpopular ideas, the right to a fair trial, and the right to recourse against misrepresentation. And it is no accident that the film keeps returning to that quaint British institution Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.  The film leaves us wondering what to make of this chaotic but vital scene -  is it a testimony to the power of free speech and pursuit of dialogue or just a lot of people shouting at or across each other - an acrimonious dialogue of the deaf?

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