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Diving into the Lifeworld of the Refugees | Raj Kumar Thakur

Friday 10 February 2023



by Raj Kumar Thakur *

The movie, Avataar: The Way of Water (2022) is a dive into the lifeworld of the refugees. While in the previous movie, i.e., Avataar (2009), the director James Cameron gave us an overview of how the imperialist zeal of human beings took them to the Navi tribe, this movie shows a revival of their zeal for minerals and a disguised attack on the Navi’s by posing as Navi. In the process, the movie gives us a vivid picture of how refugees are made. If one looks at the trajectory of most Hollywood movies, the fight between aliens and human beings have been a recurring theme. The Avengers Series is the best example of the above kind. Human beings facing threats from extra-terrestrial beings and super-humans coming to the rescue of human beings is a running thread in most sci-fi movies. In these movies, the aliens are portrayed as aggressors, outsiders, violent and barbaric. Aliens making attempts to destabilise nations, wiping out people and threatening the existence of the planet are time and again shown in myriad ways.

By pursuing the series Avataar, Cameron has turned the table on human beings. He has focused on imperialist endeavours and reckless wars fought for gaining control over territories to access resources. Thus, through a fictional plot, he reflects on how the advanced countries have fought wars in the name of democracy with the hidden motives of gaining a monopoly over minerals and resources. Avataar- The Way of Water is a gripping story of a Navi family that has been uprooted and seeks refuge in a new space. Political persecution means that people who are different and who assert and resist the homogenization of identities will be targeted. In the movie, one such family escapes to evade conflict. It escapes to an unknown territory. The escape represents a painful separation. It is uprooting and in metaphorical terms, it represents death. It marks alienation from the space that shaped the livelihood and identity of the family. Given the risks of leaving home, it also means that the family that is accustomed to living in the jungle is required to find ways to survive in a new ecological set-up. The space for survival is not a mass of land, but water. The director focuses on the ways adopted by the persecuted family to learn to adjust to the ebbs and flows of water. The Way of Water is therefore a venture into newer ways of survival in the water. Water represents uncertainty, the ebbs, flows and changing depths of water mean that the threat is constant. Threat and fear are therefore running themes through which the director makes us glued to the pains of refugees.

The director has a keen eye on the manufacture of refugees in the contemporary. It shows how the majoritarian turn in politics, impacts the minority. The fear of death, the fear of being persecuted and wiped out means that the aggrieved leave their livelihood and home and seek refuge in a new territory. In the politics of nation and nationalism, seeking refuge is not easy. Leaving a nation also means that you become a non-citizen. The moment you do so, you lose nationality. It, therefore, represents the death of the citizen. In the idiom of contemporary politics, becoming a non-citizen is a subtraction. Seeking refuge on the other hand means addition. In the Mathusian gaze, addition in terms of the population involves risk. It means seeking consent from the host. The host has their values, ideology and politics. In the politics of political persecution, where refugees are constantly manufactured, the survival of the refugee, depends on the behaviour of who wishes to be your host. Cameron chooses water as a site of survival. One cannot avoid drawing parallels with the plight of the refugees from Africa crossing the Mediterranean, the Rohingyas crossing the Andaman Sea, Lebanese and Syrians staying afloat on the water to reach the shores of Europe, refugees from Latin American countries crossing rivers and seas to reach Caribbean and USA. Political turmoil, imperialist attacks for gaining control over resources, civil wars, economic crisis and natural calamities are some of the major reasons shaping the movement and migration of people and turning citizens into refugees.

If one looks at the trajectory of human evolution movement and migration have been a running theme. It has been a structural and integral aspect of human evolution which predates all political forms, all cultural traits and all civilizational norms. Migration meant that not just human beings, but even birds and animals were continuously adjusting to the changing rhythms of nature. It meant that all species were looking for ways to survive. When did a phenomenon so integral to the history of evolution create social, economic, political, cultural and moral panic? Since when did this rhythm of life and survival become a subject that has been debated, hated and feared? It is primarily with the coming of the age of nations and nationalism. The birth of Nations and the feelings of nationalism and patriotism is a recent addition to the long trajectory of human evolution, but ever since it took birth, it has altered how the world and people are seen. With the advent of nations, the migration of human beings was debated and subjected to the censorship of the state. The framework of the nation has been so dominant that every inch of the earth is engulfed in this political phenomenon. The mountains, the desert, the seas, the oceans, the islands, the rivers, almost everything on the planet has been mapped and marked. Given the intensity with which nations emerged, it would not be wrong to say that for the last three hundred years, the nation has been the dominant political framework within which human beings have been striving to fit into. With the coming up nation, people began thinking in terms of ‘we’ and ‘them’. ‘We’ meant those who came within the orbit of the state and ‘them’ were marked as those who were outside the orbit. Nations thrive on the binary of ‘citizen’ versus ‘outsider’. To give legitimacy to this binary, the movement and migration of population were mapped, numbered and recorded. Given the politics of mapping and recording, the movement of people had to be done with the consent of the state.

