Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Hunger Games and Social Justice

6+ months of being off the blog, and this is how I decide to return. I've been procrastinating posting for a VERY long time, but having 2 1/2 jobs and lots of volunteering, I think I earned the right to take a break from blogging.

Anyway, I began this post early Friday morning at 12:30 AM, right as I returned from seeing one of the best movies I've seen in a long time. Pretty much everyone knows that Friday was the release of the second film of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire. I went to the 10:00 showing on Thursday night at the local theater.  I have been an enthusiastic fan of the books ever since I read them in the spring of 2012. I was student-teaching a tenth grade social justice-based religion class, and one of the assignments the teacher gave was for the students to read a book about an "ism" - racism, sexism, classism, ageism - any sort of discrimination. At least half of the students chose to read The Hunger Games, so I decided to read them, in order to connect with my students and be a part of the project.  I've been obsessed ever since. Maybe it's my passion for social justice, but these books have heavily influenced the way I think about peace and justice.  So, early Friday morning, as I was reflecting on my cinematic experience, I decided to process my thoughts here.

SPOILER ALERT! IF you have not read the book series yet, I would HIGHLY suggest not reading this. If you haven't seen Catching Fire yet but have read the book, I doubt I will spoil anything - the movie is almost completely faithful to the books.

I'm not going to say how the acting or the cinematography was, and I'm not going to go give the movie a review. I already did that on Facebook (see below). What I am going to say, however, is what The Hunger Games series has taught me about social justice.

First of all, this is real.
People actually live in a world like this. We may not see it in the US as explicitly, but we are a part of it.
Let's look at a few important points about Panem. The "districts" are all under an oppressive regime that controls them using fear tactics and poverty. They work to provide goods to the wealthy living in the Capitol, the center of the regime. Those in the districts, meanwhile, live in extreme poverty, going without many basic necessities such as food - except for the meager rations given to those who put their name in the lottery extra times. The people in the Capitol are largely unaware or at least unconcerned that their abundance of food and material possessions comes at a cost to those who provide those goods. Meanwhile, citizens of the districts mostly accept their lot, mostly out of fear of punishment and preoccupation with their own survival.

Sound foreign? It's not.

Think about it. Are the wealthy of the world living in the Capitol? I'm not necessarily saying that the US or even developed nations in general are the Capitol, although I think we do have a lot in common with them. I don't think national boundaries define living conditions the way we've come to believe. Yes, being poor in the US doesn't look the same as being poor in India, but people within our borders are burdened with poverty and servitude to the wealthy.

I think, rather, that the Capitol represents two types of people in our world: the powerful and the privileged. The powerful are the ones in the Capitol who keep the system running.  They know that their delicate system cannot survive without oppressing others, so they both enact the policies to maintain the status quo and use intimidation and oppression to ensure that no one disturbs the status quo. The "peacekeepers" of the story do just that role - on the outside, it looks as if there isn't any disruption, but at a closer look it's just a system where the powerful maintain power and others suffer for their sake. For me, this conjures pictures of political dictators, but also those who run sweatshops overseas.

The other half of the Capitol is the Privileged. These are those people wearing those heinous Lady Gaga-esque fashions. Now, to be fair, the representation of the Capitol citizens is overly simplistic - they seem to be obsessed with fashions and television, while it seems that apart from stylists and people involved directly in the Games, no one has a real job other than betting on the victors. However, theirs is an extremely consumeristic culture - sound familiar? They attend parties and live for the entertainment of the Games. The kids carry weapons and enact their favorite scenes from the Games. These citizens are, for the most part, naive and completely ignorant of the suffering that goes on in the Districts. Take Effie for example. She's not a cruel or coldhearted person - by the time Katniss and Peeta leave for their second round in the Arena, Effie has a particularly poignant moment where she seems to truly realize that she will never see one of them again. (As an aside, Elizabeth Banks did an amazing job of portraying this in the film.)

This, I think, is where many Americans fall. We are the Privileged. For reasons we cannot understand, we are born into families and places of relative security, peace, and material comfort. We do not formally cooperate in the poverty of others, but we often do not realize how well we have it, and we rarely see or experience poverty firsthand. We wear clothing and use electronics with little thought to where these things came from or who made them; we eat food without laboring to grow or harvest the crops, or caring for and slaughtering the animals.  If we were made aware of the labor practices involved in the production of our goods, maybe we would change our habits, but we often prefer to remain ignorant so as to absolve us of any participation in the system.

The majority of the world, however, is the districts. As Katniss discovers in the Games, in almost all of the districts, their industry puts barely enough money in the pockets of the workers to keep them alive, but every day is a struggle for survival.  In our world, they are the laborers who cannot afford the clothing they make for us, or the food they harvest for us. They are the migrant workers who have little choice but to do the work the Privileged feel is beneath them. And the economy thanks them, but does not ask them if their own needs are met. Occasionally the system throws them a bone - here are your rations - but with strings attached - only if you put your name in extra times, only if you pass this test, only if you take this drug.

I could go on and on forever, but I'm going to shorten this to reflect just the scenes in Catching Fire, since that was the movie I just watched.  The social justice message is more subtle in The Hunger Games (the first book), but it really develops in Catching Fire. Here are two poignant scenes, for me at least.

