City With No Children

1 Oct

Here’s another entry in the Films About Fear series. The work in question is Children of Men, and as usual if you haven’t seen it and would like to do so with minimal preconceptions, please do skip over this piece. I present you instead with the challenge of fathoming Nicholas Cage’s eyes.

Children of Men, when released in 2006, was one of the best films made about the new millennium up to that point, although it was set two decades into the future. Today, in a world where the Neo-Nazi-descended Sweden Democrats win seats in parliament and SB1070 polls well in Arizona, one of the most important themes of the film is as relevant as ever: fear about minorities and fertility.

The film begins in the same manner as our last entry, 28 Days Later, (2002) with television news coverage. Instead of seeing footage of riots, we are told of  “Day 1000 of the Siege of Seattle” and the ratification of the Homeland Security Bill, which will keep Britain’s borders closed as they have been for eight years. The top story is the death of the world’s youngest person, and in this way we are introduced to the corollary of 28 Days Later’s “rage” virus: the complete inability of women to have children for the past 18 years. The two conditions – infertility vs. fast-acting conversion to a blood-thirsty zombie – would seem to be very different, but Britain in Children of Men is in many ways like that of the Britain dreamed by the Major in 28 Days Later – it sees itself as the last hope of humanity, where civilization will be preserved in a strict, militarist fashion. A propaganda video shown on a bus flashes footage of catastrophic violence around the world and declares that “THE WORLD HAS COLLAPSED – ONLY BRITAIN SOLDIERS ON.” It’s remarkable how easy it is as a viewer to accept this isolation as a fact. Shown just brief snippets of mayhem, one doesn’t initially question that Britain is the last bastion of civilization.  It must surely be even easier for those actually living in that situation to accept this, and to tacitly support a government that puts soldiers on the streets and rounds up immigrants in cages, to be sent to awful detention camps or killed. This is the sort of population that puts flowers at the makeshift memorial of a celebrity, walking on their way past immigrants having their possessions thrown out of windows. Think of how easy it is for an ex-alcoholic Mormon gold-monger to scare people into declaring that America is “the last bastion of hope.” Just as a passing jet aircraft in 28 Days Later reveals that the world does still continue on, Children of Men gives us reason to reject this panicked isolationism. It is an isolationism really no different than one at play today in Europe and the United States.

The two situations, fictional and real, work with the same logic, in the case of the film it is simply compressed in time and place. People in this world without children, this world that is therefore presumably without a future, have been thrown into chaos, and in the case of Britain they have decided to jealously guard what resources remain (and there are surely fewer – the streets are filled with dirty buses and auto-rickshaws, the countryside is polluted and gray)  by deporting as many immigrants as possible. Dividing people into immigrants and citizens, into those who have the right to stay and those who don’t, requires a concept of ethnic nationalism, which appeals to the idea of the nation as having an eternal essence. This sort of essence proves very alluring when the future is uncertain. At one point in the film a car radio is playing the station Radio Avalon, with a DJ announcing a song from “2003, that beautiful time when people refused to accept that the future was just around the corner.” In politics, people have turned to an essentialist interpretation of identity and citizenship; in the aesthetic realm, people are comforted by a radio station named after a mythical isle, home to immortal beings, that features in the Arthurian legends so important to the idea of an essential and ancient British identity. Feeling they have no future, the population looks towards a past without end.

This Britain of the future, without children but fearful of immigration, is ultimately similar to most of the richest parts of the world today, whether we call them “developed” or “Western.” The only members of the G-20 with birth rates which are at or above replenishment levels are Argentina, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey. Canada, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and nearly all of Western and Eastern Europe are below the replenishment level; the United States remains slightly above the replenishment level, but would likely not be without immigration. While these falling birthrates are unlikely to plummet straight to zero, they will still eventually make it difficult to provide for a shrinking and aging population and maintain previous levels of economic output. To have a future anything like its present, the rich developed world needs immigrants from poorer countries with lower per capita GDP’s, but at the moment we see the popularity of xenophobic anti-immigrant politics Europe and North America, although fortunately nowhere are they popular enough to control the government.  The choice in today’s real present and the imagined future of Children of Men is the same, and it is between having an aging future or choosing to share resources with immigrants who do not fit into society’s conception of its identity, people who threaten to pollute the body politic. The analogous relationship is made complete when it is revealed that the first woman (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to become pregnant in the 18 years is an immigrant. To survive, society must accept foreign fertility.

The plot of the film is driven by conflict surrounding this pregnancy. A disillusioned activist, (Clive Owen) who once had a child, killed by flu, with the leader (Julianne Moore) of a pro-immigrant militant group, (“Fishes”)  is contacted by Moore and entrusted with getting the pregnant girl to a rendezvous with a boat sent by the Human Project, a group of scientists devoted to solving the problem of infertility.  Moore is assassinated by a more extreme wing of the Fishes, who believe that the government would pass the child off as the offspring of a naturalized Afro-Briton. They instead wish to use the girl and the baby as standards in an armed immigrant uprising (conveniently referred to as “The Uprising”) against the government. The attempt to meet the boat from the Human Project leads Owen and Ashitey to one of the large squalid quarantine camps immigrants and refugees are relegated to, based in the remains of the seaside resort town of Bexhill. They are pursued by the Fishes, who are trying to recapture Ashitey and begin The Uprising, which leads to a full military assault on Bexhill. We see the character of the uprising in a protest march, men and women of many different nationalities chant “Allahu Akbar,” some carrying green banners with Arabic script, some brandishing AK47’s. At the end of the march we see two French flags. The eruption of violent discontent has an Islamist face, but contains past struggles in its genetic makeup. The militant refugees of Children of Men may have different aims and methods than the Free French, Hamas, or the stormers of the Bastille, but they have many shared grievances.