The movie though animated and fictional shows the struggle of the displaced amidst the rising tides of majoritarian politics. It is also a departure in the sense that it not only shows persecution but delves into the subject of the everyday world of the refugees, i.e., it explores their strategies of survival when driven out of their homes. How will the victims find space for themselves? Unlike the pre-modern times, migration in the modern era is complex. Focusing on this complexity, Cameron makes the migrant family central to the movie. In the movie, the persecuted are made to flee. What does it take to run from a known space to the unknown? Now, the persecuted are required to beg and negotiate for shelter. A family that used to have everything is within a fraction reduced to negotiate for life, livelihood and identity.

Adjusting and negotiating is a theme that is rarely visible in cinema. The commercial trends of cinema always limit the plot to the portrayal of extraordinary moments of tussle between the protagonist and the antagonist. This movie breaks out of this pre-given formula of cinema and shows that life has to be seen in its everydayness. The moment the family arrives in a new territory, their arrival generates shock. The arrival of the refugees is seen as a threat. Society gets polarised. The refugees are the ‘exotic’, the ‘other’ - who if given shelter will bring trouble. The director ensures that the shock of seeing the refugees on the frontier of a state is portrayed as panic. Driven by panic, all members of the community gather to see who the refugees are, what they look like. The fact that the sight of refugees arouses an animal instinct within the hosts is beautifully portrayed.

If one looks at the contemporary, refugees have become the central question of politics. Nations are polarised. Citizens are animated on seeing the refugees. The political class that argues for the rehabilitation of refugees run the risk of losing political credibility. Politicians who offer shelter to the refugees are accused of appeasement, of wooing and increasing their votes. Refugees are seen as the hydra-headed monster who would grow exponentially if they are hosted. Given these animated ‘risks’, political discourse has constructed the refugees as a burden and a drain of national wealth. Citizens are therefore sacred and refugees dehumanized and marked as profane.

The negotiation done by the persecuted family evokes powerful emotions. They are mocked for their weak arms and limbs. They lack the skills, agility and stamina to survive in water. After several rounds of heated negotiations, they are given shelter. The shelter itself reminds us of how painful it is to live as a refugee in a new ecological set-up. The lives of refugees living in make-shift camps, and most times living in boats facing the heat of the sun and trying hard to find food by diving into the water is a painful experience to witness. For a fisherman, fishing seems easy, for they know the ways of the aquatic world, for people of the jungle, fishing and diving in water involve risks of varied kinds. The family that has been given shelter by the host is instructed to learn the ways of water. It is only when they learn to navigate in water, they will be able to contribute to both familial and societal needs. Driven by utilitarian ideas, the hosts ask them to prove their worth. For those who run, there is no rest, and if you rest you die. Therefore, the family that is tired, dejected and uprooted, immediately starts to learn the ways of adjusting to the ebbs and flows of water. But diving and surviving the tides of water is not easy. After diving into the water, they become breathless. Their pace of swimming is slow and their body is yet to learn the rhythms of swimming. The dangers of getting drowned, the uncertain zones of getting lost when you swim too far and the exposure to attacks by diverse aquatic species, make the experience of diving more difficult.

For the old, adjusting is a challenge, because to adjust you need to unlearn. The movie shows that faced with the dangers of life and survival, even the old are made to learn. The hosts mock them at every stage of learning and acquiring skills. The youth and the children are more at risk. While children face the risk of being misguided, young girls face the risk of being exploited at the hands of the hosts. This thread of everyday exploitation and harassment of the young is powerfully portrayed. It is only when you surrender to the ways of water, you learn to stay afloat. Surrendering also means leaving ones past behind, it involves merging with the unknown. The quest for survival makes the young more vulnerable. However, the movie also delves into the theme of how it is easier for the young to inculcate new habits. The youngest members learn to adjust at a faster pace. Unlearning to them is easy. Since they are in their formative stages, they can be moulded. Thus, the director has explored both the vulnerabilities and curiosities of how the young are able to learn new skills and gradually adjust. In the process of learning the ways of water, the young also try to break free from the existing knowledge about life and livelihood. One of the young members of the refugee family weaves a bond with an outcast that has been cursed to live alone in the water.

The bonding of the young with an outcast is crucial, it shows the vision of the director in thinking about solidarities. When imperial threat looms large and its assaults leads to the manufacture of the resisting people as refugees, it is by bonding with the marginalized, the aggrieved and the outcast - one could think of a larger solidarity and envision a new world order. The director probably hints at the solidarities of all refugees who are stranded and are trying to stay afloat in water. In the movie, the bond formed between the young Navi and an outcast giant fish also reflects a fearless bond, a refreshing approach to life, i.e., when you have nothing to lose, you assert. The movie deconstructs the negative shades and panic that are often associated with refugees. It ends in resistance and delivers the message that the more you run the more you are chased. In the light of the refugee crisis, the movie weaves the plot for finding solidarities and forging unity of those who are running as refugees and trying to stay afloat and survive in water.

* (Author: Raj Kumar Thakur is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History, Assam University, who teaches Labour History.)

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