1. The Hob and the so-called "Peacekeepers"

Okay, so I couldn't find an exact image, but this is the Hob, District Twelve's black market. In Catching Fire, a hoard of Peacekeepers roll in on tanks to crack down on the rebelling District Twelve. They violently drive out the dealers in the Hob and burn it down. They install torture devices in the city square, where Gale was whipped for standing up to a Peacekeeper (in the book, it was for trying to sell poached turkey). As I was watching this scene unfold at my local theater, I thought of how this is a reality for some. I thought of the people in North Korea who are forced to watch executions of people whose only crime is watching South Korean films or owning a Bible. I thought of the millions of Syrian refugees who have escaped situations like this. I thought of the Taliban holding public executions and bombing innocent people out of their homes in Afghanistan.

My heart broke as I saw how cruel some people could be to their fellow human being, knowing that it is all too true for some.
2. The parties and feasts at the Capitol

This is during the Victory Tour, where Katniss and Peeta attend a party in the Capitol. The book is more detailed - they see a buffet laden with every kind of food imaginable, and it all looks exquisite. Katniss and Peeta barely make it through the soups before they are stuffed, but a woman offers them a drink to make them throw up so they keep on eating. Katniss and Peeta are appalled. In the movie, Peeta says something to the effect of, "To think of all the people starving in the districts." In the book, Katniss wonders, "All I can think of is the emaciated bodies of the children on our kitchen table as my mother prescribes what the parents can't give. More food....And here in the Capitol they're vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again" (80).

How well does this describe our world? Our supermarkets are overloaded with more than enough food to support us, and so much goes wasted. Sure, we may not be throwing up to keep eating, but how many times have I eaten in excess? (I can't even begin to count.) How much food have I wasted because I bought or made more than I needed? We may say, "Just give food to a food bank," but a lot of that food is just crap.  I usually buy the highest-quality food I can afford for myself, but then I go to soup kitchens or food banks and all I see is box macaroni, hot dogs, government-issue peanut butter and stale bread.

I could go on and on - if I got into Mockingjay and some of the themes in that book, I would have a ten-page essay on pacifism and just war theory. But I'll save that for the next movie.

Looking at The Hunger Games as a parallel to our world can make it seem bleak and dark. I don't think we need to be totally pessimistic, though. There is still a lot of good in our world.  As a Christian I have to have hope. But awareness can take us from simply being an ignorant member of the Privileged to social action on behalf of the oppressed.

What can we do with the knowledge we receive? Many things happening across the world are beyond our control. We can fast and pray for better, as Pope Francis called us to do on September 7th for peace in Syria. In many cases, that's the best we can do. However, we can contact our representatives and senators to vote in favor of peace. I know, it sounds like a lot of work, but it's actually VERY SIMPLE to contact our legislators, and I do it all the time.

Second, we can try to lessen our contributions to corrupt structures. I personally made a commitment not to buy clothing made in sweatshops - I buy as much as I can secondhand, and the rest I will try to get fair-trade. I commit to not buying a new phone or computer until my old one stops working. Purchasing food locally is difficult, but it has an enormous impact, and it's delicious! It's harder when Farmers' Market season is over, so in the summer I try to freeze some produce to use in the winter. Local food is usually around the same price as supermarket food, and the farmers get a fairer price for it.

That's all I have for now. For a more review-like review, please check out my friend Rosa's blog - she has some great things to say about the social justice themes as well.  And now here's some excerpts of my "actual" review. This is what I posted to Facebook approximately 45 minutes after the movie.
Brace yourselves. A rant is coming. Catching Fire spoilers included - please stop reading if you don't want me to ruin it.
OH MY GOODNESS ONE OF THE BEST MOVIE ADAPTATIONS OF A BOOK I HAVE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE. It was probably the most faithful to the book out of any movie adaptation I have ever seen. AMAZING acting. Jennifer Lawrence is FANTASTIC and she's such an SIW (Strong Independent Woman) in real life so it just rocks that she's Katniss. I love the casting. Caesar's actor is probably my favorite though because he plays that part SO perfectly. I'm watching this I start crying when they murder that old man, and when they ransack the Hob because all I can think is, "How many people watch this movie and believe this is fiction? because this is REAL. This is what life is like for thousands if not millions of people living in Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea, anywhere an evil regime takes power and squashes the rights of its people." And it just makes my heart break to see these characters who aren't even REAL experiencing something that IS so real to so many people. I guess it really drives it home.....does ANYONE else think like this?
And I cry when Peeta gets left behind, and in ANY scene with Prim....great job to the directors (and Suzanne Collins) for making me have that kind of empathy, thanks for playing mind games with me. And Mags just makes me think of the ladies at the nursing home where I work, so that makes me cry some more....

Highlight of the night - watching it with someone who hasn't read the books, then watching her reaction after they figure out it's a clock. PRICELESS (you know who you are....I won't tag you unless you want me to)

Maybe tomorrow I will see this post as a lapse in judgment due to the adrenaline/lack of oxygen I experienced during this movie, in conjunction with the Mt. Dew intended to keep me awake. I think I'm going to FINALLY get my blog going again and write about the movie.

Well. There's no way I'm sleeping now. If you read all the way to the bottom, I sure hope that you watched the movie or read the books. If not, happy spoiling, and you're welcome for the free review! GO WATCH IT!

God bless you all! Thanks for reading!