Owen recovers Ashitey and her newborn from the Fishes, who are pinned down by the army in a residential tower. The Fishes’ leader, shooting from a corner, asks “How can it be peaceful when they take away your dignity?” When told that the child is a girl, he tearfully shares that he once had a sister. Here we may have the two most important concepts for understanding unrest in the modern world. Nothing causes more resistance in foreign occupations or civil conflicts than the deaths of civilians, the memories of sisters away. Economic conditions alone are not enough to explain the grievances of both alienated minorities and apprehensive majorities. Dignity requires a certain minimum level of material well-being, but that is not enough in the face of the indignity of inequality, the indignity of occupation, the indignity of segregation, the indignity of ethno-cultural chauvinism. Attempts to assuage youths burning cars in the suburbs of Paris or flirting with radical Islamism in Birmingham or confused white Americans incensed by outsourcing have to reach for dignity, not simply political involvement or a minimum income level. The idea of dignity held by, for example,  an Afghan man may not be shared by the average resident of the United States, or an Afghan woman, but there is little chance of peace anywhere if people cannot feel dignified, and an even smaller chance that dignity can be imposed by force.

As the film ends, Ashitey and an unconscious and quite possibly dead Owen sit in a rowboat as the Human Project ship Tomorrow emerges from the thick fog. The Human Project puts lie to the idea that Britain stands alone, and to the fear that there is no future. It represents not just the biological continuation of  humanity, but the preservation of humanism and rational, progressive problem-solving in the face of reactionary isolation or despair. The TomorrowHope and have this painted on the side. Of course, hope is a funny thing, and the administration of the Hope & Change candidate may escalate a war, claim the right to assassinate U.S. citizens without trial, and block that claim from legal challenge by declaring it a state secret. might as well be called

In an early conversation, Owen declares that “it was too late before the infertility thing happened.” At the end of the film, in the last few moments before he loses consciousness, Ashitey tells Owen that she has decided on a new name for her baby – Dylan, the same as Owen’s child.  Hopes cruelly dashed a generation before come around in a radically different new world. A new birth speaks not only of a future, but also an authentic past, the sort that is transmitted through the universal rituals of raising children, opposed to the mythical eternal past of Radio Avalon or Restoring Honor.

What ultimately complicates matters deeply is that the issue of sharing resources or guarding them jealously for use by a group chosen based on ethnic identity, of the rich either fearing the fertility of the poor or accepting it, is not limited to immigration. Even a nation that accepts accepting no one across its border shares an ecosphere with all other countries, and therefore must share a set of common resources with their residents. If all people are to strive for a higher material standard of living, whether through immigration or economic development at home, it is unlikely that the atmosphere could absorb the associated increases of fossil fuel consumption without climate changing in increasingly volatile and extreme ways. There might at the same time be scarcity of fresh water, minerals and fossil fuels and associated conflicts.

At the moment, much of the developed world is waiting for the Human Project, hoping that somewhere, a group of scientists and thinkers will come out from the mist and show us the way to tomorrow.

(There are many other aspects of Children of Men that could be discussed, in content and in form, but doing so would lead to a far more unfocused essay. It’s worth noting that it features what may be Michael Caine’s finest performance.)

EDIT: Foreign Policy just so happened to discuss the issue of aging populations and falling birth rates a few weeks after I wrote this post.

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2 Responses to “City With No Children”

  1. Trent November 10, 2010 at 3:29 PM #

    First off, wanna say that I’m in awe of this essay. It’s mature, insightful, and highly readable. Publishable quality! If this is a first or second draft it’s goddamn good.

    I can’t believe that in the 4-5 times I’ve seen Children of Men it’s never occurred to me the parallels between demographic decline/immigration and the movie’s central shtick. Another thing that hadn’t occurred to me was the possibility that Britain wasn’t the only govt left standing, and that the UK’s govt glossed (I love that word) over this fact to make people submit to them. That makes sense for a variety of ways, though it does still make sense to me that the UK would still be something of an oasis of stability.

    I find your discussion of dignity interesting as well. Dignity, as I understand it from your usage, means something more like social status and respect. In other words, it’s the sense people have that they MATTER, and that they are part of some larger social fabric and get a minimum of influence in events. It’s a tricky term to nail down, even though it’s used a lot in social criticism. But then I realize you said it isn’t just assuaged by political involvement, so I’m not quite sure what it does mean. A chance at self-respect maybe?

    Finally, what I find engaging about this is the discussion of immigration issues is the problem of how wide you make the national realm. Who gets to share in the benefits? What criteria entitles you a cut? Is it race? Patriotic sentiment? Cultural assimilation? TRICKY SON TRICKY

    • TV ecHo November 12, 2010 at 3:33 PM #

      Thanks! It could be a considered either a second draft or a first draft with very mild revisions. I have been thinking of sending over this triptych of film pieces to http://popmatters.com/

      I honestly didn’t decide to myself exactly what I meant by dignity when I used the term, but I would say that it has something to do with “mattering,” and having influence – possibly that they have a certain level of individual and group agency – that not everything, whether positive or negative – is being imposed upon them.

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